Behave Book Summary By Robert Sapolsky

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Behave (2017), by renowned professor Robert Sapolsky, is an exploration into the complex behavioral patterns of humanity.

This book dives deep into how humans act and interact- from brain chemistry to societal influences that have been developed over thousands of years.

With his unique perspective and insight, Sapolsky pieces together the puzzle that makes up human behavior and explains why we do what we do - both the good and bad.

Dive into the world of Behave to uncover a deeper layer of understanding about yourself and others.


Book Name: Behave (The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst)

Author(s): Robert Sapolsky

Rating: 4.5/5

Reading Time: 22 Minutes

Categories: Psychology

Author Bio

Robert Sapolsky is a renowned professor of neurology and neurosurgery at Stanford University, USA.

He's written many highly acclaimed, popular science books such as The Trouble with Testosterone and A Primate’s Memoir.

With decades of expertise in his field, Robert has used his knowledge to create the amazing book, "Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst" .

This book explores the evolutionary roots of behaviour from human emotion to our biology and genetics.

If you are looking for an interesting read about humanity and our evolution, then this book is must have!

Investigating Human Behavior: Exploring The Factors That Shape Our Actions

Human Behavior

Understanding what drives human behavior is one of the most fascinating topics in neuroscience and psychology.

If we can gain a better insight into what causes and influences our behavior, we will have a better understanding of ourselves and how society works.

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst dives deep into this subject, exploring the intricate factors that play a part in determining our all-too-human behavior.

From biological processes such as brain chemistry to environmental factors like social situations or historical events, Behave covers it all to give readers an insightful look into the workings of human behavior.

From why the liberal mind-set is actually just brain chemistry, to how wheat has anything to do with patent applications, to which part of the brain is racist, this book provides valuable insights into our behavior that are sure to help readers gain a better understanding of why they (and others) behave in certain ways.

How Human Biology, History And Environment Influence Our Behavior

Understanding human behavior requires an interdisciplinary approach.

It’s not enough to just look at biology and the brain; we must also consider culture and history.

Immediately before a behavior – such as shooting a gun – occurs, the oldest parts of the brain are triggered.

This is where our natural instincts come from, like fear of death, which may lead a person to take action.

The brain also processes sensory data in the moments leading up to an event, such as visual or auditory information that has been influenced by its immediate environment.

In a war zone, heightened awareness might lead to more aggression.

However, this isn’t done blindly; different societies condition us to behave differently based on what we’re exposed to and accustomed with.

Taking it even further back in time, centuries-old geographies and ecologies have had an influence on human behavior over millennia.

To understand why people engage in certain behaviors today, we must look not only at the present but also examine our past roots and evolutionary ancestry.

The Brain’S Split-Second Decisions: How The Amygdala And Frontal Cortex Can Make Us Aggressive

Shouting male close up portrait. Could be freedom fighter, soccer fan or just a male. Canon 1Ds Mark III

It’s amazing how two critical parts of the brain are involved in controlling aggression and deciding whether or not it should be acted upon.

Specifically, these areas are the amygdala and the frontal cortex, both located in the largest part of our brains – the cerebral cortex.

First, let’s look at the amygdala.

Brain scans show activity in the amygdala when people are shown images that stimulate anger or fear, indicating that this is indeed an area associated with aggressive behavior and fear.

We have also seen a historical case to back this up – Charles Whitman – who had an autopsy done after he murdered his wife and mother before carrying out a mass shooting at a university.

His autopsy found a tumor pressing against his amygdala which may have caused neurological changes leading to his sudden violent behavior.

The other area important in controlling aggression is the frontal cortex.

This region is responsible for regulating emotions, particularly aggression; as well as managing impulsiveness.

The case of Phineas Gage is prime example: after suffering an accident resulting an iron rod puncturing his skull and destroying his frontal cortex, Gage was transformed into an entirely different person – swearing more often, lashing out impulively, and experiencing pronounced mood swings due to lacking regulation from his frontal cortex.

Furthermore, research has shown that many violent criminals show evidence of concussions involving their frontal cortex; while psychopaths display less activity in this particular region altogether!

Overall, it’s clear that certain areas of our brains control the probability of us acting on our impulses, including ones related to aggression; making it essential we understand these regions to better regulate our own tendencies towards violence by regulating ourselves with good practices!

The Subtle Impact Of Sensory Cues On Our Brains And Behavior

Our environment is full of sensory cues, ranging from physical touch to visual and auditory stimuli.

Research has proven that these sensory cues have a powerful influence on our behavior, shaping how we interact with strangers and even deciding the outcome of certain situations.

For example, visual cues such as skin color can trigger an amygdala response in the brain, leading to fear despite conscious efforts by the frontal cortex to rationalize it.

Similarly, auditory cues like music associated with African-American culture can lead to an increase in amygdala activity.

Such factors are even used in practice – defense attorneys opting for thick glasses on their black male clients or a postgraduate student whistling Vivaldi when walking home at night due to its associations with whiteness – for their own benefit.

Additionally, our behavior is also influenced by immediate social surroundings; men are often more daring around women and spend more on luxury items than necessity when they’re present.

It’s clear that we should be mindful of the subtle but pervasive influence of our environment on us.

The Role Of Hormones In Behavior: Context And Chemistry Matter

Hormones In Behavior

Hormones can have an effect on human behavior, but this influence depends largely on context.

This is a key point to remember when discussing the way hormones affect our actions.

Take testosterone for example, which is often associated with aggression in men.

Studies have indicated that castration does lead to a decrease in aggressive behavior among males – but this doesn’t necessarily mean that having less testosterone causes people to lash out less.

