Being Human: Life Lessons from the Frontiers of Science

Course No. 1686
Professor Robert Sapolsky, Ph.D.
Stanford University
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4.5 out of 5
66 Reviews
89% of reviewers would recommend this product
Course No. 1686
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Course Overview

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
 |  Average 29 minutes each
  • 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

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  • Download 12 audio lectures to your computer or mobile app
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  • 12 lectures on 2 DVDs
  • 96-page printed course guidebook
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What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

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Course Guidebook Details:
  • 96-page printed course guidebook
  • Photos & illustrations
  • Suggested readings
  • Questions to consider

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Your professor

Robert Sapolsky

About Your Professor

Robert Sapolsky, Ph.D.
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...
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Being Human: Life Lessons from the Frontiers of Science is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 66.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Burnin’ Down the House This short course was so engrossing that I nearly burned down the house. True story. Was watching on DVD while making dinner. Totally forget to keep an eye on the stove. Before I knew it, everything was ruined, including some nice cookware. Been in the dog house for a week already. Thanks a lot, Sapolsky! I say it’s all your fault. :-) Anyway…I have nothing but high regards for Professor Sapolsky. He’s a first-rate lecturer, right up there with the best TGC has to offer. Masterful storyteller. This course tackles the thorny question of what makes us human and how we make sense of the human experience from both the biological and cultural perspectives. The course succeeds on that level. I came away from the course contemplating so many complex issues. Sadly, there are only 12 lectures. Many are connected but some not connected in a linear fashion that many come to expect in a typical course. Content is supported by very interesting, memorable studies. In short, it is educational and entertaining. Will watch again. Time very well spent.
Date published: 2018-09-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from This is another example of great research applied in a way that is usable for both laymen and professionals. As a PhD, I'm able to use material for counseling and classroom work.
Date published: 2018-01-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating! I loved this course! This goes down as one of my favorite courses! I thought the topics were interesting and the presentation was outstanding! The professor really takes you on a journey of thought about different aspects of "being human", sometimes humorous, sometimes sobering, and always surprising! The video has some nice visuals, but this course works well as an audio course too-I listened to it as I walked my dog and found I wanted to just keep walking to listen to the next lecture! Then I went back and watched the DVD!
Date published: 2017-09-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Learned a lot Great information presented in an interesting manner.
Date published: 2017-07-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Reveals the complexity of being human Great course. Interesting and enlightening material presented by an excellent professor and researcher. His intelligence is obvious, but his humor and technique make every lecture captivating. I listen while exercising and wind up doing extra reps because I lose count getting absorbed in the presentation. In my opinion, the best lecturer of the Great Courses, and I have listened to many. Even if you are not of the scientific bent, you will learn much about yourself and interactions with others. A bargain.
Date published: 2017-04-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Best Course yet. This is a short course and each lecture stands alone. Some are better than others, but all are good. He raises questions that make one think about what it means to be human and he is enjoying to listen to. We liked this course a lot and am sorry it is over.
Date published: 2017-04-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Course I really enjoyed this course a lot. It explains things I have noticed before, such as why older people are less open, how group dynamics are influenced by numerous things. This is loaded with information and will require more than one time through to get it. He's funny, witty, and makes the complex simple. Really, a delightful course! Highly recommended. Now, I have to work on my aging brain.
Date published: 2016-12-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from sapolsky this is sapolsky being sapolsky which means intelligent, funny, snarky.... blended in with heavy neurological/biological content. in this series of lectures Sapolsky seems to step out a little further than usual with very poignant "life lessons" and that is a good thing. Wonderful stuff. Absolutely wonderful.
Date published: 2016-09-08
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Very disappointing The lecture titles did not reflect the content and in most cases there was not even a corollation. The lectures were hard to follow as the lecturer frequently was not clear about certain facts or a researcher's name was given without any concept of how they fit into the topic at hand. I know this professor has done other courses, but I am not interested in any. My experience with the Great Courses is very limited, but if this course is represents the quality of your courses, I will not purchase any more.
