4 highlights from Stanford's Human Behavioral Biology course, available online for free
From understanding human aggression to epigenetics, Stanford University offers all 25 lessons of this fascinating course for free on YouTube.
- Stanford's Human Behavioral Biology course explores the interconnections between physiology and behavior.
- Most of the course is taught by Robert M. Sapolsky, a professor of biology, neurology, and neurosciences at Stanford, and also an author and contributor to Big Think.
- Check out some highlights from the course below.
Imagine a 40-year-old man in the U.S. who is leading a quiet, suburban life. He's been married 15 years and has two kids and two pets. One day at the office, a coworker says something about a baseball team, and our man takes exception. He punches his coworker in the face. This, according to everyone in the man's life, was unusual behavior. Then, three months later, his wife discovers he's been having an affair with a much younger woman. Finally, he absconds with thousands of dollars that he embezzled from his company, and his family never sees him again.
How could you explain what happened? A few possible options:
- He's a bonafide creep.
- He's going through a very immature mid-life crisis.
- He has a rare mutation in one gene in his brain.
This scenario is posed at the start of Stanford University's Human Behavioral Biology course, available for free on YouTube. The course is led by Robert M. Sapolsky, a professor of biology, neurology, and neurosciences at Stanford, and also an author and contributor to Big Think. Sapolsky notes that the behavior described above is exactly what you'd expect in somebody with a rare neurological disease caused by one genetic mutation.
Over 25 lessons, most of which clock in at around 90 minutes, the college course explores how physiology and behavior interact — or, how our thoughts, emotions, and memories can influence seemingly unrelated bodily processes, and vice versa. The entire course is available on this playlist, but listed below are a few highlights to get you started.
The limits of categorical thinking
In the first lesson of the course, Sapolsky quickly reads a bunch of phone numbers, and instructs the students to write down as many as possible. For the first few examples, Sapolsky breaks up the phone numbers into the familiar "123-4567" pattern of which we're accustomed. He then starts reading them in unusual patterns — "1-23-456-7" — in an attempt to confuse and disrupt categorical thinking patterns.
Sapolsky says that categorical thinking helps us make sense of the world and store information more easily. But he uses this example to get the class thinking about how paying too much attention to the boundaries in categorical thinking can cause you to lose sight of the big picture. (Sapolsky elaborates at 16:45 in the video.)
The "worst urban myth of evolution"
In the first lesson on behavioral evolution, Sapolsky introduces the class to applying Darwinian principles of evolution to behavior.
"The first thing we need to do is unlearn something we all learned back when, on all those National Geographic specials that would consistently teach us something about this aspect of evolution, and would always teach it to us wrong."
Another scenario: A herd of 2 million wildebeest is migrating toward greener pastures. The herd eventually comes to a river. It's teeming with crocodiles. The wildebeest stop. Then, one elderly wildebeest steps up to the riverbank, jumps into the water, and gets eaten by the crocodiles, creating an opportunity for the rest of the herd to safely cross.
Was this a heroic sacrifice? Sapolsky says that popular science programs like National Geographic have long claimed that animals tend to "behave for the good of the species," an idea described by group selection. But this is the "worst urban myth of evolution," he says.
If you look closely at the wildebeest scenario, you'd see something decidedly less heroic, the professor says: the herd is actually pushing the elderly wildebeest up to the front of the line. "All of the other ones are saying, 'Yeah, get the old guy on the river!' Sacrificing himself, my ass."
"Animals behave in order to maximize the number of copies of genes they leave in the next generation," Sapolsky continues. "Remember: not survival of the fittest, reproduction of the fittest."
What to ask about any scientific study
In 2007, scientists published a major study showing that first-borns tend to have higher IQs than their siblings. The researchers controlled for nearly everything you might think of: differences in parental investment, parents who only have one child, age of the children when tested, etc. Media outlets ran with study, but lost in much of the coverage was a simple question: How big of a difference did the study find? The answer: 2.3 points.