It’s all about the environment: those same studies found that male prisoners had higher levels of testosterone if they exhibited aggressive behavior, signaling that it was actually their aggressive response (rather than hormone production) that caused a spike of testosterone secretion.

The hormone oxytocin is also significant, as it has been linked with positive emotions and trust between individuals.

When released into the bloodstream, oxytocin inhibits activity in the amygdala – leading research to suggest that people experience greater levels of prosocial behavior when faced with high levels of oxytocin.

This was demonstrated by experiments involving economic games, in which participants showed increased trust for other players simply because of elevated oxytocin levels – but only if those players were physically present in the same physical space.

The Impact Of Brain Development During Adolescence And Childhood On Risk-Taking And Violent Behavior

It’s easy to forget that our childhood and adolescent experiences can have a significant impact on our development—especially in terms of behavior.

As the brain matures, changes in behavior become evident, and 85 percent of the brain has developed by age two.

However, it’s the remaining 15 percent that plays a crucial role in how behavioral traits are formed.

In fact, until we reach mid-20s, this part is still under development—and this can sometimes interfere with the maturation of certain behaviors such as risk taking or impulsiveness.

Childhood plays an important role in adult behavioral regulation as well.

The human brain has remarkable neural plasticity during this period which means information can be absorbed much faster than an adult’s; however, if negative experiences are frequent for the child then problems later may arise.

In addition, research shows 33% of adults who experienced abuse as children will continue to mistreat their own children when they become parents.

The combination of overdeveloped amygdala and underdeveloped frontal cortex resulting from childhood adversity leads to poorer behavioral regulation and an increased likelihood of exhibiting violent behavior in adulthood.

It’s because an immature frontal cortex impedes impulses whereas a strong amygdala encourages them; something that explains why many criminal justice systems tend to treat younger offenders more leniently.

In sum, childhood and adolescent experiences have a lasting effect on our behavioral development…so it pays off to pay attention to them!

An Understanding Of Culture Is Necessary To Appreciate The Underlying Factors Behind Human Behavior

Human Behavior

It’s clear that cultural factors play an important role in how society behaves.

Differences in brain activation, sensory processing, and even moral systems can all be traced to cultural variations.

For example, American culture is much more individualistic than East Asian cultures, which tends to lead to a greater focus on personal achievement.

This also affects how the brain activates when viewing images – Americans being much more likely to focus on themselves over relatives.

Additionally, differences between these societies can be seen in senses processing as well – Westerners focusing on individuals in complex scenes while East Asians are better at taking in the larger picture.

How Environment And Geography Shape Collectivist And Individualist Cultures

The local ecology and geography of various regions around the world has a major influence on civilizational and behavioral development.

For example, East Asian cultures have been heavily shaped by communal activities like rice cultivation, while places like Northern China tend to be more individualistic due to their wheat growing conditions.

Similarly, the United States’ colonization history and immigration trends have contributed largely to its population’s emphasis on independence, self-reliance and aggression.

Similarly, locales that had weak rule of law often led to people taking justice into their own hands which can still be seen in many parts of the country.

How Neurobiology Reveals The Political And Moral Tendencies Of The Mind


It’s no surprise that the brain is involved in helping to determine our political views and morals.

What’s interesting, though, is how it actually does so.

Research shows that there’s a link between certain neurological conditions and whether or not someone has liberal or conservative beliefs.

One study looked into it further by asking people from both perspectives how they viewed the root causes of poverty.

Initially, they both had similar answers – blaming the poor directly – but after being given time to consider it further, liberals seemed to be more open to considering a systemic explanation instead.

This same mentality can be seen when looking at non-political matters too.

Say for example when someone falls over while dancing – at first, both groups would naturally place blame on the dancer for their clumsiness; yet if given time to deliberate further, those with more liberal views would recognise that the difficulty of the steps could have been a contributing factor as well.

The Neuroscience Of Empathy: It’S Not Just About Helping Others, It Is Also About Self-Preservation

Empathy and compassion are often thought of as closely connected, but research has shown that there is a distinct difference between them when it comes to how we react to witnessing someone in pain.

While empathy typically triggers an activation of the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC), which is linked to the frontal cortex and the amygdala, this can actually lead to negative feelings such as anxiety.

This occurs because of the ACC’s role in helping us learn from fearful experiences.

Sensory stimuli like visual perception of another person’s “race” can also influence our level of empathy by triggering an activation in the amygdala – making us less likely to empathize with them as a result.

A study showed that if you want to be compassionate instead, it’s best that you don’t try to empathize.

There were two parallel training sessions for volunteers: one focused on empathy and one on compassion.

With those focussing on empathy feeling fear when seeing distress and those focussing on compassion feeling warmth instead, due to no amygdala activation, but rather due to their frontal cortex activating – leading them to exhibit positive prosocial emotions towards their subject.

This indicates that although empathy and compassion are closely associated with each other, they’re actually articulations of two different parts of the brain triggered by different reactions when we see someone suffering.

Wrap Up

The final summary of Behave is that when it comes to our behavior, it is not as simple as we may think.

Our brain chemistry and the society in which we live both play a role in how we act and respond to the world around us.

Whether it’s feelings of aggression or being able to show empathy and compassion towards others, different parts of our brain are activated.

It is only with understanding how these behaviors arise can we truly comprehend what it means to be part of a functioning society.

Arturo Miller

Hi, I am Arturo Miller, the Chief Editor of this blog. I'm a passionate reader, learner and blogger. Motivated by the desire to help others reach their fullest potential, I draw from my own experiences and insights to curate blogs.

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