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Biology and Human Behavior: The Neurological Origins of Individuality, 2nd Edition

Biology and Human Behavior: The Neurological Origins of Individuality, 2nd Edition

Professor Robert Sapolsky Ph.D.
Stanford University
Course No.  1597
Course No.  1597
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Course Overview

About This Course

24 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

When are we responsible for our own actions, and when are we in the grip of biological forces beyond our control? This intriguing question is the scientific province of behavioral biology, a field that explores interactions among the brain, mind, body, and environment that have a surprising influence on how we behave—from the people we fall in love with, to the intensity of our spiritual lives, to the degree of our aggressive impulses. In short, it is the study of how our brains make us the individuals that we are.

Biology and Human Behavior: The Neurological Origins of Individuality, 2nd Edition, is an interdisciplinary approach to this fascinating subject. In 24 lectures, you will investigate how the human brain is sculpted by evolution, constrained or freed by genes, shaped by early experience, modulated by hormones, and otherwise influenced to produce a wide range of behaviors, some of them abnormal. You will see that little can be explained by thinking about any one of these factors alone because some combination of influences is almost always at work.

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When are we responsible for our own actions, and when are we in the grip of biological forces beyond our control? This intriguing question is the scientific province of behavioral biology, a field that explores interactions among the brain, mind, body, and environment that have a surprising influence on how we behave—from the people we fall in love with, to the intensity of our spiritual lives, to the degree of our aggressive impulses. In short, it is the study of how our brains make us the individuals that we are.

Biology and Human Behavior: The Neurological Origins of Individuality, 2nd Edition, is an interdisciplinary approach to this fascinating subject. In 24 lectures, you will investigate how the human brain is sculpted by evolution, constrained or freed by genes, shaped by early experience, modulated by hormones, and otherwise influenced to produce a wide range of behaviors, some of them abnormal. You will see that little can be explained by thinking about any one of these factors alone because some combination of influences is almost always at work.

Intense, Dynamic, and Entertaining

This course is a newly recorded and much-expanded update of Professor Robert Sapolsky's original Teaching Company course introduced in 1998, which was lauded as "extremely stimulating" by The American Biology Teacher.

A prominent neurobiologist, zoologist, and MacArthur "genius" grant recipient, Professor Sapolsky is a spellbinding lecturer who is also very entertaining. In a feature story in The New York Times, he was compared to a cross between renowned primatologist Jane Goodall and a borscht belt comedian. An article in the alumni magazine at Stanford University, where he teaches, called him "a man who exudes adrenaline and has a reservoir of intensity deep enough to spin the turbines at Hoover Dam."

What You Will Learn

The course opens with an introductory lecture and then proceeds to Modules I and II, which start at the level of how a single neuron works. You build upward to examine how millions of neurons in a particular region of the brain operate. The focus is on the regions of the brain most pertinent to emotion and behavior.

Modules III, IV, and V explore how the brain and behavior are regulated. First, you cover how the brain regulates hormones and how hormones influence brain function and behavior. Next you examine how both the brain and behavior evolved, covering contemporary thinking about how natural selection has sculpted and optimized behavior and how that optimization is mediated by brain function. Then you focus on a bridge between evolution and the brain, investigating what genes at the molecular level have to do with brain function and how those genes have evolved.

Module VI examines ethology, which is the study of the behavior of animals in their natural habitats. The focus in these lectures is on how hormones, evolution, genes, and behavior are extremely sensitive to environment.

Finally, Module VII explores how the various approaches—neurobiology, neuroendocrinology, evolution, genetics, and ethology—help explain an actual set of behaviors, with a particular focus on aggression. The final lecture summarizes what is known about the biology of human behavior and probes the societal implications of having such knowledge.