Date published: 2016-08-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Finest Professor Robert Sapolsky taught the second course I ever bought from the Great Courses, "Biology and Human Behavior." I found his course fascinating and his teaching style entertaining, and ten years and fifty courses later, he did not disappoint. While I've enjoyed many of the professors I've listened to over the years, he remains my favorite.
Date published: 2016-07-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A master storyteller Dr. Sapolsky is a master storyteller. In each segment there is a catchy opening eventually leading into an insight-provoking theme with historical and biographical side notes. I was entertained while learning topics that will enrich my life and my understanding of my self and my society. I really liked it. Sapolsky's course on Biology and Human Behavior has always been one of my favorites because it builds up a coherent argument across the series of lectures. This is an interesting contrast. The series is not really comparable to a college course because the lectures are only loosely associated. Each self-contained lecture resembles a feature on NPR or the BBC, or a science essay aimed at general audiences. I watched the video version. I am sure the audio version would work just fine, but Sapolsky's expressive presentation and the associated visualizations added to my enjoyment of one of my favorite courses.
Date published: 2016-04-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Ear candy... Audio download ...obviously. This is a difficult series to evaluate, much like trying to compare a really good novel to a really good collection of short stories. Dr. Sapolsky discusses 12 aspects of human neurobiology directed at defining how humans are similar to...and at the same time different from...all the other animals. Each lecture could be a stand-alone topic that could be expanded into a 12-lecture series. But this anthology provides a thread that builds from "we're just another animal" to the subtle (or maybe not so subtle) yet unique human ability to use and understand complex metaphors. If you are considering buying these lectures, consider that you are buying a summary of specific aspects (and examples) of a very broad field to behavioral biology...delivered by a very polished and entertaining scientist. Sapolsky's style and humor are very much so that I re-listened to the entire series after the first time through. Probably the most entertaining 'chapter' for me was the final one..."Sushi and Middle Age" in which the good doctor describes why we humans often close our minds to new ideas and experiences (..."kids today...go figure"). Maybe this is why some reviewers said what they said. He concludes the lecture and the series with ..." an open mind is a prerequisite for an open heart." Maybe that's what makes us just a little different from the rest of the animal world. Highly recommended just for the fun of it...increase your fun by getting it on sale with a coupon.
Date published: 2015-12-30
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A Collection of Oddities that Is Not for Everyone This is a hard review to write because I completely recognize the quality of the production, the enthusiasm of the presenter and the interesting nature of the material. I do not want to downgrade the course just because it was not entirely to my personal tastes—I see where the right listener might find this course wonderful. Essentially, this is a collection of unusual, sometimes macabre and sometimes frightening, stories with a biological or psychological twist. Topics range from stories about body snatching to burial rituals to parasites to humanity's use of metaphors. There is little, if any, theme, but the professor admitted that this was intended to be a sample pack of topics so the lack of theme cannot be held against him. I found many of the topics at least mildly disturbing and was reminded somewhat of a collection of oddities from a circus sideshow. Again, this is likely more a reflection of my personal tastes than any fault of the professor. I decided to try this course even though it is outside of my usual areas of interest just to try something different. I cannot say that I disliked the course, but I can say that there are other courses much more to my liking such as history and business courses. If you are interested in scientific and medical oddities, then you may really enjoy this course.
Date published: 2015-08-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Entertaining and informative I purchased the audio download version and listened to it while gardening three years ago. It was so interesting and entertaining, that ever since that time, Sapolsky and planting corn are connected for me! I could weed all day with lectures like his to listen to. Highly recommend.
Date published: 2015-04-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Really Interesting I remember buying one of Professor Sapolsky's first presentations many years ago! (Topic: Behavior) This is a really enlightening presentation and I have learned so much again from him. People of all ages and professions will find this course enlightening.
Date published: 2015-03-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Highly recommended Prof Sapolsky is an inspiring teacher. Highly recommended.