"You sneeze while you're taking an IQ test and have to wipe your nose for eight seconds afterward, and that's going to cost you 2.3 IQ points," Sapolsky says.
The study was a great example of how the results of a study can be impeccable and statistically reliable, and also unimportant. At the 9:30 mark in the 8th lesson, Sapolsky uses a "Chutes and Ladders" experiment to illustrate how to better interpret the results and methodology of scientific experiments.
Near the end of the course's first lesson on behavioral genetics, Sapolsky discusses how early experiences can shape long-lasting behavioral dispositions. These dispositions might appear to be genetically inherited. But Sapolsky notes that epigenetic research on rats shows that environmental factors — like mothering style — can influence how likely a pup is to express certain genes. Such genes might be responsible, say, for making receptors for stress hormones.
"Your early experience is going to cause life-long changes in your brain, which will make you more likely to reproduce the same experience for your offspring," Sapolsky says around 135:15 in the video below.
What's especially interesting is that this kind of epigenetic programming is reversible. Noting research conducted by Michael Meaney at McGill University's Douglas Research Centre, Sapolsky says:
"You have a baby rat who spends the first of its infancy with some totally terrible, negligent, distracted mom," but if you put that pup with a nurturing mom, "you can change the epigenetic pattern."
Sapolsky notes how this kind of epigenetic programming looks and operates similar to genetics.
"All of this has two themes has two themes going on: Early experience causing really persistent differences in how this stuff works long after, and experience later on having the potential to reverse some of this. All of this stuff, once again, [could be] mistaken for genetic. What we have here is what appears to be a genetic style of what sort of mother rat you are, and it's not genes, it's the mothering style setting up the offspring for being a similar type of mother."
To be sure, epigenetics is a complex field, and this is just a simple example of how the environment can influence gene expression. Throughout the entire course, Sapolsky routinely emphasizes that studying human behavior, or any scientific field, can be incredibly complex — so much so that it may seem like it's impossible to solve anything. But "even though it's complicated, you gotta do something," Sapolsky says.
Part of studying a complicated field requires accepting the limitations of your era, as Sapolsky describes with an analogy about archaeology:
"A wonderful cool thing I heard about in archaeology...[is that] when you excavate a site, what you're supposed to do is excavate about half of it," he says. "You leave the other half for people in the future, with better techniques and better understanding, and leave something in tact there to keep from your, sort of, blundering hands."
The course ends on a message about the assumed dichotomy between being compassionate and being scientific: "Go and do both," Sapolsky says.
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Northwell Health CEO Michael Dowling has an important favor to ask of the American people.
- Michael Dowling is president and CEO of Northwell Health, the largest health care system in New York state. In this PSA, speaking as someone whose company has seen more COVID-19 patients than any other in the country, Dowling implores Americans to wear masks—not only for their own health, but for the health of those around them.
- The CDC reports that there have been close to 7.9 million cases of coronavirus reported in the United States since January. Around 216,000 people have died from the virus so far with hundreds more added to the tally every day. Several labs around the world are working on solutions, but there is currently no vaccine for COVID-19.
- The most basic thing that everyone can do to help slow the spread is to practice social distancing, wash your hands, and to wear a mask. The CDC recommends that everyone ages two and up wear a mask that is two or more layers of material and that covers the nose, mouth, and chin. Gaiters and face shields have been shown to be less effective at blocking droplets. Homemade face coverings are acceptable, but wearers should make sure they are constructed out of the proper materials and that they are washed between uses. Wearing a mask is the most important thing you can do to save lives in your community.
Two massive clouds of dust in orbit around the Earth have been discussed for years and finally proven to exist.
- Hungarian astronomers have proven the existence of two "pseudo-satellites" in orbit around the earth.
- These dust clouds were first discovered in the sixties, but are so difficult to spot that scientists have debated their existence since then.
- The findings may be used to decide where to put satellites in the future and will have to be considered when interplanetary space missions are undertaken.
What are they?<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xODgyMDA0NC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNTM1ODc0Mn0.NH33LuauIo__sUBi4tvhwxDcsvhflDFD-Nhx9FjlSNk/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=148%2C0%2C149%2C0&height=700" id="cec96" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="acb78abe2ab46a17e419ad30906751d6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Artist's impression of the Kordylewski cloud in the night sky (with its brightness greatly enhanced) at the time of the observations.
G. Horváth<p>The<a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kordylewski_cloud" target="_blank"> Kordylewski clouds</a> are two dust clouds first observed by Polish astronomer Kazimierz Kordylewski in 1961. They are situated at two of the <a href="https://www.space.com/30302-lagrange-points.html" target="_blank">Lagrange points</a> in Earth's orbit. These points are locations where the gravity of two objects, such as the Earth and the Moon or a planet and the Sun, equals the centripetal required to orbit the objects while staying in the same relative position. There are five of these spots between the Earth and Moon. The clouds rest at what are called points four and five, forming a triangle with the clouds and the Earth at the three corners.</p><p>The clouds are enormous, taking up the same space in the night sky as twenty lunar discs; covering an area of 45,000 miles. They are roughly 250,000 miles away, about the same distance from us as the Moon. They are entirely comprised of specks of dust which reflect the light of the sun so faintly most astronomers that looked for them were unable to see them at all. </p><p>The clouds themselves are probably ancient, but the model that the scientists created to learn about them suggests that the individual dust particles that comprise them can be blown away by solar wind and replaced by the dust from other cosmic sources like comet tails. This means that the clouds hardly move but are <a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2018/11/news-earth-moon-dust-clouds-satellites-planets-space/" target="_blank">eternally changing</a>. </p>
How did they discover this?<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xODgyMDAzNi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1Nzc4MjQ4MX0.7uU9OqmQcWw5Ll1UXAav0PCu4nTg-GdJdAWADHanC7c/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C180%2C0%2C181&height=700" id="952fb" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="a778280a20f1c54cd2c14c8313224be2" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
"In this picture the central region of the Kordylewski dust cloud is visible (bright red pixels). The straight tilted lines are traces of satellites."
J. Slíz-Balogh<p>In their study published in the <a href="https://academic.oup.com/mnras" target="_blank">Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society</a>, Hungarian astronomers Judit Slíz-Balogh, András Barta, and Gábor Horváth described how they were able to find the dust clouds using polarized lenses.</p><p>Since the clouds were expected to polarize the light that bounces off of them, by configuring the telescopes to look for this kind of light the clouds were much easier to spot. What the scientists observed, polarized light in patterns that extended outside the view of the telescope lens, was in line with the predictions of their mathematical model and ruled out other possible sources. </p>
Why are we just learning this now?<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xODgyMDAzOS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MjUyNDMyMH0.Zl8GmQ_rJHiL4b7hN0r_YBmgb6_ZqIRvqOVuko2ubpw/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C141%2C0%2C185&height=700" id="87afe" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="dd4c0b5088e601d7279cc5eb226f8b7b" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
"Mosaic pattern of the angle of polarization around the L5 point (white dot) of the Earth-Moon system. The five rectangular windows correspond to the imaging telescope with which the patterns of the Kordylewski cloud were measured."
