We've all heard the line "free will is an illusion". But it may be much more an allusion—to society and culture and our surroundings—than we've ever given it credit for.
'Societal conditioning' might sound like either a grim Orwellian brainwashing technique or a fancy new way to wash your hair, depending on how warped your sense of humor is. But your surroundings—from the breakfast cereal you eat to the very design of the streets you live on—might have much more influence on how you think than most have ever given it credit for. Robert Sapolsky posits that "I picked this shirt today because the culture I come from has these values and my visual color receptors told me that this shirt matches with this." It might be far fetched to some, but consider this: if the street you'd grown up on was wide (say, a Texas highway) and at age 30 you moved to a tiny cobblestone street, you'd feel cramped in. Apply this to everything around you and you'll get a sense of what Sapolsky is talking about.
You have three types of brain inside your brain. And they're all fighting for dominance.
You have three brains—the triune, the limbic, and the cortex—and they're all fighting for dominance as you go about your life. The so-called lizard brain (the triune) is perhaps the one we tend to think of as instinctual and gives us our basic instincts like, for example, staying alive or not touching fire. The limbic brain controls our emotions like fear and desire, while our cortex gives us the knowledge that makes us human. Basically, the three brains talk to one another and vie for rank in certain situations... it's sort of like Three's Company except with brain systems. For instance: you're reminded of something sad by your cortex and it triggers your limbic system, or you get cut off in traffic your lizard brain can trigger the cortex and the limbic. It is a pretty fascinating subject, and Robert Saplosky waxes poetic about the three distinct "characters" that live up inside your head.
It's all in your mind. Really. Everything bad in the world might be coming from one particular part of the human brain.
Ever hear the expression "it's all in your mind"? Well, according to Robert Sapolsky all the negativity in the world might all be coming from one part of the brain: the frontal cortex. The science of temptation runs parallel to the science of why people make "bad" decisions. Sapolsky talks about how active the frontal cortex can be in some people when they have the opportunity to do a bad thing... and how calm it can be in other people when presented with a similar situation. Performing full-frontal lobotomies on the world's population to rid the world of negativity isn't exactly in the cards—but understanding the basis of the world's problems on a scientific (not to mention cranial level) might help make future generations much more adept at stopping humanity's biggest mistakes. Robert Sapolsky's most recent book is Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst.
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.
Robert M. Sapolsky holds degrees from Harvard and Rockefeller Universities and is currently a Professor of Biology and Neurology at Stanford University and a Research Associate with the Institute of Primate Research, National Museums of Kenya. His most recent book is Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst.