Monthly Archives: October 2012

The Connection Between Biology and Behavior

For a greater understanding of what makes us tick, Professor Robert Sapolsky of Stanford university teaches a course called Introduction to behavioral biology. These videos provide biological insight into the behaviors of many species, but the primary focus is on human behavior. It covers the biological underpinnings of such things as why some people snap and do outrageous and destructive things, why we have a range of cooperative and competitive behavioral biases, the impact of family relationships and our developmental environment on behavioral inclinations, gender specific differences, and what we know about the biological and behavioral markers that are thought to contribute to sexual orientation.

Anyone interested in gaining a deeper understanding of themselves and the world at large will benefit from watching these.

Click on the playlist to see the rest of the videos

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What Biology Says About Cooperation

0065-BiologyOnCommunity

“Superorganism” is a word we use to classify a colony of many organisms that together form a cohesive community. Specialized physical and behavioral profiles within the superorganism fit like organs into a larger body. Together these groupings of specialized citizens work together with a unified purpose of to nourishing the needs of the whole community. Ants, bees, wasps, and termites are examples of superorganisms. These creatures as individuals need each other to survive. An ant with a singular specialized talent such as a worker, drone, or queen cannot survive on their own. Ants need the multitalented cooperative effort of the whole community as surely as they need to breathe in order to exist.

A single human being can be considered a social community of 10 trillion cells. Like the specialized roles in a superorganism, groups of cells have specialized tasks organized in the form of organs. Others, like blood cells, have widely distributed tasks throughout the body, but the common theme is diversification around a unified purpose – the community. In addition to human cells and organs, there are as many as 10 times more bacteria that inhabit the typical human form. Many of these bacteria perform vital functions such as aiding digestion or protecting the skin in return for food and environmental considerations. As a body, we are a vast community built on cooperative mutually beneficial relationships.

This need for cooperation extends beyond the human form. If all photosynthetic life forms such as plants were to disappear, we could not survive. Plants are an organ in the larger body of life. Were this organ not present and performing its nourishing roles we would cease as an organ in the body of life as well. Natural selection seen through a “competition lens” has been popularized as the way we traditionally understand evolution and biological relationships, but this is a false image.[1] As a result of not sufficiently understanding the powerful and vital dependence on cooperative relationships running through biology, we may have falsely shortchanged our understanding of how to achieve real progress in the areas of personal, business, academic and larger social circles such as government.[2]

As earth’s human population has grown, we have also grown in our dependency on cooperative relationships for basic operation as well as continuing sustainability. Given the harsh environmental factors some of us have historically had to overcome, it is understandable some of us would have come to see biology through a competitive-protective lens, but we need to begin to reconsider this as the lens through which we see ourselves and each other. As a global culture, we hold a competitive bias that is out of context with what we need to nourish our highest potential. This distortion affects our social systems from personal and business to community and governmental policies and practices. This competitive lens may have served us in the past as we needed to push outward to survive and thrive, but in our current world it has become a liability. Dominance is no longer the means by which we can achieve survival and sustainability, much less progress. We now have the capacity to kill “the golden goose” on which our social systems depend for nourishment. We need to take care of our biological and social systems to realize our full potential. The fact is, cooperation is the predominant means by which biology operates and the foundation of a satisfied life.[3] No one is both narcissistic to the point of collapsing others under the weight of their own desire and satisfied at the same time. The reason is because it violates our basic biological urges which demand nourishing community.

Cooperation must be seen for what it is; an essential element in the overall relationship dynamic that leads to our survival and nourishes our greatest potential. It is the binder that holds a social community together whether it is an ant colony, a human body, or civilization itself. It is also essential if we are going to cultivate the entire biosphere around sustainability and consequently make the world a more nourishing place. This is not to say behaviors that might be classified as competition are not useful in their proper context, just that they are a small proportional part of a much larger context of relationships that are predominantly cooperative in nature.

The relationships we depend on to both live and continue as a species say a lot about who we are and what fulfills us. We are social creatures by nature and much of this sociality is based on cooperative relationships. Like ants, we depend on cooperation between our cells, our organs, the bacteria and many other species. Depression and other diseases are often outward symptoms of social isolation. If we behave in ways that violate the cooperative mutually nourishing relationship balance on which we depend, not only are we rebelling against our nature, but we are participating in generating a dissatisfying poverty of existence.

To get a fuller flavor for the role cooperation plays on a civilization scale, consider the essay written by Leonard Read called “I, Pencil”. “I, Pencil” is written from the first person perspective of a pencil. The pencil describes in great detail the nature and complexity of its existence. The wood, coating material, graphite, glue and so on, along with all the people with different talents and tasks that are necessary for it to exist are outlined in the essay. Ship makers, sailors, lumberjacks, miners, and chemists are just a few of the many various persons that must work together for the pencil to exist. The point is what we might consider a humble tool like a pencil rides on a massive foundation of cooperative relationships. No one in fact knows the whole process, but working sharing and working together we achieve great things.[4]


[1] This is not an assertion that the traditional view of evolution has been totally viewed solely through a competitive lens, merely that the necessary competitive aspects of biological relationships have been grossly overemphasized in the popular view.

[2] For an example of cooperative aspects of evolutionary biology look up the term “endosymbiotic theory”, “eusocial”

[3] This is not meant to imply that cooperative relationships are the only means by which biology operates, merely that it is the predominant means. particularly in social creatures such as humans.

[4] Another book on the topic of how cooperation relates to social systems is “The Rational Optimist” by Matt Ridley

Awareness: Much More Than We Think

It’s easy to assume our choices are based on what we think. “I am thirsty” we

Rendering of human brain.

think, and go get a drink. Our conclusion; we do what we think. Not so fast! While words are part of the story of human awareness, it’s only part of the story. In fact, just because we’re able to string a few sentences together doesn’t mean these ideas have anything to do with self-awareness, much less an accurate and comprehensive view of who we are. As we begin to peer deeper into our overall state of awareness we begin to see a much different picture. One way to see this deeper vision of ourselves is to explore the work of Édouard Claparède, a Swiss neurologist and child psychologist.[1]

Over a hundred years ago Claparède happened to be treating a patient with amnesia. Because of brain damage, she was unable to remember anything longer than 15 minutes. During one of their daily and sometimes multi-daily introductions, Claparede hid a tack in his palm and pricked the patient when they shook hands. The patient of course “forgot” the incident, but the next time they met, she refused to shake Claparede’s hand. When asked about it she couldn’t explain why even though, to her, this was the first time they ever met.

As human beings we tend to focus on verbal understanding as the primary form of memory and all other aspects seem more or less as support systems for this verbal memory. Words can be very seductive. We define our self-identity using words. It’s easy to miss that much of our memory and the motivations for our actions are outside the field of vision of our verbal state of awareness. Our awareness is composed of so much more than words. There are many different memory systems at work even within the normal human brain and awareness extends past the brain alone. One extra brain, complete with its own nervous system, is our stomach, called the “gut brain”. It is often in bidirectional communication with our “other brain”, but it can be thought of as a separate individual.[2] This brief glimpse into just how deep and far flung our overall state of awareness is can tell us that real self-awareness in verbal terms, begins with understanding that many of the most commonly held beliefs that so powerfully steer our lives are never put into words, not even to our self.


[1] For more information on this read http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%89douard_Clapar%C3%A8de

[2] For more information on this read the article in Psychology Today http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/199905/our-second-brain-the-stomach

The Power of One Small Voice

Behavior

Small structural changes in complex systems like our biological system can have dramatic effects. The complex set of behaviors we broadly call “maternal instincts” is actually driven by tiny hormonal changes. Oxytocin and vasopressin are two of the tiny proteins we call hormones that involved in this particular dramatic behavioral change. This is not the only example of small things affecting large systems. The rabies virus causes dramatic behavioral changes in mammals. In fact this tiny virus actually edits the brain and thinking mechanics of the mammal to hijack the complex biological system in order to reproduce more copies of itself.

The point here is to recognize the real significance of the introduction of certain small structural changes on complex systems. This does not mean to say that all changes are equal. A small bit of sand eaten by a complex mammalian organism is very different in terms of effect than a rabies virus. Not all small changes in complex systems are equally capable to drive large scale behavioral changes. The take away point is that some small changes can and do have a powerful impact.

Let’s look at the collection of behaviors we do to carry out our day and connect this to their potential to impact humanity as a whole. If we apply this simple message to our everyday lives we can begin to see the connective tissue of cause and effect on the whole of humanity. Greeting the clerk at the store, letting someone in on a crowded highway, holding a door for someone or simply smiling cheerfully and greeting someone becomes a powerful unit of change and influence. Understanding how small changes can affect large scale systems can help us see the importance of each moment and our significance in powerfully contributing to something far greater than ourselves. These small changes can affect the way our education systems are geared, whether or not someone will later become a murderer or a leader for the betterment of mankind. It can ultimately affect such things as the way governments relate to each and whether we tackle the tough problems of hunger and poverty. It is important to remember that we should not confuse small with powerless. Each of us has a voice in this massive choir of mankind and the power of one voice should never be underestimated.

Words Shape our Experience

Even very young children perform rudimentary e...

Looking at ourselves is good, applying that knowledge to our lives is great.

