Hey Reddit, this is Robert (with technological assistance from kids). I'll be on for around an hour at 6:30pm PST today. Happy to answer any questions you have.


Update: thanks for the great questions everyone. Would love to keep going but will have to hit pause for today.

In the meantime, my kids have convinced me to join social media as a way of continuing to interact more directly with readers/fans:

Instagram: https://instagram.com/robert.sapolsky?igshid=OGQ5ZDc2ODk2ZA%3D%3D&utm_source=qr

TikTok: https://www.tiktok.com/@aprimatestiktok?_t=8hEWdGzzyhe&_r=1

Til next time!

Comments: 209 • Responses: 15  • Date: 

AllThotsGo2Heaven2161 karma

Dr Sapolsky,

Your YouTube lectures on human behavioral biology got me through some tough times a few years ago. The way you distill academic knowledge into relatable information is quite special. So, thank you.

My question is: How do we get more policymakers current with what science is revealing to us each day? It seems that so many of the people who write laws are operating off of decades old assumptions, while technological advances only continue to increase over time. I worry that the US will paint itself into a corner. Society might be a happier place if legislators had to take a course from you.

RobertSapolsky181 karma

Thanks -- it's nice to know that those lectures were useful. As for your question -- I completely agree. I've now spent a bunch of time trying to teach lawyers/judges about the brain, and it's always been tough going. And then I had this realization -- ah ha, these are the people HATED science at school, that's why they became econ/poli sci majors. So it's going to be a challenge.

silencer4745 karma

Dear Dr Sapolsky,

I´ve been a great fan of your work after since watching your course on behavioural evolution, I especially enjoyed your stories about the baboons you studied. You once talked about a radical change in the behaviour of these baboons after the more agressive males died from tainted food, with a more gentle social dynamic arising as a result. Would such a change be ´permanent´ ? Would this either permanently change the culture in the group or would this eventually return to the status quo? What potential lessons could we draw from this case concerning human social and political structure? Thank you in advance for being here!

RobertSapolsky79 karma

Thanks -- that finding is near and dear to my heart. The social culture of that troop continued for about 15 more years, and it was a bit lucky -- male baboons change troops at puberty, so there'd be a new adolescent male show up now and then. Invariably, having grown up off the commune, he'd be this aggressive, displacing jerk; fortunately, the troop could handle one or two of these at a time, slowly assimilating the newcomer into this style -- "we don't do stuff like that here." What always panicked me (nice objective science?) was that three or four males from the real world out there would transfer in at the same time, and they'd have the numbers to destroy the whole culture. Good news -- this never happened. Bad news -- this never happened because the reality of things out there resulted in a large percentage of the troop being shot by park rangers. Another story.

Gardengnome88043 karma

If you were battling depression and anxiety, what steps would you take to attempt to mitigate symptoms of those conditions, aside from or in addition to psychiatric treatment and therapy?

RobertSapolsky143 karma

Do everything you can to foster your social support -- the knowledge that you're not alone, there's a shoulder to cry on, so on, is extraordinary -- like real science even demonstrates this. And often, one of the best ways to get the advantages of social support is to be a source of support -- when everything feels empty and pointless, the knowledge that someone else is being comforted and helped by your existence is pretty powerful. Amazingly, if you're a baboon, grooming someone lowers your cortisol levels more effectively than being groomed (yeah, I didn't believe that either when I first heard about the finding).

NekoBemura39 karma

Of late, is there a bit of research you are particularly excited for at the moment? Yours or someone else's. I'm curious if there's something that has piqued your interest or that you feel might have big implications for the future!

(Also thank you for your work, especially with how accessible it is. I could write a full paper's worth of appreciation!)

RobertSapolsky53 karma

Let me think about this one. Meanwhile, thanks for the kind words, and if you do get it into your head to write a paper about this, use ChatGPT.

skyvoidness38 karma

Considering the varying effects of stress on health and behavior, is there evidence to suggest that certain types of stress can be beneficial for the development of young individuals? By the way, I truly value and respect your work.

RobertSapolsky107 karma

Thank you. There's this potentially really unuseful loop to get trapped by, which is asking, What counts as good stress?, and with the answer being, "Stress that strengthens you/your health rather than the opposite." Not much help. Nonetheless, there are types of stress that are not damaging. In fact, there are types that are so great that you pay to experience it -- eg., a roller coaster, a good scary movie. This sort of good stress has typical features -- it doesn't go on for a long time, it's not too severe, and it's within what is overall a benevolent setting. Roller coaster rides are 3 minutes, not 3 weeks long, and you know there's the danger that you're going to feel queasy afterward, not that there's a decent chance that you'll be decapitated. What do we call the right kind of stress? Stimulation. And too little of it (i.e., boredom) is just as damaging as too much of it (i.e., our everyday sense of stress as adverse). So that expains everyrthing...until you have to deal with that issue of individual differences -- optimal stimulation for one person might be, say, a tiring but fun morning spent bird-watching, while for someone else, it might be signing up to be a mercenary in Mali. How people wind up with these different setpoints is hugely important.

flamingbabyjesus32 karma

I loved your book! I have ruined several dinner parties by starting arguments about free will.