J. Slíz-Balogh<p>The objects, being dust clouds, are very faint and hard to see. While Kordylewski observed them in 1961, other astronomers have looked there and given mixed reports over the following decades. This discouraged many astronomers from joining the search, as study co-author Judit Slíz-Balogh <a href="https://ras.ac.uk/news-and-press/research-highlights/earths-dust-cloud-satellites-confirmed" target="_blank">explained</a>, <em>"The Kordylewski clouds are two of the toughest objects to find, and though they are as close to Earth as the Moon are largely overlooked by researchers in astronomy. It is intriguing to confirm that our planet has dusty pseudo-satellites in orbit alongside our lunar neighbor."</em></p>
Will this have any impact on space travel?<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c3d797fff5430c64afcb5a49bddc3616"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/Ou8N3v9SFPE?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>Lagrange points have been put forward as excellent locations for a space station or satellites like the <a href="https://jwst.nasa.gov/about.html" target="_blank">James Webb Telescope</a> to be put into orbit, as they would require little fuel to stay in place. Knowing about a massive dust cloud that could damage sensitive equipment already being there could save money and lives in the future. While we only know about the clouds at Lagrange points four and five right now, the study's authors suggest there could be more at the other points.</p><p>While the discovery of a couple of dust clouds might not seem all that impressive, it is the result of a half-century of astronomical and mathematical work and reminds us that wonders are still hidden in our cosmic backyard. While you might never need to worry about these clouds again, there is nothing wrong with looking at the sky with wonder at the strange and fantastic things we can discover. </p>
New cancer-scanning technology reveals a previously unknown detail of human anatomy.
- Scientists using new scanning technology and hunting for prostate tumors get a surprise.
- Behind the nasopharynx is a set of salivary glands that no one knew about.
- Finding the glands may allow for more complication-free radiation therapies.
PSMA PET/CT technology<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="676e611b970c9b516cace0870447b325"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/RHAyoQF09X4?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>PSMA PET/CT is a new combination of <a href="https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/pet-scan/about/pac-20385078" target="_blank">PET scans</a> and <a href="https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/ct-scan/about/pac-20393675" target="_blank">CT scans</a> that is believed to offer a more reliable means of locating prostate cancer metastasis. A <a href="https://www.cancer.gov/news-events/cancer-currents-blog/2020/prostate-cancer-psma-pet-ct-metastasis" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">study</a> published last spring suggests it may be the most accurate way to diagnose prostate cancer metastasis than any method previously available.</p><p>Prior to PSMA PET/CT, the primary way to look for metastatic prostate cancer was to image the body using x-ray-based CT scans and to perform bone scans, since bone is where prostate cancer often spreads. CT scans, however, often miss small tumors, and bone scans can generate false positives as a result of other damage or abnormalities that have nothing to do with prostate cancer.</p><p>PSMA PET/CT scans track the travels of an intravenously administered radioactive glucose tracer throughout the body. For hunting down prostate cancer, this tracer contains a molecule that binds to the <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1472940/" target="_blank">PSMA</a> protein that's present in large amounts in prostate tumors. The molecule is linked to a radioisotope, <a href="https://netrf.org/2018/11/13/gallium-68-scan-for-neuroendocrine-tumors/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">gallium-68</a> (Ga-68).</p><p>In last spring's research, PSAM PET/CT was shown to be 27 percent more accurate than previous methods at finding metastases (92 percent accuracy as opposed to 65 percent). In addition, it was found to be much less likely to produce false positives, and it was particularly good at detecting tumors far removed from the prostate.</p>
A good kind of avoidance behavior<p>"Radiation therapy can damage the salivary glands," says Vogel, "which may lead to complications. Patients may have trouble eating, swallowing, or speaking, which can be a real burden."</p><p>The researchers looked back through the cases of 723 patients who had undergone radiation treatment, interested in seeing if inadvertent radiation of the tubarial glands was associated with the complications experienced by the patients. It turned out that this <em>was</em> the case: In cases where more radiation had been delivered to this area, patients did indeed report more in the way of complications of the type one would expect when salivary glands are radiated.</p><p>Now that we know the tubarial salivary glands exist, therapists can stay out of their way. Vogel says, "For most patients, it should technically be possible to avoid delivering radiation to this newly discovered location of the salivary gland system in the same way we try to spare known glands."</p><p>He's hopeful that that things may be about to get at least a bit better for cancer patients: "Our next step is to find out how we can best spare these new glands and in which patients. If we can do this, patients may experience less side effects which will benefit their overall quality of life after treatment."</p>
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