Insight into Yourself and Others

As you work through this thought-provoking and engaging material, you will learn much about your own behavior, not to mention that of others. One particularly intriguing region of the brain relating to behavior is the frontal cortex, which plays a central role in decision-making, gratification postponement, and other important functions. The frontal cortex is the part of the brain that "makes you do the harder thing," whether it is concentrating on an unwelcome task, keeping anger under control, or telling a white lie about a spouse's new haircut. Consider these cases:

  • What happens when there is essentially no frontal cortex?: Railroad worker Phineas Gage suffered a massive frontal cortical lesion in a serious accident in the 1840s. Overnight, he changed from a sober, conscientious worker to a profane, aggressive, socially inappropriate man who could never regularly work again. The loss of his frontal cortex meant he lost his emotional regulation; he had no means to do the "harder thing."
  • What happens when the frontal cortex is "offline"?: During rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, the frontal cortex goes offline, which explains why dreams are often wild and unrepressed—why dreams are dreamlike. People don't dream about balancing a checkbook. They dream about dancing in musicals or floating in the air.
  • What happens when the frontal cortex is immature?: One of the great myths is that the brain is completely wired up and matured at a very early stage. However, the frontal cortex is not fully functional until an individual is about a quarter-century old—a fact that explains a lot of fraternity behavior, notes Professor Sapolsky. With this in mind, it's worth asking if a 16-year-old violent criminal is not, by definition, organically impaired in frontal cortical function.

Myths that Die Hard

The myth of the fully wired, mature young brain is one of the often-heard pieces of misinformation that this course corrects. Other areas where Professor Sapolsky revises widely held beliefs include:

  • "For the good of the species": The old notion of group selection has been proven wildly incorrect. This is the idea that animals behave "for the good of the species" and that behaviors are driven by ways to increase the likelihood of the species surviving and multiplying. Evolution is not about animals behaving for the good of the species but, rather, behaving to optimize the number of copies of their own genes to pass on to the next generation.
  • The inevitability of social structures: Professor Sapolsky's own fieldwork in Africa has shown that an archetypal male-dominated, aggressive society of baboons can change radically to a tradition of low aggression within a single generation. "If these guys are freed from the central casting roles for them in the anthropology textbooks, we as a species have no excuse to say we have inevitable social structures," he says.

Cause for Concern and Hope

At the end of the course, Professor Sapolsky explores the implications of our emerging understanding of the origins of individual differences. How much do these insights threaten our own sense of self and individuality? Where do we draw the line between the essence of the person and the biological abnormalities? What counts as being ill? Who is biologically impaired, and who is just different? As more and more subtle abnormalities of neurobiology are understood, how much should we worry about the temptation to label people as "abnormal"? And what happens when we each have a few of these labels?

These and other questions should concern us all. But while Professor Sapolsky sees alarming trends, he also sees cause for hope. We needn't worry that we are on the verge of unmasking the secret behind everything we do, he says, since we can never explain everything; every answer opens up a dozen new questions. Furthermore, to explain something is not to destroy the capacity to be moved by it. "In the end," says Professor Sapolsky, "the purpose of science is not to cure us of our sense of mystery and wonder but to constantly reinvent and reinvigorate it."

