Sapolsky gives lecture on violence, human behavior

Famed neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky spoke at the Mandell Theater April 13, explaining the many different factors that influence violent behavior.

He eloquently took the audience step-by-step through neurological, cultural and evolutionary processes that can explain strange human actions. While he believes violence seems deeply embedded in humanity, he concluded that there is reason to be optimistic about the future.

Donna Murasko, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, introduced the Stanford University professor.

“One of the strengths of a liberal arts college is that as you take courses outside your discipline, you have the ability to apply that perspective to topics that are very distinct from the one you’re studying now,” she said. “Tonight’s speaker will show us how his discipline is important to us in our everyday lives, and how we can use information to figure out where we are in this world.” Sapolsky is the seventh speaker in the college’s Distinguished Lecture Series.

He began by reciting a fantasy about capturing and slowly torturing Adolf Hitler.

This, Sapolsky said, illustrates a human paradox: why does a nonviolent person such as himself have such fantasies? Why does society both criticize and glorify different forms of violence? For that matter, why is our violent species often so altruistic?

To humans, context matters. Sapolsky has extensively studied baboons, and asserted other primates would little understand our behavior.

The bulk of his lecture was an explanation of the latest scientific understanding of violence. The most immediate explanation can be found in the brain, but recent experiences, hormones, social relations, childhood, genetics, the prenatal environment, culture, history, ecology and evolution are all related.

However, Sapolsky tried to dispel the idea that anything determines human behavior. Elevated levels of the hormone testosterone, for instance, does not solely cause aggression but is associated with all forms of social status-preserving behavior.

In the brain, the interaction of the amygdala and frontal cortex make humans adept at sensing danger, even while they encourage suspicion of people who don’t look like us. Both positive and negative human behaviors are part of the same biological structures.

One of the root problems he suggested was that society often rewards violent behavior, and that is why many biological mechanisms result in it. He humorously suggested that giving testosterone to a crowd of Buddhist monks would instead lead to a flurry of random acts of kindness.

Moreover, he said that humans are more changeable than is often believed. The brain never stops forming new synaptic connections, and even the expression of genes is stimulated or suppressed by the environment. Humans can dramatically change their individual behavior. Citing the example of the Swedes, who once were the “scourge of Northern Europe,” Sapolsky illustrated that cultures change as well.

New advances in natural and social science offer the potential to improve humanity in a more directed way. However, “be very cautious when you intervene and do it with a great deal of humility,” the scientist cautioned, referring to the way we now judge past mistakes.

In conclusion, Sapolsky wished the audience “good luck with your struggles with your best and worst behaviors.”