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Human Nature. Sapolsky, Maté, Wilkinson, Gilligan, discuss on human behavior and the nature vs. nurture debate

In this part of Peter Joseph's documentary Zeitgeist: Moving Forward “The discussion turns to human behavior and the nature vs. nurture debate. This portion begins with a small clip with Robert Sapolsky summing up the nature vs. nurture debate which he essentially refers it as a “false dichotomy.” After which he states that “it is virtually impossible to understand how biology works outside the context of environment.”

During which time the film then goes onto describe that it is neither Nature or Nurture that shapes human behavior but both are supposed to influence behavior. The interviewed pundits state that even with genetic predispositions to diseases the expression and manifestation of disease is largely determined by environmental stressors. Disease criminal activity and addictions are also placed in the same light. One study discussed showed that newly born babies are more likely to die if they are not touched. Another study which was mentioned claimed to show how stressed women were more likely to have children with addiction disorders. A reference is made to the unborn children who were in utero during the Dutch famine of 1944. The “Dutch Famine Birth Cohort Study" is mentioned to have shown that obesity and other health complications became common problems later in life due to prolonged starvation of their mother during pregnancy.

Comparisons are made by sociologists of criminals in different parts of the world and how different cultures with different values can often have more peaceful inhabitants. An Anabaptist sect called the Hutterites are mentioned to have never reported a homicide in any of their societies. The overall conclusion is that social environment and cultural conditioning play a large part in shaping human behavior.”

Zeitgeist Moving Forward I Human Nature

Dr. Gabor Maté: “Nothing is genetically programmed. There are very rare diseases, a small handful, extremely sparsely represented in the population, that are truly genetically determined. Most complex conditions might have a predisposition that has a genetic component. But a predisposition is not the same as a predetermination. The whole search for the source of diseases in the genome was doomed to failure before anybody even thought of it, because most diseases are not genetically predetermined. Heart disease, cancer, strokes, rheumatoid conditions, autoimmune conditions in general, mental health conditions, addictions, none of them are genetically determined. (…)

That’s an epigenetic effect. “Epi” means on top of, so that the epigenetic influence is what happens environmentally to either activate or deactivate certain genes. (…)

So, the genetic argument is simply a cop-out which allows us to ignore the social and economic and political factors that, in fact, underlie many troublesome behaviors. (…)

If we wish to understand what then makes some people susceptible we actually have to look at the life experience. The old idea, although it’s old but it’s still broadly held, that addictions are due to some genetic cause is simply scientifically untenable. What the case is actually is that certain life experiences make people susceptible. Life experiences that not only shape the person’s personality and psychological needs but also their very brains in certain ways. And that process begins in utero.

It has been shown, for example that if you stress mothers during pregnancy their children are more likely to have traits that predispose them to addictions and that’s because development is shaped by the psychological and social environment. So the biology of human beings is very much affected by and programmed by the life experiences beginning in utero.”

Dr. Robert Sapolsky: “Environment does not begin at birth. Environment begins as soon as you have an environment. As soon as you are a fetus, you are subject to whatever information is coming through mom’s circulations. Hormones levels of nutrients. (…) Be a Dutch Hunger Winter fetus and half a century later, everything else being equal, you are more likely to have high blood pressure, obesity or metabolic syndrome. That is environment coming in a very unexpected place. (…)”

GM: “The point about human development and specifically human brain development is that it occurs mostly under the impact of the environment and mostly after birth. (…)

The concept of Neural Darwinism simply means that the circuits that get the appropriate input from the environment will develop optimally and the ones that don’t will either not develop optimally or perhaps not at all. (…)

There is a significant way in which early experiences shape adult behavior and even and especially early experiences for which there is no recall memory. It turns out that there are two kinds of memory: there is explicit memory which is recall; this is when you can call back facts, details, episodes, circumstances. But the structure in the brain which is called the hippocampus which encodes recall memory doesn’t even begin to develop fully until a year and a half and it is not fully developed until much later, which is why hardly anybody has any recall memory prior to 18 months.