  1. Anxiety and depression seem to be an epidemic that is ravaging our young people? What changes in policy and health care would you like to see to mitigate this?

  2. How do you feel we can bear incorporate evidence into decision making?

  3. How much Johnathan haidt have you read and do you agree with his ideas around how we are coddling our mind?

RobertSapolsky42 karma

All those sleepless nights trying to figure out whether a comma should go someplace is all worth it to hear that you are ruining dinner parties because of this book. Just to answer the first question (trying to get through a bunch of these questions) well, easy answers would revolve social media doomsaying. Much more fundamental is to try to decrease the stigma of mood disorders -- once again, if you're struggling, you are not alone, and finding out that you're not alone can really help.

ASongOnceKnown30 karma

Thank you for holding this AMA, and for all you've done to educate people about the brain and how it works. Looking in particular at your Stanford lecture on depression from 2009, what are the most major/relevant changes in that area of study in your opinion between then and now?

What do you think would be the most effective societal change to reduce the increasing amount of mental health difficulties (such as depression and anxiety) experienced by people in our society?

The most common type of advice available for many people seeking solutions online for their depression is either only effective for very mild bouts of depression or assumes the reader has resources that may not be available to them. What type of care seems to be effective for people for whom therapy and medication are inaccessible or unaffordable?

RobertSapolsky77 karma

Thanks for asking about this. Fortunately, people have actually learned some new things about the biology and psychology of depression since 2009. I'm just finishing edits on an updated version of the lecture that I recorded a few months ago. Once that's done, it'll be posted on YouTube. Hopefully, more of your questions can be answered there.

GradualDIME23 karma

What was the most powerful personal moment you can recall during your in depth studies of primates?

RobertSapolsky179 karma

There was this young adult male who I really liked in one of my troops (name was Benjamin). He was a little on the dozy side, and one day I was doing a lengthy observational sample on him and it consisted entirely of him sitting underneath a bush and falling asleep. End of the riveting sample was right around when he woke up, and we both discovered that the entire troop had moved on to someplace else during the stretch, and neither of us had a clue where the troop was. He ran around being agitated, I got on top of my jeep to try to get a view of things, finally spotted them, and I started driving in that direction -- and I paused and looked back at him, and we had this second of shared eye contact where I felt absolutely certain that he knew I had found the troop, and there was something almost resembling relief on his baboon face. I drove slowly, he trotted along beside me, we found the rest of the troop. Of course, the rest of the time, he'd look at me as if I was a tree, but for that moment at least we were just two primates being clueless together.

dreamherbs17 karma

Do you have any predictions about what we might discover about human neurology in the coming years?

RobertSapolsky42 karma

I predict that there's going to be major advances in ways to repair the nervous system after injury, to take advantage of potential neuroplasticity and increasingly effective high tech interventions. Downside, of course, is that the lucky and well-connected will be the ones to get access to the first few generations of each of these advances -- the usual inequality business.

cosmic_microwaverad15 karma

Hey Dr. Sapolsky,

What's the most unusual conclusion that came up from one of your researches? And how did you interpret it?

RobertSapolsky61 karma

Well, there was one that struck me as hugely unusual coming out of my baboon research (which is to say that it sure struck me as unexpected, but all sorts of sensible people would not have been at all surprised). When I started my research, I was out there thinking I was proving that if you want to be a healthy baboon, protected from stress-related disease, try to be high-ranking. This wouldn't be surprising, given that high rank gives you all sorts of psychological privileges that protect against stress. And it took me merely twenty years to start to figure out that if you get a choice in the matter, don't go for being a high-ranking baboon -- go for being a socially affiliated one. In retrospect, that long delayed insight may have something to do with the fact that I was all impressed with social dominance when starting out as a puerile twenty-year old, and it took some time for the world, even including baboon social behavior, to look different to me.

The_RabitSlayer14 karma

With the explosion of AIs, how do you see its use relating to your fields of study? In both research and applications.

Thank you for the great books and lectures.

RobertSapolsky24 karma

Great question; I'm beyond ignorant about the subject and would just flail at an answer. I've only recently learned how to use a mouse on a computer...

Branciforte12 karma

I have a question regarding free will, or the lack thereof. I apologize if I can’t explain it adequately as this is all well outside my wheelhouse. Either way, I am a huge fan of your work, and thank you for it.

From my understanding of your position, we don’t really have free will because we are simply acting in the way that all of our previous experiences have led us to act, how those experiences have shaped us biologically, philosophically, etc. This actually “sounds” mostly correct to me, but I can’t quite relinquish the idea that we have some agency in our lives.

My question is, when we are confronted with a situation and must make a (possibly illusory) choice on how to act, does our past absolutely control how we will respond, or does it instead simply supply us with different options on how we can respond, and we at least have some tiny amount of free will in choosing which option to take?

RobertSapolsky28 karma

Well, nothing like a simple question...

My soundbite is that we are nothing more or else than the sum of our biology, over which we had no control, and its interactions with environment, over which we had no control. Given that, I truly truly don't think there is any juncture where we have the possibility of exercising even a low-rent, constrained version of free will. It seems like we do because it's so hard to see the gazillion threads that came before that made you you.

wellidontreally11 karma

Hi Professor Sapolsky, I’ve listened to a lot of your talks on the absence of free will, but I haven’t heard you talk about any practical applications of this theory. What would our society look like if this was widely understood and adopted?

I also think that something that is missing in this conversation is the human capacity to change our “fate”. If a man was molested as a kid is he automatically doomed to be an addict, or does he in fact have the “free will” to change his situation without any external support and of his own volition? I like to think so, otherwise it all seems hopeless.

Thank you!

RobertSapolsky31 karma

Practical applications -- if you truly believe there is no free will, you have to reach two practical conclusions: a) there is nothing you have done, nothing you have earned, that entitles you to anything more than any other person; there is no one who has earned less of a right to have their needs considered than you. b) hating someone makes as little sense as hating an earthquake. These are the only possible conclusions...but good luck trying to live that way. I try and usually fail, but try to really aim for that at junctures where it really matters.

tylerd310 karma

Is it possible that there is a switch in human biology like that of a grass hopper when it turns into a locust? Obviously it wouldn't be visually noticable like that of the locust but could it be, perhaps contained within our behavior towards others?

I've always thought perhaps when in higher populations humans might be evolving to become more greedy/resource focused because it would make them more successful when attempting to survive the stressful environments of civilization. People in much smaller populations tend to appear to be much less greedy/resource focused and instead show more of a cooperation/sharing focus. So I'm just curious about a possible biological component to this fact that may be less of just the way we happen to behave but more along the lines of how we are evolving to behave when in very large groups.

Edit: To clarify I would like to point out that I count someone living in a rural environment in a large country as someone still being a part of a very large group. As in it's about the size of the community that they are attached to and not specifically the amount of people around them. The locust like effect potentially being caused by the amount of people they perceive as a part of their civilization.

RobertSapolsky44 karma

To orient people, when grasshopper population density gets high enough that there's a shortage of food, there's dramatic changes in the appearance and physiology so that the hopper takes on the form we recognize as a locust. What happens is each locust gets it into its head to eat the locust right in front of it, while that locust in front is deciding to try to eat the locust in front...and what emerges are these huge locust swarms that can cover dozens of square miles (where, remember, every locust is flying like crazy because there's this ravenous locust cannibal on their tail). So, environmental adversity and grasshoppers become savage locust...just like people when times get tough, where violence and selfishness breaks out everywhere.... Except that the transformation of a grasshopper into a locust is invariant, very biologically constrained -- and amid some fairly consistent tendencies about how people react to things, there is gigantic variability. As we saw during the pandemic, a time like that managed to bring out the heroically best in some people, amid the worst being brought out in so much of the world. There's a lot more ways that a human can turn out than can a hungry grasshopper.

andy0137 karma

Do you think that punishment can be justified if it acts as a deterrent?

In a classroom, for example, if a student misbehaves and is punished, it may dissuade pupils from misbehaving in the future. From a utilitarian standpoint, it is ethical to penalise misbehaving students even if they do not deserve it, because most students are better off in a school with rules.

Even if there is no free will or deservingness, punishment can be justified if it improves society by deterring crime. This seems to go beyond the idea that prisons are just quarantine zones that keep dangerous people away from those they could harm.

RobertSapolsky18 karma

Punishment (and reward) are theoretically okay when used in the very instrumental way you describe. But, of course, people usually have a really hard time thinking of punishment in that detached way -- instead, it is something where we're rapidly mired in all sorts of viscera, almost always a bad outcome. Somehow out the other end of that will come the view that punishment, retribution, can be virtue in and of itself -- a disastrous conclusion.