Neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky explains how your first 25 years will shape the next 50.
- The human brain isn't fully developed until 25 years of age. Everything is there except for the frontal cortex, which is the last thing to mature.
- An immature frontal cortex explains the spectrum of teenage behaviors: it's what makes adolescents adolescent, says Sapolsky. "The sensation-seeking and the risk-taking; the highs are higher and the lows are lower," he says. Teenagers are more adventurous and more heroic during this time—but can also be more violent and impulsive.
- Because your frontal cortex is the last part to develop "it's the part of the brain that is most sculpted by environment and experience—and least constrained by genes," Sapolsky says. That's great news! Your adventure levels, openness, experience, and influences at 25 years old will shape who you are when you're 60.
Evolution has trained your mind to create in-groups and out-groups in a flash—but the lines are more flexible than you think.
Oxytocin is sometimes marketed as a wonder hormone. This “trust molecule,” which acts a neurotransmitter in your brain, plays a role in mother-child bonding and is implicated in helping promote empathy and generosity. It is especially popular in modern lore for its role in sex: the “love hormone” is stimulated when hugging, kissing, and copulating. It is also delivered via breast milk, hushing the aggravated infant in a flood of chemical bliss.
Enter clever salespeople. Oxytocin-based perfumes hit the market with the promise of attracting mates. But there’s a problem. Yes, oxytocin is a wonderful bonding agent for lovers and within communities. Yet oxytocin plays an equally powerful role in negatively assessing anyone from the other side of your tracks.
As neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky writes in Behave, regarding a study featuring economic games in which volunteers could cooperate with others to even the financial playing field or attempt to play their fellow participants’ altruism against them to maximize profits:
When playing against strangers, oxytocin decreases cooperation, enhances envy when luck is bad, and enhances gloating when it’s good.
Hormones, he continues, rarely act outside of their environment—and human behavior is completely interwoven with their environment, as Sapolsky spends over 700 pages detailing. As our biology dictates, exposure is the necessary ingredient. Vaccines steel your body against potential dangers in your future. This should translate externally, though Sapolsky writes—a chapter from Behave is excerpted on Nautilus—exposure to other cultures, which should steel you from present (and future) xenophobia, sometimes has the opposite effect.
History is full of examples of genocides and inhuman torture waged on out-groups; Sapolsky simplifies the terms by using the Us/Them designation. He cites one study that took place at train stations in predominantly white suburbs. A group of commuters were asked their views on immigration. For the next two weeks, a pair of conservatively dressed, well-mannered young Mexicans began using their platform. After two weeks those same commuters filled out another questionnaire.
Remarkably, the presence of such pairs made people more supportive of decreasing legal immigration from Mexico and making English the official language, and more opposed to amnesty for undocumented immigrants (without changing attitudes about Asian-Americans, African-Americans or Middle Easterners).
Sapolsky chalks this up to a bubbling conscious awareness of “subterranean forces” in our implicit biases. We have an immediate revulsion to certain foods, ideologies, and people, rooted in the environment we were raised and live within. Only later do we attempt to consciously explore the reasons we feel the way we do, often ignorant of forces simmering beneath the surface.
Think legal immigration to the States from Mexico is a good thing? I’ll rate it six out of ten. Suddenly they’ve infiltrated my neighborhood! Make that a three.
Observing unconscious patterns of behavior is what makes science work. One 2010 study of 11 prime-time television shows, like Grey's Anatomy and Scrubs, resulted in an observation that white actors behave more positively to other white actors than black actors—even in shows that promote racial equality. This was revealed through telling facial expressions and body language signals hidden in plain sight.
Ironically, Sapolsky writes, the concept of race is a fluid one. There is no clear lasting demarcation of race or ethnicity that stands up in every culture. This even extends to a perceived rendering of our primate past. He opens the chapter through an anecdote from 1968’s Planet of the Apes, in which the actors who played chimps and the actors who play gorillas ate lunch separately, regardless of what ethnicity each actor was from.
Today we love Japanese tea ceremonies—I can’t find a coffee shop in Los Angeles that hasn’t added matcha to their menu. When I was born in the seventies, however, Japanese cars were avoided at any cost because real cars are “Made in America.” I learned how to drive with a 1979 Ford truck.
Even standards of white are fluid. As Sapolsky notes, not long ago southern Italians and northern Europeans were classified differently in America. Having one-eighth African blood meant you were not white in Florida. Today the facade of Them to me, as an Angeleno, is supposed to be any non-college-educated supporter of Roy Moore. The in-group bias of whiteness is further divided along class and ideological lines, hinting at the dynamic seesaw cultural affiliations really exist along.
This psychological phenomenon even extends to the invisible. I’ve been informed numerous times that “it doesn’t matter what god you believe in, so long as you believe in something.” This would imply that having faith in a deity whose sole aim is to murder everyone with less than 98 percent European blood is better than being an atheist who strives to live a life dictated by compassion and charity for everyone.
Given how influential our imaginative perception of reality can influence our daily actions, it’s no surprise that seemingly benign external influences impact our philosophies. Sapolsky writes that “Them-ing” is an emotional, automatic process easily unconsciously manipulated:
Show subjects slides about some obscure country; afterward, they will have more negative attitudes toward the place if, between slides, pictures of faces with expressions of fear appeared at subliminal speeds. Sitting near smelly garbage makes people more socially conservative about outgroup issues (e.g., attitudes toward gay marriage among heterosexuals). Christians express more negative attitudes toward non-Christians if they’ve just walked past a church.
