Here is the full text of neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky’s talk titled “The Biology of Our Best & Worst Selves” at TED Talk conference. In this talk, he shares his cutting edge research into the biology that drives our worst and best behaviors.
CHRIS ANDERSON: So Robert spent the last few years thinking about how weird human behavior is, and how inadequate most of our language trying to explain it is. And it’s very exciting to hear him explain some of the thinking behind it in public for the first time.
Over to you now, Robert Sapolsky.
Robert Sapolsky – TED Talk TRANSCRIPT
Thank you. The fantasy always runs something like this.
I’ve overpowered his elite guard, burst into his secret bunker with my machine gun ready. He lunges for his Luger. I knock it out of his hand. He lunges for his cyanide pill. I knock that out of his hand. He snarls, comes at me with otherworldly strength.
We grapple, we fight, I manage to pin him down and put on handcuffs.
“Adolf Hitler,” I say, “I arrest you for crimes against humanity.”
Here’s where the Medal of Honor version of the fantasy ends and the imagery darkens.
What would I do if I had Hitler? It’s not hard to imagine once I allow myself. Sever his spine at the neck. Take out his eyes with a blunt instrument. Puncture his eardrums. Cut out his tongue.
Leave him alive on a respirator, tube-fed, not able to speak or move or see or hear, just to feel, and then inject him with something cancerous that’s going to fester and postulate until every cell in his body is screaming in agony, until every second feels like an eternity in hell.
That’s what I would do to Hitler.
I’ve had this fantasy since I was a kid, still do sometimes, and when I do, my heart speeds up — all these plans for the most evil, wicked soul in history.
But there’s a problem, which is I don’t actually believe in souls or evil, and I think wicked belongs in a musical. But there’s some people I would like to see killed, but I’m against the death penalty.
But I like Schlocky violent movies, but I’m for strict gun control. But then there was a time I was at a laser tag place, and I had such a good time hiding in a corner shooting at people. In other words, I’m your basic confused human when it comes to violence.
Now, as a species, we obviously have problems with violence. We use shower heads to deliver poison gas, letters with anthrax, airplanes as weapons, mass rape as a military strategy. We’re a miserably violent species.
But there’s a complication, which is we don’t hate violence, we hate the wrong kind. And when it’s the right kind, we cheer it on, we hand out medals, we vote for, we mate with our champions of it.
When it’s the right kind of violence, we love it.
And there’s another complication, which is, in addition to us being this miserably violent species, we’re also this extraordinarily altruistic, compassionate one.
So how do you make sense of the biology of our best behaviors, our worst ones and all of those ambiguously in between?
Now, for starters, what’s totally boring is understanding the motoric aspects of the behavior. Your brain tells your spine, tells your muscles to do something or other, and hooray, you’ve behaved.
What’s hard is understanding the meaning of the behavior, because in some settings, pulling a trigger is an appalling act. In others, it’s heroically self-sacrificial.
In some settings, putting your hand one someone else’s is deeply compassionate. In others, it’s a deep betrayal. The challenge is to understand the biology of the context of our behaviors, and that’s real tough.
One thing that’s clear, though, is you’re not going to get anywhere if you think there’s going to be the brain region or the hormone or the gene or the childhood experience or the evolutionary mechanism that explains everything.
Instead, every bit of behavior has multiple levels of causality. Let’s look at an example. You have a gun. There’s a crisis going on: rioting, violence, people running around.
A stranger is running at you in an agitated state — you can’t quite tell if the expression is frightened, threatening, angry — holding something that kind of looks like a handgun. You’re not sure.
The stranger comes running at you and you pull the trigger. And it turns out that thing in this person’s hand was a cell phone. So we asked this biological question: what was going on that caused this behavior? What caused this behavior? And this is a multitude of questions.
We start. What was going on in your brain one second before you pulled that trigger? And this brings us into the realm of a brain region called the amygdala. The amygdala, which is central to violence, central to fear, initiates volleys of cascades that produce pulling of a trigger.