Date published: 2015-03-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Please Sir, May I Have Some More? This course consists of 12 unrelated lectures on topics that interest Sapolsky. I doubt that any of these topics could even fill out a 6-lecture course by themselves and, therefore, we never would have gotten them if they weren't packaged together. I found each lecture a delightful introduction to a very interesting topic. While sometimes the science was a little thin, each lecture makes you think and challenges any preconceptions you may have had. My only disappointment was that there were only 12 lectures. Surely Sapolsky has thoughts on other topics and I, for one, would love to hear them.
Date published: 2015-01-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from 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 -
Date published: 2014-06-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from 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.
Date published: 2014-01-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from 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.
Date published: 2013-11-20
Rated 4 out of 5 by from 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.
Date published: 2013-09-21
Rated 4 out of 5 by from being human The content of these courses is very interesting if somewhat anecdotal. It only whetted my appetite for more. However I was disappointed in the delivery of some of the lectures. It seemed like the prof was addressing 7th grade instead of college-level. He even used the "word" "bestest"!
Date published: 2013-09-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Exceeded my expectations I have already enjoyed some of Prof. Sapolsky's Great Courses so for this one to be better than expected is very high praise. He makes neuroscience, biology and human behavior understandable and enjoyable--possibly the best lecturer I've ever listened to. I never would've been admitted to Stanford, but The Great Courses makes it possible for me to be his student and benefit from his genius and teaching abilities.
Date published: 2013-07-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Immensely Enjoyable What a fascinating sampler of Neurology! Professor Sapolsky's presentation style had me on the edge of my seat in anticipation for that next nugget of fact that feeds my curiosity. I can't help but tell everyone what I learned from his course. I look forward to his other material.
Date published: 2013-04-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Thoroughly enjoyable and informative! This course is fascinating. I listen to it over and over, as it is packed with so much information. I really enjoy Sapolsky's style and find him easy to follow and listen to. I will definitely be listening to more of his courses.
Date published: 2013-02-25
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Entertaining This course was not what I expected when I purchased it. Dr. Sapolsky is a fascinating lecturer and I look forward to hearing more of his courses. I don't think he takes a breath when he speaks as I found it very difficult to find a place to pause the lectures. I could not find a coherent theme to the lectures in the course but found most of the material fresh and interesting.
Date published: 2013-02-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very Enjoyable Course I actually came back on the site to see what other courses this professor has since I enjoyed this one so much. Then I decided to write my first review. The course was enjoyable but what made it different for me was I found myself discussing some of the points later with friends. The professor starts each lecture with a story or question and finishes with the same point, but you now have a better understanding of the initial question. This method works well for understanding what the purpose and points are for each lecture. I had the audio version and listened in my car and never felt I was missing anything by not having a video version. The lectures are entertaining, funny at times, and for the most part very relevant in day to day living. I’ll have to admit, if I were to review all the other courses I have listened to, I would give most of them 5 stars like I did this one, but this one was good enough for me to actually write a review about it.
Date published: 2013-01-09
Rated 1 out of 5 by from A Disappointment Professor Sapolsky discussed various topics in his lecture series, but was overly repetitive, and slow to reach the point. He admittedly entertained by giving examples that draw attention for their shocking and sometimes disgusting nature. It is the sort of drama that draws individuals to yellow press and grade B movies. Much of the content appears in various BBC and PBS documentaries - though there with with less drama and more enlightenment.
Date published: 2012-12-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from This is a course not to be missed. Definitely the best purchase to date. This course is an unusual kind of overview of our humanity from the perspective of a neuroscientist. Prof. Sapolsky is humane and human and the best presenter around. Don’t miss it.
Date published: 2012-12-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Lots of Fun This is the most entertaining course I have ever bought from Teaching Company. As I knew from other courses, Sapolsky is a fantastic lecturer. There were times I had to stop the recording because I couldn't stop laughing. I suppose I should give this course only 4 stars, because it doesn't have the structure that you get from most of Sapolsky's other courses (or any other TeachCo course.) Ordinarily a TeachCo course gives you a sense that you have to some degree thoroughly covered a particular topic. This is just a random collection of fun facts to know and tell. The facts are however, extremely fun, and there is no point in criticizing a course that clearly accomplishes what it sets out to do. Listen and enjoy the nearest thing to a guilty pleasure you will get from TeachCo.
Date published: 2012-11-18
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