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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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Emotional intelligence is a skill sought by many employers. Here's how to raise yours.
- Daniel Goleman's 1995 book Emotional Intelligence catapulted the term into widespread use in the business world.
- One study found that EQ (emotional intelligence) is the top predictor of performance and accounts for 58% of success across all job types.
- EQ has been found to increase annual pay by around $29,000 and be present in 90% of top performers.
The achievement is an important milestone in quantum computing, Google's scientists said.
- Sycamore is a quantum computer that Google has spent years developing.
- Like traditional computers, quantum computers produce binary code, but they do so while utilizing unique phenomena of quantum mechanics.
- It will likely be years before quantum computing has applications in everyday technology, but the recent achievement is an important proof of concept.
How quantum computers differ from traditional computers<p>Like traditional computers, quantum computers produce binary code to execute computing functions. But instead of using transistors to represent the ones and zeroes, as traditional computers do, quantum computers like Sycamore use quantum bits, or "qubits."</p><p>Qubits are extremely tiny pieces of hardware that act like subatomic particles, utilizing quantum phenomena like entanglement, superposition, and interference. Qubits can represent ones and zeroes. But thanks to superposition, qubits are also able to represent multiple states at the same time, meaning they can make calculations much faster than traditional computers. That's what helped Sycamore recently outperform a supercomputer.</p><p>Sycamore achieved "quantum supremacy," which occurs when a quantum computer can do something that a traditional computer cannot. To pass this benchmark, Google engineers pit Sycamore against the world's leading supercomputer, Summit, which is housed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.</p><p>"Summit is currently the world's leading supercomputer, capable of carrying out about 200 million billion operations per second," William Oliver, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote in a <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-03173-4" target="_blank">"News and Views" piece</a> for <em>Nature</em>.</p><p>But the contest between Sycamore and Summit involved a highly specific task, one that was specifically designed to give a competitive edge to a quantum computer like Sycamore.</p>
Beating the world's leading supercomputer<p>The task involved estimating how likely it was that a processor would produce some "bitstrings" more often than others. As you continue to add information to the equation, it becomes exponentially difficult for traditional computers to conduct the calculations. (You can read more about the experiment <a href="https://ai.googleblog.com/2019/10/quantum-supremacy-using-programmable.html" target="_blank">here</a>.)</p><p>"We performed a fixed set of operations that entangles 53 qubits into a complex superposition state," Ben Chiaro, a graduate student researcher in the Martinis Group, which conducted the experiment, told <em><a href="https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/10/191023133358.htm" target="_blank">Science Daily</a></em>. "This superposition state encodes the probability distribution. For the quantum computer, preparing this superposition state is accomplished by applying a sequence of tens of control pulses to each qubit in a matter of microseconds. We can prepare and then sample from this distribution by measuring the qubits a million times in 200 seconds."</p><p>"For classical computers, it is much more difficult to compute the outcome of these operations because it requires computing the probability of being in any one of the 2^53 possible states, where the 53 comes from the number of qubits -- the exponential scaling is why people are interested in quantum computing to begin with," Brooks Foxen, another graduate student researcher in the Martinis Group, told <em>Science Daily</em>. "This is done by matrix multiplication, which is expensive for classical computers as the matrices become large."</p><p>But the specific nature of this task has led some to question the utility of quantum computers like Sycamore.</p><p>"One criticism we've heard a lot is that we cooked up this contrived benchmark problem—[Sycamore] doesn't do anything useful yet," Hartmut Neven, a Google engineering director said at a press event on Wednesday. "That's why we like to compare it to a Sputnik moment. Sputnik didn't do much either. All it did was circle Earth. Yet it was the start of the Space Age."</p>
A proof of concept for quantum computing<p>Although it could be decades until we see quantum computing powering everyday devices, Sycamore serves as a proof of concept that there exists a form of computing that has the potential to be vastly superior to traditional computing.</p><p>"This demonstration of quantum supremacy over today's leading classical algorithms on the world's fastest supercomputers is truly a remarkable achievement and a milestone for quantum computing," Oliver wrote in his piece for <em>Nature</em>. "It experimentally suggests that quantum computers represent a model of computing that is fundamentally different from that of classical computers. It also further combats criticisms about the controllability and viability of quantum computation in an extraordinarily large computational space (containing at least the 253 states used here)."</p>
A study published Friday tested how well 14 commonly available face masks blocked the emission of respiratory droplets as people were speaking.
- The study tested the efficacy of popular types of face masks, including N95 respirators, bandanas, cotton-polypropylene masks, gaiters, and others.
- The results showed that N95 respirators were most effective, while wearing a neck fleece (aka gaiter) actually produced more respiratory droplets than wearing no mask at all.
- Certain types of homemade masks seem to be effective at blocking the spread of COVID-19.
Fischer et al.<p>A smartphone camera recorded video of the participants, and a computer algorithm counted the number of droplets they emitted. To establish a control trial, the participants spoke into the box both with and without a mask. And to make sure that the droplets weren't in fact dust from the masks, the team conducted more tests by "repeatedly puffing air from a bulb through the masks."</p>
Fischer et al.<p>The results, published Friday in <a href="https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/early/2020/08/07/sciadv.abd3083" target="_blank">Science Advances</a>, showed that some masks are pretty much useless. In particular, neck fleeces (also called gaiters) actually produced more respiratory droplets compared to the control trial — likely because the fabric breaks down big droplets into smaller ones.</p><p>The top three most effective masks were N95 respirators, surgical masks, and polypropylene-cotton masks. Bandanas performed the worst, but were slightly better than wearing no mask at all.</p>
Fischer et al.<p>Research on mask efficacy is still emerging. But the new results seem to generally align with <a href="https://newsroom.wakehealth.edu/News-Releases/2020/04/Testing-Shows-Type-of-Cloth-Used-in-Homemade-Masks-Makes-a-Difference" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">prior tests</a>. For example, a study from June published in <a href="https://aip.scitation.org/doi/10.1063/5.0016018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">Physics of Fluid</a> found that bandanas (followed by folded handkerchiefs) were least effective at blocking respiratory droplets. That same study also found, as <a href="https://newsroom.wakehealth.edu/News-Releases/2020/04/Testing-Shows-Type-of-Cloth-Used-in-Homemade-Masks-Makes-a-Difference" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">others have</a>, that masks made from multiple layers of quilter's fabric were especially effective at blocking droplets.</p><p>The researchers hope other institutions will conduct similar experiments so the public can see how well different masks can block the spread of COVID-19.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"This is a very powerful visual tool to raise awareness that a very simple masks, like these homemade cotton masks, do really well to stop the majority of these respiratory droplets," Fischer told CNN. "Companies and manufacturers can set this up and test their mask designs before producing them, which would also be very useful."</p>
Sharing QAnon disinformation is harming the children devotees purport to help.
- The conspiracy theory, QAnon, is doing more harm than good in the battle to end child trafficking.
- Foster youth expert, Regan Williams, says there are 25-29k missing children every year, not 800k, as marketed by QAnon.
- Real ways to help abused children include donating to nonprofits, taking educational workshops, and becoming a foster parent.
Real ways you can help stop child trafficking<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="21fc2dc85391501eec28c4bf46d7db15"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/AXL0q9jNZGU?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>Williams is the founder and CEO of <a href="http://www.seenandheard.org/" target="_blank">Seen and Heard</a>, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that helps foster youth develop character through the performing arts. She's been involved with foster youth for years; I <a href="https://bigthink.com/politics-current-affairs/child-sex-trafficking" target="_self">wrote about her work</a> in child trafficking just over a year ago. Tragically, since that time, the situation for these children has only gotten worse, in large part because of QAnon.</p><p>Williams says child trafficking is an easy cause to rally people together. Fear is also a powerful unifying force, one that QAnon believers are already primed for via the news they consume. Almost every parent cares about their children, making them the ideal target to solidify groups. </p><p>The real problem, she says, is that the youth she works with are falling for these conspiracy theories. Trauma is a particularly powerful tool for indoctrination. If you're a teenager that's been abducted or abused, your trust level is already extremely low. Then you read about a global cabal of powerful men (and a few women) secretly abusing children, and the narrative seems ready-made for your personal history.</p><p>When Williams tried to "lovingly and kindly correct" the youth she was working with after learning about the Wayfair conspiracy, the girls' response was, "well, who owns the media?" </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"She goes from this small little thing to a QAnon talking point. I've been thinking about why she would believe such a preposterous idea—and there are others; it's not just one student, and they're in in deep. I think that when something horrific happens to you as a child, it's a lot easier to distance yourself from the immediate reality that it was an uncle or a parent or a sibling that hurt you. By detaching from that immediate person, they project it onto Bill Gates or Chrissy Teigen. Then it's not so personal, it's global." </p>
A man wear a shirt with the words Q Anon as he attends a rally for President Donald Trump at the Make America Great Again Rally being held in the Florida State Fair Grounds Expo Hall on July 31, 2018 in Tampa, Florida.
Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images<p>As Williams mentions, there are over 30,000 kids in foster care in the Los Angeles area alone. It's easy to fall through the cracks. The systems in place aren't perfect; they're certainly underfunded. When you're in a system trying to support you yet isn't capable of doing so, viewing the world as imperfect, and even harmful, becomes the lens through which you see reality. Again, this makes for a perfect indoctrination tool.</p><p>One popular QAnon talking point is that 800,000 children are missing. As Williams says, child trafficking experts "don't buy this for a minute." The number makes for a good meme but a poor representation of the problem. </p><p>To source better data, Williams turns to the <a href="https://www.missingkids.org/" target="_blank">National Center for Missing and Exploited Children</a> (NCMEC) and the <a href="https://www.fbi.gov/services/cjis/ncic" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">National Crime Information Center</a> (NCIC). An important factor when reading data: if a teacher <em>and</em> a caregiver report a missing child to NCIC, that counts as two children, not one, which accounts for some of the fluctuations in numbers. In total, between 25,000 and 29,000 kids go missing every year. Importantly, 94 percent of those children are recovered within four to six weeks. </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"They're not documenting the recovery rate. It's not like these numbers are perpetually hanging out there. So this 800,000 number is just ludicrous." </p><p>Williams compares what's going on to Black Lives Matter. Blacking out your Instagram profile picture is performative. It signals that you actually care, which is great, but if you're not supporting Black-owned businesses, for example, there are no teeth to your activism. </p><p>Of course, blacking out your profile doesn't cause the real-world harm the QAnon virus does. Sharing misinformation is ultimately harmful to the children in need of help. Williams offers the resources below—ranging from donations to nonprofits to educational trainings to becoming a foster parent—for people that actually want to do something to help victims of sexual and physical abuse. They might not make a great Twitter meme, but in the actual world, this support makes all the difference. </p><p><strong>To report abuse/neglect, call the child abuse hotline: 800.540.4000 (LA county) / 800.422.4453 (National)</strong></p><ul><li>Support anti-trafficking organizations by donating to <a rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow" href="http://savinginnocence.org/" target="_blank">Saving Innocence</a>, which runs the continuum of care from rescue to recovery, <a href="http://gozoe.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">Zoe</a>, a reputable faith-based organization, and <a rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow" href="https://withtwowings.org/" target="_blank">Two Wings</a>, which helps to rehabilitate female survivors</li><li><a rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow" href="http://www.nolabrantleyspeaks.org/" target="_blank">Nola Brantley</a> offers in-person and online trainings to help combat the commercial sexual exploitation of children</li><li><a rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow" href="http://instagram.com/imrebeccabender" target="_blank">Rebecca Bender</a> is a trafficking survivor that runs "Myth Busters," which combats conspiracy theory disinformation</li><li>The <a href="https://www.instagram.com/missingkids/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">National Center</a> of Missing and Exploited Children</li><li>Operation <a href="https://www.instagram.com/ourrescue/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">Underground Railroad </a></li><li><a href="https://www.instagram.com/defendinnocence/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">Defend Innocence</a> offers tips for parents and caregivers to keep kids safe</li></ul><p><span></span>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a>, <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank">Facebook</a> and <a href="https://derekberes.substack.com/" target="_blank">Substack</a>. His next book is</em> "<em>Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."</em></p>