The Biology of our best and worse selves

What would we do if…

After watching a TED Talk on human behavior with Stanford University’s Robert Sapolsky, a question was posed: When is any violence the “right kind of violence” that we will accept or deem heroic? He began with an example of how millions of Jews were killed in the Holocaust and asked us to look deeper into the mindset of those who sat by or blatantly allowed atrocities to occur, showing little regard for the lives being taken all around them. This behavior permeated into society. The “Third Reich” spread fear and propaganda across nations to support a movement of annihilation of an entire culture of people. How do we become a person who learns these types of behaviors of indifference, hatred, and greed?

Unraveling human complexities can be challenging by the mere infinite circumstances a human may endure in a lifetime. Even to analyze one behavior would take an omnipotent knowledge while still looking under a microscope at one bit of data which will only unravel a small area of a tightly woven structure behind our behavior tendencies. Psychoanalysis, over years of inquiry and couch visits with a well-trained therapist, may help someone with one aspect of problem. Yet, mysteriously somehow in an unexpected experience, or aha moment, a person may shift perspectives in an instant as if some firestorm appeared in the mind and sparked the rearrangement of neurological pathways in an epiphany causing flash storm. This happens when previously unlinked memories collapse and form new pathways into a spectacular understanding or awakening, ripping away the shroud or tainted spectacles a human may hide behind. 

To analyze a behavior or behavior sequence is not a linear process. Behaviors form over time – days, or years from experience, if not lifetimes (eras) through our DNA – and build the holographically complex matrices that make up each unique, individual human-being. Sapolsky said there is ambiguity and contradiction within the human mind that causes a behavior or series of behaviors. Contextual webs that motivate behaviors are not easy to unravel. There are several contextual examples of behavioral complexity Sapolsky invites us to explore:

Upbringing and Early Development – Behaviors are neurological connections – neurons that wire together fire together. Neurons form our behaviors over days, weeks, or years of exposure to stimuli that may become rewarded or punished responses. Behaviors strengthen with practice. Brains change and neurons have plasticity and can reconnect to new neurons over time or in some instances in a moment’s flash described as awe moments or great awakenings.

Biology – For example, the amygdala is an indicator of stress. An enlarged amygdala indicates stress. An undersized, tiny amygdala is correlated with psycho or socio pathology. Hormones and the chemistry of the body also make up the intricacies of how we feel and behave.

Ancestors or Evolution – We can carry certain behavioral predispositions in our DNA which may lay dormant until the gene is triggered to express. The video mentioned the MAO-A gene linked to anti-social violence. It seems the gene does not express without a history of abuse. Genes often express when exposed to stress – war, poverty, pollution, toxic relationships, abuse, love, accepted social norms and idealism, disconnection (or unhealthy connection) to Earth and others (COVID). We can literally become different kinds of humans by how we strengthen our neural connections. For example, how and why did political divide become so prevalent in our country? It most certainly didn’t happen overnight. It took years of conditioning, perhaps by connection to others who are “like-minded.” This is what makes judgement and behavior change so complex – we become who we are with a particular belief system by exposure, predispositions, and expression of genes from environmental factors. Sometimes we can’t help it, and sometimes we can. Sapolsky (2017) said we must take into consideration every second within the history of life and the universe to understand human behavior to solve these issues. Without a systems-thinking, big-picture mindset, dissecting human behavior has no merit. Nothing about behavior complexities is simple, or black or white. Healing America, if not human mindset overall, will take time and a different kind of leadership.

Why do people seem to prefer believing in simplistic explanations of human behavior instead of developing an understanding of its complexities? Fear, perhaps, and supposing going with the flow and the masses is easier than critically think on our own. People are afraid of that which they do not understand, and quite frankly, change can be a scary prospect. One would have to go inward, into the deep space within, and look at themselves closely to understand their behaviors. Yet, looking up at the stars and night, pondering existence, and marveling at being a part of something so vast, beautiful, and enormous, while accepting that we are so small in the greater scheme of things, may be the antidote to our fears, discomforts, and narcissistic tendencies – the disease that plagues and threatens our mere existence if left unchecked.

So what can we do? Stop the snowball from building.

Step one…Breathe.

Step two…Reflect and ask questions to see other sides of the prism.

Step three…Read. Connect. Talk with an open mind and heart. Stretch beyond idealisms that make the mind rigid.

Step four…Breathe some more.