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24 Lectures
  • 1
    Biology and Behavior—An Introduction
    Professor Robert Sapolsky outlines the course, emphasizing that there is a neurobiology to who we are; it is vital that we learn about it; and it can be understood best through the interdisciplinary approach of this course. x
  • 2
    The Basic Cells of the Nervous System
    You begin a trio of lectures on the neurobiology of behavior at the cellular level. An overview of how a single neuron works explores the difference between the neuron's quiescent state, or resting potential, and its excited state, or action potential. x
  • 3
    How Two Neurons Communicate
    In this lecture you expand your study of neurons to see how two neurons communicate through the use of neurotransmitters—chemical messengers in the brain—and you examine the effects of certain drugs on the brain and on the neurological origins of individuality. x
  • 4
    Learning and Synaptic Plasticity
    This lecture describes how communication between neurons changes as a result of experience. The focus is on long-term potentiation (LTP) and how the process occurs in the hippocampus, with implications for learning and memory; and in the amygdala, with implications for fear and anxiety. x
  • 5
    The Dynamics of Interacting Neurons
    Expanding beyond the scale of the cell, you begin a three-lecture survey of the systems level. In this lecture you look at how neurons sharpen detection signals through inhibition and how layers of neurons that overlap and form networks affect individual memory, pain, and creativity. x
  • 6
    The Limbic System
    You investigate how subregions of the brain made of millions of neurons function. The focus is on the limbic system, which is most centrally involved in emotion and in generating emotional behavior. The limbic system will be central to the rest of the course. x
  • 7
    The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS)
    Professor Sapolsky examines how the limbic system regulates the function of the body by way of the autonomic nervous system and its subparts: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. x
  • 8
    The Regulation of Hormones by the Brain
    The first of two lectures on hormones and behavior examines how the limbic system regulates the body through the release of many types of hormones. You review the nature of this regulation and the basic ways hormones work. x
  • 9
    The Regulation of the Brain by Hormones
    This lecture considers the converse of the brain's regulation of hormones, namely, the hormones' regulation of the brain. How can hormones change the function and even the very structure of the brain? A key point of this and the preceding lecture is to refute the view that hormones "cause" behaviors. x
  • 10
    The Evolution of Behavior
    The first of three lectures on the evolution of the brain and behavior reviews the mechanisms of evolution and then looks at the ways species can maximize through behavioral means the number of copies of their genes passed on to the next generation. x
  • 11
    The Evolution of Behavior—Some Examples
    You investigate how the evolution of behavior helps explain, and even predict, social behavior in numerous species that vary in how aggressive they are, whether they are monogamous or polygamous, and whether males participate in childcare, among other traits. x
  • 12
    Cooperation, Competition, and Neuroeconomics
    You review the evolution of competition and how the brain functions under different settings of competition. The formal analysis of such behavior, called game theory, is introduced and framed in both the context of the evolution of such strategizing and the sort of brains that can accomplish it. x
  • 13
    What Do Genes Do? Microevolution of Genes
    In this first of four lectures on the role of genes in sculpting behavior, you examine what a gene is and does. The main intellectual thrust of this module is to demonstrate the futility of the nature-versus-nurture debate when considering genes and the brain. x
  • 14
    What Do Genes Do? Macroevolution of Genes
    Evolution can be formally defined as changes in the function and distribution of genes in populations over time. But what exactly evolves in a gene on the molecular level? This lecture reviews what mutations are on that level and how they can affect behavior. x
  • 15
    Behavior Genetics
    How can you tell when a behavior has a genetic component? This lecture introduces the field of behavior genetics, which seeks to determine the extent that genes explain qualities such as intelligence, aggression, or introversion/extroversion. x
  • 16
    Behavior Genetics and Prenatal Environment
    The basic premise of behavior genetics is that when research controls for environment it can reveal the effects of genes. This lecture shows that this is virtually impossible to do because genes and environment interact constantly, particularly in the realm of behavior. The lecture also explores the results of environmental effects on fetuses. x
  • 17
    An Introduction to Ethology
    This is the first of two lectures on ethology, the study of animals in their natural habitat, and insights about the human brain and behavior that can be gleaned from it. Here, Professor Sapolsky gives an overview of ethology, a discipline that developed to counter behaviorist psychology. x
  • 18
    Neuroethology
    This lecture explores neuroethology, the study of the neural mechanisms mediating the naturalistic behavior of animals. In particular, you look at how the functioning of the limbic system varies among species and how the human limbic system can be understood in that context. x
  • 19
    The Neurobiology of Aggression I
    The final module of the course applies the previous lessons to the study of aggression. In this lecture you explore the neural bases of aggression—first the neurochemistry of aggressive behavior, then its neuroanatomy, emphasizing the limbic system and the frontal cortex. x
