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A Must-Read for Those with an Interest in Behavior

Originally published on www.mmilani.com



In his latest book, Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst , endocrinologist and primatologist Robert Sapolsky tackles a mind-bogging subject—how all the different factors that influence human and non-human animal behaviors interact to produce a specific behavior in a specific individual at a specific time. Put another way, it’s a book for anyone who works with real people in real time. Those who work with people and animals get a twofer because the book includes lots of animal studies as well as human ones. Plus, I’ve yet to see a companion animal  with behavioral problems in my practice who didn’t have a person attached. And sometimes those people were as stressed and anxious as their animals. Because of this, I heartily recommend this book.

This is not a subject for the faint-hearted. Contrary to all those science-based human and animal behavior courses and seminars with their multiple choice or true-and-false tests with their right or wrong answers, real life behavior is much(!) messier than that.

Does this mean that the reader must possess a heroic mindset to make it through this lengthy tome? Not at all. Part of Sapolsky’s considerable brilliance lies in his reader-friendly style, sometimes-irreverent sense of humor, and ability to make complex subjects understandable. His equally reader-friendly appendices bring readers whose exposure to the workings of the brain and its many influence may be limited up to speed. His footnotes provide insights that make the content even more memorable. And something anyone used to reading dull and confusing academic texts and articles will appreciate, he routinely repeats the actual words those easily forgotten and sometimes maddening abbreviations stand for, and weaves previous material into the new so the reader doesn’t lose track of how it all fits together.

This comprehensive view of behavior admittedly may come as a shock to those who like certainty in their science. As Sapolsky adds in a footnote regarding his description of study results in the text as

[When I say] “… when you do whatever to this or that brain region/neurotransmitter/hormone/gene, etc. X happens.” What I mean is that on the average X happens, and at a statistically reliable rate. There is always lots of variability, including individuals in whom nothing happens or even the opposite of X occurs.

This should appear before every discussion of findings in scientific studies.

But disconcerting though this may be, it serves as another reminder of behavior’s constant refrain: Context, context, context. Without knowing the context in which a behavior occurs, we can say nothing meaningful about it. And relative to problem behavior in others—including our animals—without knowing the context, any treatment is little more than a guess.

Because so much influences behavior, Sapolsky uses time to put some order into this seeming chaos.  Readers first discover how events occurring in the brain during the previous second determine the present behavior. Then those influences that occur seconds to minutes before. Then hours to days. All the way back to evolutionary effects that contribute to the way we and others (humans and animals) behave. As I applied this framework to behavior, I couldn’t help thinking of Charles and Ray Eames iconic film, Powers of Ten. This film was remade in 1977, and as the technology to explore outwardly and inwardly continues to grow, new dimensions undoubtedly will be added to it. Similarly, new influences that may affect human and animal behavior almost certainly will be discovered at every level too.

Once Sapolsky brings readers up to speed regarding the basics of behavioral influences, he turns his attention to how those influences play out in everyday life. Successive chapters explore topics familiar to all of us, and many of these generate comparable findings in studies of animal behavior, cognition, and emotion. One that he explores that’s often missing in the canine behavioral literature are the behavioral effects of all the neuro-physiological changes that occur during adolescence. If comparable parallels to human adolescents exist in companion dogs, that would explain a lot about the shifts in behavior and the bond that occur at that time.  And given all that’s normally going on in the brain during that period, one can only imagine what a monkey wrench spay or neuter during this period, let alone pediatric spay and neuter, could throw into this process.

On the other hand, you don’t need to look very far in the companion canine and feline problem behavior data base to find examples of when an animal perceives a situation in terms of Us versus Them. Surely the full range of territorial aggression falls under this umbrella—be that “territory” the physical space, social status, food, mates, owners or other resources.  Comparable displays in less confident animals may include in-house marking and other destructive behaviors, self-mutilation, and stress-related medical problems.

Similarly, the concept of Us versus Them may lead otherwise rational pet-owners to behave irrationally.  Sadly, human reactions to problem animal behavior may spiral out of control because owners’ Us vs Them mentality takes precedence over more rational thoughts.  Recall those pit bull-haters (the Us-es) who automatically lash out at or avoid the owners of every pit bull (the Thems) they meet, even if they meet at a charity event supporting a cause they both endorse and there isn’t a dog in sight. Or conversely, those pit-bull folks who perceive all pit bulls as perfect (the Us-es) who accuse anyone who’s been injured by a pit-bull (the Thems) of provoking the dog in some way.

Other behavioral influences Sapolsky discusses include hierarchy, obedience and resistance, empathy and sympathy, the role of metaphors, justice, war and peace. How we perceive these in ourselves and our animals depends on how they play out. If these result in negative effects, we’d all like to consign these effects to behavioral influences beyond our and their control. One the other hand, if they please us we want to credit our and their higher brain functions or our excellent training skills for that.

This brings up another recurrent theme in Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst—the concept of free will. Do we have it or don’t we? While many humanists argue this point, most of them leave animals out of the discussion completely. Perhaps they’re all behaviorists who believe that what animals do or don’t do is merely a function of reward or punishment. If animals don’t do it, the reward or punishment wasn’t big enough. Perhaps some of these folks think the same thing about other people: everyone would do anything if the reward or punishment was big enough. They even may have the studies with their supporting statistics, neat graphs, and mathematical formulas to prove it…

Which brings me back to Sapolsky’s statement that study findings represent what occurred in a statistically significant portion of the study population under those specific conditions. But not the entire population.

While I admit that punishing humans and animals in the irrational manner it’s often dealt out—even within the criminal justice system, let alone in animal-training—has little to offer, I also see the use of rewards to bribe/force others do what some authority figure perceives as the right thing equally irrational… Unless we don’t want to make the effort to create a physiological and emotionally secure environment that enables kids and animals to figure things out for themselves. Unless we don’t want them to develop those higher brain functions for some reason. Unless we don’t want them to fall among those outside any statistically significant research population whose brains/neurotransmitters/genes/hormones/evolution/culture/experiences lead them to accept that their behavior is irrevocably predetermined by factors perceived as beyond their control.

I don’t know if the physiological, environmental, cultural (including the research culture), evolutionary or other behavioral influences that statistically suggest that choice doesn’t exist are causes or effects of behavior. I don’t know if we and other animals are born with brains predestined to do whatever we do like robots, or our choices not to choose reduce us to that status.

What I do know is that the data is inconclusive at this time. To me, that means that the choice is mine. Do I want to believe that, with the help of all those aforementioned influences, I’m capable of making my own choices and accepting responsibility for them or not? Similarly, do I want to believe that other sentient beings also possess the power of choice?

Whenever I find myself falling down the rabbit hole of the choice/free will dilemma, I think of something I read or heard years ago that stuck in my mind. (I’ve tried to find it with no luck and if anyone reading this is familiar with the source, I’d be grateful if you’d let me know.) The topic under discussion was the reality of a heavenly thereafter. Did it exist or didn’t it? The speaker said he had no idea. But we had nothing to lose by treating others and the planet with the kindness and respect to earn a place in such an afterlife if it did. And if it didn’t, we’d still make ourselves and this world a little better for our presence in it.

I feel the same way about choice. For now, I choose to believe that I and other sentient beings retain the power of choice and the will to accept the responsibilities that go with it.

When he wrote Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst, I’m not sure that Robert Sapolsky intended to send readers down such introspective rabbit holes. But even if you don’t fall down one yourself, I highly recommend reading this book.

  1. Behavior and behavior mechanisms

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