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.
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.
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.