Finally, there’s the romanticized past that never really occurred. In America, that’s the dreamt-up golden era of the fifties, a time truly run by a small population of white men in government, media, and business, well before the cultural upwelling exhibited by the Black Lives Matter and #metoo movements. All of these factors have created a fractured nation that’s being promoted (and influenced by) our technological ease of communication.
Human violence has long been tempered by culture. The rise of city-states meant that large groups had to learn how to get along for the first time in our evolutionary history. For most of time beforehand, smaller bands sufficed to fend off the forces of nature (and other tribes). Technology never truly progressed until thousands, then tens of thousands, on up to tens of millions of people started sharing an identity under the localized umbrella of metropolises. Each step of the way we’ve tried to implement ethical guidelines to make us a better species.
Our moral work is nowhere near done, though we mustn’t lose sight of the progress we’ve made. For Sapolsky, the following four steps will help mitigate the outdated biological mandate we’ve been evolved with to implicitly label anything outgroup.
Contact. While it doesn’t always work (Mexicans on a train platform), Sapolsky writes that if contact is lengthy, something approaching the vaccine hypothesis will take root. This is an infinitely better option than not making contact at all.
Approaching the implicit. Showing people their implicit biases, as well as offering counter-stereotypes, opens the door for empathy. Not everyone will walk through, but you increase the odds they will by making their biases explicit.
Replace essentialism. No one is born with anything completely unique to their race, especially when it comes to this or that group inherently having more or less of something. If given the same socioeconomic opportunities, the playing field is truly even. Time to put that reality into action.
Flatten hierarchies. Too many character biases exist due to our stunning economic hierarchies. Even that playing field, and those assumptions too will fade.
Derek is the author of Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles, he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.
What does Robert Sapolsky—an "utter, complete, atheist"—think about the persistence of magical thinking in our modern world?
Of all the strange things that humans have come up with, almost none is stranger—nor more pervasive across separate cultures—than religion. Why this meta-magical thinking evolved is easy to understand in hindsight: Robert Sapolsky calls it a "wonderful mechanism" that our ancestors used to cope with forces of nature, tragedies, and good luck that they couldn't explain. And even in the presence of explanations today, it continues to be useful for the majority of humans, to the point that asking "Why do so many people still believe?" is not the most interesting question in the vicinity. Sapolsky would rather ask: "What’s up with the five percent of atheists who don’t?" The only thing crazier than religion might be atheism, he suggests. There's a solid catalog of literature that shows the health benefits of religiosity. It's nature's antidepressant for what is often a brutal and awful world, and offers a protective quality that atheists forfeit—which explains why incidences of depression are much higher in that group. To Sapolsky, what's more curious than the bizarre need to believe, is the choice not to.
Our implicit biases are rooted in biology, but they can be easily manipulated. That's both really good and really bad.
Robert Sapolsky has a bone to pick with oxytocin, or rather the public's perception of oxytocin. It is the love hormone, we've surely all read by now. It helps us bond to our parents, then to our lovers and later to our own children. An extra dose can increase empathy, goodwill, and understanding. But it's not all sunshine and rainbows, here's the catch: those warm fuzzy feelings are only generated for people you already favor. Oxytocin, represented more honestly, is the hormone of love and violence. Its effect in the presence of people you consider "others" is preemptive aggression, and less social cooperation. It creates distance as often as it bonds love, and we are hardwired for those social dichotomies.
Humans invent "Us" and "Them" groups wherever they look, whether it's on the basis of sex, race, nationality, class, age, religion, hair color—there's nothing we won't discriminate against, and we do it within a twentieth of a second of seeing someone. Are they an "Us" or are they a "Them"? The flaw in this hardwired thinking reflex is also its silver lining: it is ridiculously easy to manipulate. A racial bias can be duped by something so simple as putting a cap with your favorite sports team's logo on someone's head, for example. You can overthrow your brain's most primal reactions in this way but, as history shows, other people can also get in your head and manipulate the Us versus Them reflex to tragic and catastrophic results.
Robert Sapolsky is the author of Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst.
Ever heard a story that made you sick to your stomach? There is neurological wizardry at work that makes our sense of morality so visceral—and flawed.
Have you ever witnessed something that made you sick to your stomach? Have you listened to a story so evil that you felt you might faint? Humans are different from other animals because we have a mind for symbolism. This knack for metaphor complicates our lives, and that is evident at a neurological level. Robert Sapolsky, professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University, explains that our insular cortex evolved to teach us to feel disgusted by things that would harm us: the taste of rotten fruit, the smell of infection—those triggers set off a visceral reaction (like nausea, gagging, vomiting). Gradually, our societies developed a concept of moral transgression but evolution didn't keep pace. Rather than evolve a new brain region to process moral disgust, it was (and is) funneled through the insular cortex. Our bodies can't tell the difference between moral and visceral disgust, which is why we very often mistake things that are strange to us as things that are bad or immoral. This explains why people are so judgmental about alternative lifestyles, and feel confident labelling other people's decisions as "wrong" and theirs as "right". Awareness of this misattributed impulse reaction can hopefully help us pause and think beyond our faulty wiring. Our moral instincts may be seriously flawed. Robert Sapolsky is the author of Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst.