Lessons from Robert Sapolsky Determination: The science of life without free will This is basically the same thing advocated in the Snickers commercial. “When you’re hungry, you’re not yourself.” According to Sapolsky, there is no such thing as “you.” Whether you were born with fetal alcohol syndrome or grew up in a culture that values and prioritizes individual freedom, your hunger determines your behavior and stress levels. Those who believe in communal responsibility or an all-knowing, all-powerful, vengeful God.
Hormones, neurotransmitters, and how they are influenced by your current and past circumstances influence how you behave and shift when asked to make influential choices. It is the only thing that determines what decisions to make at points. And all of that is not your choice and is out of your control.
Sapolsky, a neurobiologist at Stanford University, is not averse to the idea that humans have free will. He just can’t find it. And he looked everywhere. He has passionately studied endocrinology, behavioral science, philosophy, primatology, criminology, psychiatry, sociology, anthropology, evolution, and history, as well as neurobiology. None of these disciplines prevent free will, but all of them together do. All we need is biology and how biology is affected by the environment. that’s it. As Yoda suggested, we are not luminous beings. We are nothing but crude matter.
This is tough for Americans who are effectively dependent on the myth of meritocracy, the self-made rise from penniless to rich. So in Chapter 4, “The Myth of Grit,” Sapolsky focuses on people who overcome their circumstances (and, along with their foils, “waste” their fortunes). The secret to their success (and failure) is all in their prefrontal cortex (PFC).
The PFC is famously the last part of the brain to mature. It is not fully built up in a person’s body until their mid-20s. It’s not because it’s difficult to build. The brain is made of the same components as the rest of the brain, which has been functioning for most of the past few decades. Rather, Sapolsky argues that the brain matures particularly slowly so that it can be the area of the brain most affected by the experiences we have in our first 20 years, meaning that it can learn from that experience. They claim that this is what makes us who we are. Grit, courage, willpower, tenacity, and self-control are controlled by his PFC and are shaped by the environment in which we were raised. And it’s an environment we don’t choose or control.
“PFC’s main focus is on strict “Decisions in the face of temptation—delayed gratification, long-term planning, impulse control, emotional regulation, etc.,” he writes. “PFC is essential to doing the right thing in difficult times.”
Difficult decisions require a lot of mental energy. It’s not a metaphor. The PFC consumes enormous amounts of cellular energy. If you are hungry, tired, stressed, or lack resilience due to being born poor and having chronically high glucocorticoid levels, your PFC will have the ability to make good decisions at critical times. It’s not. Sapolsky points out that “a significant proportion of people incarcerated for violent crimes have a history of concussive head trauma due to PFC.”
“This book has a goal,” Sapolsky wrote. “To get people to think differently about moral responsibility, blame, and praise.” The world is completely deterministic, but we can change the way we see and behave at both an individual and societal level. I learned a lot. We learn and change when our environment modulates the same molecules, genes, and neural pathways that originally controlled how we see and behave. Incidentally, these are the same molecules, genes, and neural pathways that are regulated when sea slugs learn to avoid shocks from researchers, not by free will.
Mr. Sapolsky’s goal of rethinking responsibility is extremely difficult, even for him. He calls Bettelheim, a self-hating Jew who blamed her child’s autism on a cruel “mother with a refrigerator”, a “pathological, sadistic bastard”. He described Anders Breivik, who killed 69 children at a summer camp in 2011 and carried out the largest terrorist attack in Norway’s history, as “a bundle of narcissism and mediocrity” and that “he is finally among the white supremacist troglodytes.” I’ve found my people.”
But he thinks punishing them is just as unjust as punishing people with diabetes. He promotes a public health-based approach to criminal justice. Just as people with infectious diseases are isolated to prevent them from harming others, criminals should be removed from society to prevent them from causing further harm to others. (Because it worked.)