Two groups of people were invited to participate in an experiment on memory. The experiment took place a large building and held in a location that required the participants to walk a good distance from the entrance to get to the testing facility. Both groups were asked to study and remember words within a specified time. What the participants didn’t know was that the real test was on the power of words to affect our physiology. The first group had words with negative characteristics like tired, old, diseased, bronchitis and so on. The second group had words with positive characteristics like energetic, fast, and healthy. Once the test concluded the individuals were watched and timed for how long it took them to get to the front door from the testing room. Those that were asked to study and remember negative words took longer than those that were asked to study positive words. This says a lot about the power of certain words to color our day. It also says a lot about the power we have to intentionally shape color our lives.

Choose your words carefully, they are like water in that the humility and perseverance of water drops can wear the proudest and mightiest of rocks to dust.

What is really important?

What is really important? What do we use as the basis to measure each other’s worth and how do we know we have accurate tools with which to size things up?

Oliver Sacks, a neurologist, wrote a book called “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales”. The title is about a man with a visual agnosia caused by damage to his brain. He was unable to recognize his wife and in fact thought she was his hat at one point. Despite his inability to see the world with all of his faculties, he was an excellent musician and made sense of his life by singing his way through. He had a song for putting on his clothes, a song for going to work, coming home and so on. In fact if something was not in motion he had great difficulty making it out. He certainly could not recognize faces in any way we would consider “normal”. There are many other examples in the book of how physiological damage causes altered perceptions and their corresponding beliefs. One of the take away points of his work is that our brains and our thinking are not all that ordered and rational even if we are completely sincere.

It is certainly not news that we have fought many personal and national wars over differences in ideology. Many of these differences can no doubt be traced to differences in our capacity to see. We tend to assume that everyone has the basic capacity to see the way we do. We make allowances for dramatic and superficial physical deficits such as blindness and deafness, but we tend to behave as if the basic workings of our brains are the same. This is simply not true. Environment has a lot to do with what we develop as a world view, but it is by no means the only thing. There are many cases in point of viruses, bacteria and other creatures that can actually rewire our physiology to see things differently. We are as yet largely ignorant of the how these many hidden factors affect us individually and culturally.

It takes culture a while to catch up to science, but one of the things we really need to emphasize in our personal lives and as a global community is the futility of passionate divides over the differences in the way we think. We cannot as yet fathom the many contributors to our ideological stances such as emotion, physical damage and such things as infection. As we consider the important things in life we might want to put much less emphasis on what we believe and far more emphasis on how we treat each other.

Have a great day!

Apathy toward Injustice

Anne stopped short of swinging a last uncalculated blow. She wasn’t quite sure what stayed her hand from the final punctuation of what started in her mind as righteous retribution for an unforgivable act. Enveloped in blind emotion and flailing arms, the torrent lasted for what seemed like hours but was actually a few short moments. When it was over she took a few deep breaths and stared blankly at the quivering hunk of child at her feet – her flesh and blood – though in that moment it was neither child, nor her flesh and blood. It didn’t have a name – it was inanimate – a blank canvas on which to paint her rage. A rage born of the poison vapors of broken trusts and betrayals on which her vision of reality was formed – so many years prior… A rage that surfaced as an absurd attempt to once again purge the memories far too painful to taste again – a rage she desperately wanted to crush in her more reasoned moments but had no concept of how to harness much less subdue. At the same time she embraced the passionate futility of reliving the very angst she was trying to forget, she passed the same toxins to her child through the social umbilical cord that once fed her now wounded and misshapen psyche.

So many places in the world are known concentrations of injustices like the one just described. Some are far more subtle forms of rape and dehumanization, but none the less destructive and none the less able to ripple through our collective body of life. It is not a casual undertaking to recognize the full extent of the happenings that cultivate and perpetuate our collective self-inflicted wounds and starvation.

One of the ideas we must grasp if we are to actually remedy the vicious cycle is that blame is an unreal ghost that – if anything – runs through us and not to us – we far more often become toxic expressions toward life because we are carried on the currents of our toxic local culture and not because we were ever in a place to knowingly and willingly make choices. While this fact doesn’t eliminate the need to subdue destructive elements within our midst, it does reveal that a crime and punishment mentality perpetuates destructive behavior and is useless as healing and nourishment agents which are required to address the real wounds and starvation that drive such misery. This idea is not easy to hold on to when some injustice comes our way, especially when it happens to the likes of an innocent child, but the depth perception and constancy of purpose required to actually move humanity toward a better state of being must have this deeper field of view.

While apathy toward injustice is violence disguised as sleep, responding to injustice with further injustice makes us our own enemy, and that is the greatest injustice of all.