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Being Human: Life Lessons from the Frontiers of Science

Being Human: Life Lessons from the Frontiers of Science

Professor Robert Sapolsky Ph.D.
Stanford University
Course No.  1686
Course No.  1686
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Course Overview

About This Course

12 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

Understanding our humanity—the very essence of who we are and how we live our lives—is one of the deepest mysteries and biggest challenges in modern science.

Why do we have bad moods? Why are we capable of having such strange and vivid dreams? How can metaphors and symbols in our language hold such a powerful sway on our thoughts and actions?

As we learn more about the mechanisms of human behavior through evolutionary biology, neuroscience, anthropology, psychology, sociology, and other related fields, we're discovering just how intriguing the human species is. And while scientists are continually uncovering deep similarities between our behavior and that of other animals, they're also finding a wealth of insights into everything that makes us unique from any other species on Earth.

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Understanding our humanity—the very essence of who we are and how we live our lives—is one of the deepest mysteries and biggest challenges in modern science.

Why do we have bad moods? Why are we capable of having such strange and vivid dreams? How can metaphors and symbols in our language hold such a powerful sway on our thoughts and actions?

As we learn more about the mechanisms of human behavior through evolutionary biology, neuroscience, anthropology, psychology, sociology, and other related fields, we're discovering just how intriguing the human species is. And while scientists are continually uncovering deep similarities between our behavior and that of other animals, they're also finding a wealth of insights into everything that makes us unique from any other species on Earth.

Join acclaimed neurobiologist and award-winning Professor Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University for a surprising, amusing, and undeniably fascinating study of what makes you you. Being Human: Life Lessons from the Frontiers of Science is a 12-lecture course that takes you to the front lines of scientific research and offers you a new perspective on the supposedly quirky nature of being ourselves. Thought-provoking, witty, and sometimes myth-shattering, this course is sure to have you thinking about, observing, and even appreciating your own life in novel ways.

Explore Mysterious, Everyday Human Behaviors

"The more science learns about the mechanisms of human behavior, the more intriguing our species becomes," notes Dr. Sapolsky, a renowned neuroscientist and primatologist. Whether we're falling in love, performing a spiritual ritual, or enjoying poetry and fashion, our brains have a unique aptitude for handling complex patterns of experience and conduct. And when it comes to our behavior, it is the nature of humans to be remarkably unconstrained by our nature.

Being Human explores this intrigue by investigating a series of topics that concern both mysterious and sometimes even mundane aspects of human behavior.

  • Bad moods: We've all gotten into an argument with another person at some point in our lives, one that can completely ruin our outlook on the day. But when you pause and consider the anatomy of a bad mood from a scientific perspective, you find that different parts of the brain actually recover from conflict at different speeds—and as a result, just when you thought it was over with, the argument starts all over again.
  • Nostalgia: Why do we sometimes long for the fashions, foods, and music of our youths? Why are we sometimes resistant to change after we reach a certain point in our lives? The answers lie in research findings in psychology and neurobiology, which have revealed new information about our desire for stability and habitual behaviors.
  • Dreams: Scientists are now closer than ever before to understanding just why our dreams can sometimes be extremely bizarre. The key lies in the frontal cortex of the brain that, during dreaming, decreases its activity and opens the gates for dreamlike imagery that seems so unconnected to our everyday experiences.

Bold Experiments, Fascinating Case Studies

Central to our increased understanding of human behavior is the intriguing research behind it. Being Human is filled with stories of bold experiments and case studies—some of them conducted in the field by Professor Sapolsky himself—that illuminate the intricacies of our behavior.

  • Junk-food monkeys: Professor Sapolsky recounts his study of East African baboons that turned from their natural diet in favor of trash from a nearby tourist lodge. Their experience with a Western diet highlights how its negative effects (such as soaring levels of insulin) and positive effects (such as decreased infant mortality) can cross species.
  • Mind-controlling parasites: Central to our understanding of how parasites can change human behavior is the study of similar parasites in other parts of the natural world. You'll encounter one extraordinary parasite that makes rats become attracted to the smell of cats. What does this say about our own brain's susceptibility to foreign influences?
  • Replacing love with technology: Is new technology necessarily better for healthy development? To answer this question, you'll investigate one historical case in which the health of premature children, born into wealthy families, suffered because they were raised using a state-of-the-art machine instead of with the love and care of a mother.

Rethink What It Means to Be Human

In addition to these and other experiments and studies, every lecture of Being Human showcases the brilliant mind and celebrated teaching style that have made Professor Sapolsky one of the most acclaimed members of The Great Courses faculty. He has also been the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including a MacArthur "genius" fellowship, Stanford University's Bing Award for Teaching Excellence, and an award for outstanding teaching from the Associated Students of Stanford University.

As we learn more about the evolutionary and physiological roots of humans, we eventually have to ask ourselves: Am I just another primate? Is "me" just a bunch of brain cells?

"Much of what you'll learn in Being Human will be surprising," says Professor Sapolsky. "Some of it will be amusing. But I'm sure every lecture will have you rethinking what it means to be human."