But there is another kind of memory which is called implicit memory which is, in fact, an emotional memory where the emotional impact and the interpretation the child makes of those emotional experiences are ingrained in the brain in the form of nerve circuits ready to fire without specific recall.  So to give you a clear example, people who are adopted have a lifelong sense of rejection very often. They can’t recall the adoption. They can’t recall the separation of the birth mother because there’s nothing there to recall with. But the emotional memory of separation and rejection is deeply embedded in their brains. Hence, they are much more likely to experience a sense of rejection and a great emotional upset when they perceive themselves as being rejected by other people. That’s not unique to people who are adopted but it is particularly strong in them because of this function of implicit memory. (…)

The great British child psychiatrist, D.W. Winnicott, said that fundamentally, two things can go wrong in childhood. One is when things happen that shouldn’t happen and then things that should happen but don’t. (…)

The Buddha argued that everything depends on everything else. He says ‘The one contains the many and the many contains the one.’ That you can’t understand anything in isolation from its environment, the leaf contains the sun, the sky and the earth, obviously. This has now been shown to be true, of course all around and specifically when it comes to human development. The modern scientific term for it is the ‘bio-psycho-social’ nature of human development which says that the biology of human beings depends very much on their interaction with the social and psychological environment.

And specifically, the psychiatrist and researcher Daniel Siegel at the University of California, Los Angeles, UCLA has coined a phrase Interpersonal Neurobiology” which means to say that the way that our nervous system functions depends very much on our personal relationships,  in the first place with the parenting caregivers, and in the second place with other important attachment figures in our lives and in the third-place, with our entire culture. So that you can’t separate the neurological functioning of a human being from the environment in which he or she grew up in and continues to exist in. And this is true throughout the life cycle. It’s particularly true when you are dependent and helpless when your brain is developing but it’s true even in adults and even at the end of life. (…)”

Dr. James Gilligan: “Violence is not universal. It is not symmetrically distributed throughout the human race. There is a huge variation in the amount of violence in different societies. There are some societies that have virtually no violence. There are others that destroy themselves. Some of the Anabaptist religious groups that are complete strict pacifists like the Amish, the Mennonites, the Hutterites, among some of these groups, the Hutterites - there are no recorded cases of homicide.

During our major wars, like World War II where people were being drafted they would refuse to serve in the military. They would go to prison rather than serve in the military. In the Kibbutzim in Israel the level of violence is so low that the criminal courts there will often send violent offenders - people who have committed crimes - to live on the Kibbutzim in order to learn how to live a non-violent life. Because that’s the way people live there. 

RS: So, we are amply shaped by society. Our societies, in the broader sense, including our theological, our metaphysical, our linguistic influences, etc, our societies help shape us as to whether or not we think life is basically about sin or about beauty; whether the afterlife will carry a price for how we live our lives or if it’s irrelevant. (…)

So, this brings us to a total impossible juncture which is to try to make sense in perspective science as to what that nature is of human nature. You know, on a certain level the nature of our nature is not to be particularly constrained by our nature. We come up with more social variability than any species out there. More systems of belief, of styles, of family structures, of ways of raising children. The capacity for variety that we have is extraordinary. (…)

GM: In a society which is predicated on competition and really, very often, the ruthless exploitation of one human being by another, the profiteering off of other people’s problems and very often the creation of problems for the purpose of profiteering, the ruling ideology will very often justify that behavior by appeals to some fundamental and unalterable human nature. So the myth in our society is that people are competitive by nature and that they are individualistic and that they’re selfish. The real reality is quite the opposite. We have certain human needs. The only way that you can talk about human nature concretely is by recognizing that there are certain human needs. We have a human need for companionship and for close contact, to be loved, to be attached to, to be accepted, to be seen, to be received for who we are. If those needs are met, we develop into people who are compassionate and cooperative and who have empathy for other people.

So the opposite, that we often see in our society, is in fact, a distortion of human nature precisely because so few people have their needs met. So, yes, you can talk about human nature but only in the sense of basic human needs that are instinctively evoked or I should say certain human needs that lead to certain traits if they are met and a different set of traits if they are denied.”

— Zeitgeist: Moving Forward - full transcript

Robert Sapolsky - American scientist and author. He is currently professor of Biological Sciences, and Professor of Neurology and Neurological Sciences and, by courtesy, Neurosurgery, at Stanford University.

Gabor Maté, Hungarian-born Canadian physician who specializes in the study and treatment of addiction and is also widely recognized for his unique perspective on Attention Deficit Disorder.

Richard Wilkinson - British researcher in social inequalities in health and the social determinants of health. He is Professor Emeritus of social epidemiology at the University of Nottingham.

James Gilligan - American psychiatrist and author, best known for his series of books entitled Violence, where he draws on 25 years of work in the American prison system to describe the motivation and causes behind violent behaviour. He now lectures at the Department of Psychiatry, New York University.

See also:

Zeitgeist: Moving Forward by Peter Joseph, 2011 (full documentary) (transcript)