  • 20
    The Neurobiology of Aggression II
    This lecture poses two questions: What environmental events can trigger the limbic system to exert aggressive behavior seconds to minutes later? And how do hormones modulate the sensitivity of the brain to those environmental triggers? You focus on the hormone testosterone. x
  • 21
    Hormones and Aggression
    The first part of this lecture explores how patterns of hormone exposure around the time of birth can influence adult patterns of aggression. The second part examines how genes may influence the neurobiology of aggression but never outside the context of strong environmental interactions. x
  • 22
    Early Experience and Aggression
    You look at the role of environmental factors in aggression occurring days to decades later. In particular, you examine the effect of reward and punishment, early experience and social learning, and the ways those experiences can shape the development of relevant parts of the brain. x
  • 23
    Evolution, Aggression, and Cooperation
    The final lecture in this module looks at the evolution of aggression, examining which evolutionary factors promote aggressive behavior and how evolutionary biology gives scientists insights into ways that aggression might be contained. x
  • 24
    A Summary
    How much do insights into the neurobiology of human behaviors threaten a person's sense of self and individuality? Professor Sapolsky summarizes what science has learned about the neurobiology of individual differences, stressing the profound implications of this knowledge. 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 4.8 out of 5 by 93 reviewers.
Rated 4 out of 5 by Good course with top-knotch professor I'm a psychology doctoral student and have been using The Great Courses as a resource to bolster my learning. I've watched over a dozen courses, and find Dr. Sapolsky to be the most entertaining professor here. This is not to diminish his intelligence, he is arguably the most knowledgeable person here (at least in the realm of neurobiology and pretty much everything related to it). I absolutely love this guy. Having said that, this isn’t my favorite of his courses (his Stress course is a must see!). It's a very good course, however I found it a bit abstract at times. Perhaps because I prefer more specific and targeted material. Sure neuroethology was interesting, but I wasn't sure what to take away from it. Overall, however, I highly recommend anything Dr Sapolsky puts forth. June 30, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Spectacular Course! What a remarkable course presented by a phenomenal professor! The style and substance of this course was outright addictive. Professor Sapolsky is one of a kind. From the beginning of each lecture till it's end- it's petal to the metal- full throttle genius presented without a teleprompter. I found myself watching 4 lectures in a row having to force myself to stop- it's really that enjoyable! Professor Sapolsky dismisses all black and white approaches to explaing human behavior and focuses on the varying shades of grey in splendid detail. He walks you backwards from the behavior to the neurobiology, environment, hormones, childhood development, genetic makeup, and all the way back to evolutionary pressures that shaped our species. The course is weighted toward the neuroscientific angle on behavior as apposed to the psychological. You are not pressured into memorizing every single part of the brain and nervous system- instead you are guided through the key correlations between areas like the Limbic system, Cortex, Hypothalamus, and Amygdala. There is also ample emphasis on how neurons communicate with each other, the neuro-nets they form, and the neurotransmitters role in the process. The secong half of the course is a blast! Who isn't curious about behavior and genetics? It will be drummed into your head after many lectures that you simply can't blame everything on your genes. This becomes evident as the professor delves into the specific behavior of aggression. Lastly- lectures 23 and 24 are so chock-full of goodies that you should watch them twice. April 1, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Interesting and engaging course. Professor Sapolsky delivers an excellent study of human nature and he presents the topic in a way which is really easy to understand. I enjoyed his lecture speaking style and he held my attention through the entire course. The course itself covers a range of topics relating to how the brain/body system works as a whole to shape the various parts that make up human nature. He explains the various parts of the brain, their functions and how hormones exercise influence in the brain and body. He also breaks down the causative effects of hormones and explains the positive and negative interactions they produce. His explanations of human moods, feelings and habits left me with a greater understanding of myself and my fellow man. A great course overall for anyone interested in why people behave the way they do. October 17, 2013
Rated 5 out of 5 by Excellent for Intro Level and Beyond I bought this course because I'm a big fan of Sapolsky's work in stress. He's a wonderful author and speaker. I think that his sense of humor and his story telling ability make complex topics approachable for beginners, but can maintain interest for those beyond the introductory materials. This is a great course for someone getting started in neuroscience or psychology. The lectures are outlined in a format that I really appreciate - they go from narrow (neuron) to broad (evolutionary drives). There is ample coverage of essential information like how things work and vocabulary terms, and though this material can be dry this course is not through the use of fascinating examples, diagrams, and stories. I am a neuro-nerd and have reviewed a lot of materials on the subject, I very highly recommend this course as it is one of my favorites. August 19, 2013
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