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12 Lectures
  • 1
    What's So Special about Being Human?
    Humans are, from an evolutionary perspective, certainly the most unique species on Earth. Start the course by learning how to approach the subject of human behavior. You may be surprised to discover that there are plenty of ways in which we have the same behavioral aspects as other animals—and also behaviors for which there is no precedent in the animal kingdom. x
  • 2
    Junk-Food Monkeys
    What happens when nonhuman primates get to eat like Westernized humans? And what does it say about the costs—and surprising benefits—of our diets? Find out the answers in this lecture, which focuses on a fascinating study of East African baboons who abandoned their natural diet to gorge on garbage from a local tourist lodge. x
  • 3
    The Burden of Being Burden-Free
    Investigate the latest anthropological and scientific understanding behind a pervasive part of our everyday lives: stress. You'll discover what makes psychological stress so damaging to health, where individual differences in stress come from, the nature of disorders including toxic hostility and clinical depression, and why it's impossible to be completely free of stress. x
  • 4
    Bugs in the Brain
    Professor Sapolsky introduces you to parasites that exploit their hosts by altering their behavior. After looking at studies, including mites that make ants find food for them and worms that drive crickets to suicide, focus on how rabies and toxoplasmosis can literally change the wiring of the brain in mammals—including humans. x
  • 5
    Poverty's Remains
    Turn to an intriguing historical case of doctors who, failing to appreciate the impact of poverty on our bodies, invented an imaginary disease whose preventive methods killed thousands of people. It's a peek into an odd corner of medical history that reveals startling lessons about the socioeconomics of medicine. x
  • 6
    Why Are Dreams Dreamlike?
    Why does your brain generate sensory imagery while you sleep? Here, examine the neurology of sleeping and dreaming. Also, discover how the key to strange dreams lies in your frontal cortex, which, when it goes completely offline, allows the rest of your brain to run wild. x
  • 7
    The Pleasures and Pains of "Maybe"
    For a long time, scientists thought that the neurotransmitter dopamine was directly related to pleasure. But it turns out that dopamine is more about the anticipation of reward than the reward itself. Here, plunge into the neuroscience behind why we're willing to deal with such long delays in gratification, and what it says about the potential of humans to experience both magnificent levels of motivation—and crippling levels of addiction. x
  • 8
    How the Other Half Heals
    Learn about the intricate relationship between personal health and socioeconomic status. You'll learn how poverty is terrible for your health in unexpected ways, why some diseases (including polio) were more prevalent among the wealthy, and how shifting views of childcare in the 20th century showed that successful infant development relies not just on food, warmth, and the latest technology—but on social contact and love. x
  • 9
    Why We Want the Bodies Back
    Why do human bodies remain important after the life within them has gone? Is it a sign of affirmation, mourning, reverence? Or something else? Explore some of the world's diverse rituals and beliefs about the treatment of dead bodies, from Alaska to Israel to Sudan and beyond. x
  • 10
    Anatomy of a Bad Mood
    Learn what happens when you or others are in a bad mood by exploring some theories about emotion; explore the role of facial expressions in emotional feedback; and change the way you think about tense arguments. x
  • 11
    This Is Your Brain on Metaphors
    Dr. Sapolsky explains how metaphors work on the brain to actually change your opinions, assessments, and even action; investigates how we register disgust and pain in key regions of the brain; and shows metaphors' intriguing hold on our hearts and minds at work in politics and international events. x
  • 12
    Sushi and Middle Age
    Consider the brain science behind nostalgia. Why do we, as well as members of other species, tend to avoid novelty over time in favor of the familiar? Taking you through some rather eccentric research of his own, Professor Sapolsky uncovers some startling facts about the psychology, neurobiology, and evolution of this phenomenon. x

Lecture Titles

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Robert Sapolsky
Ph.D. Robert Sapolsky
Stanford University
Dr. Robert Sapolsky is John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn Professor of Biological Sciences at Stanford University and Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery in Stanford's School of Medicine. Professor Sapolsky earned his A.B. summa cum laude in Biological Anthropology from Harvard University and his Ph.D. in Neuroendocrinology from The Rockefeller University in New York. He is also a research associate at the Institute of Primate Research operated by the National Museums of Kenya in Nairobi. Dr. Sapolsky is a recipient of a MacArthur genius fellowship. His teaching awards include Stanford University's Bing Award for Teaching Excellence and an award for outstanding teaching from the Associated Students of Stanford University. Professor Sapolsky is the author of several books, including Stress, the Aging Brain and the Mechanisms of Neuron Death (MIT Press, 1992); The Trouble with Testosterone (Macmillan Library Reference, 1997); and Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers: A Guide to Stress-Related Diseases and Coping (W.H. Freeman, 1995), which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award. He also regularly contributes to magazines and journals such as Discover, Science, Scientific American, Harper's, and The New Yorker.
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Reviews

Rated 4.4 out of 5 by 38 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Being Human: Life Lessons for the Frontiers of Sci I'm a long time purchaser of Great Courses. This is the 1st review I've done. I enjoyed this class so much, I just felt I needed to make a comment. Professor Sapolsky is very knowledgeable and presented this in a humorous, enjoyable manner. I enjoyed this course tremendously - June 11, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Live in an enriched environment I own a lot of Great Courses and have enjoyed them all. I hesitatingly rate things the best as is covered in this course (listen to the end) tastes can and do and don't change. At this moment, this is one of the best. I own other courses from Professor Sapolsky and found this a worthy overview of some of his deeper explorations, but also a wonderful call to continue to explore all that is going on. Listen to it for the content, listen to it for the motivation. Whether teasing gravity in a hang glider or titrating to tickle some other passion, you will enjoy this course. January 25, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Fascinating Professor Sapolsky is a knowledgeable and engaging lecturer. He is able to integrate information across different disciplines, and provide examples that tie the science he speaks about to everyday life. I liked this so much I bought a copy for a friend. November 19, 2013
Rated 4 out of 5 by How unique are we humans? Professor Sapolsky starts a lecture with a story. The story sounds familiar. Is he talking about us, or a member of our family, or a neighbor? No. He's talking about primates. Do baboons have the same metabolic reaction to junk food as we do? Are parasites smarter that we are? What is the value of "maybe?" These are just a couple of the questions Professor Sapolsky answers. For interesting insights into human behavior, this is a fun course. We learn so much about ourselves and enjoy the journey. September 21, 2013
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