Dr. Robert Sapolsky

Dr. Robert Sapolsky: “What’s most striking is how the building blocks of human brains are basically the same as in any animal.”

“These are very stressful times,” said Paul Michnewicz, the arts and events director at Reston Community Center (RCC) who organized two interesting events mixing science and art to help the public understand stress and control it. “The shortening of daylight hours causes many people to suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (with the appropriate acronym “SAD”). The winter months bring celebrations for people of all faiths, and with celebrations comes anxiety. The coarsening of our political discourse and increasing hostility toward opposing opinions is destroying our sense of well-being. The screening of the film ‘Resilience’ followed by an evening with stress expert Robert Sapolsky allows us to examine a condition that every human being faces: stress,” explained Michnewicz.

On its website, RCC introduced Dr. Sapolsky as: “a MacArthur ‘Genius’ Fellow, a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University and a research associate with the Institute of Primate Research at the National Museum of Kenya. In 2008, National Geographic and PBS aired an hour-long special on stress featuring Dr. Sapolsky and his research on the subject. The humor and humanity he brings to sometimes-sobering subject matter make Dr. Sapolsky a fascinating speaker. He lectures widely on topics as diverse as stress and stress-related diseases, baboons, the biology of our individuality, the biology of religious belief, the biology of memory, schizophrenia, depression, aggression and Alzheimer’s disease. His book ‘Behave’ can be purchased prior to and after the performance.”

Dr. Robert Sapolsky’s event is sold out. A wait list will be maintained on the day of the performance at 7 p.m. Fairfax Times had this conversation with Dr. Robert Sapolsky over the phone:

Can you tell us about the most unexpected findings about our biology and our behavior based on your research?

SAPOLSKY: I would say the fact that there is so little -- on a fundamental level -- that is unique about the human brain. If you take a human neuron, and you take a neuron from a fly and put them under a microscope and you can’t tell them apart. They function the same general way. There is basically next to no types of neurons that are only found in the human brain. We use the same chemical messengers to communicate with neurons that like every other animal down to crustaceans use. When you look at what genetically distinguishes us, for example, from chimps, the two percent of our DNA, virtually none of these genes have anything to do with brain function.

What’s most striking is how the building blocks of human brains are basically the same as in any animal. We just have a whole lot more of those neurons than any other species do.

So, what makes us different?

SAPOLSKY: I think the sound bite that I always come back to with that is the idea that with enough quantity, you invent quality. The whole notion that, for example, the few genes that differ between us and chimps having to do with the brain are genes having to do with how many rounds of cell division goes on in your brain in order to make neurons. In other words, if you wanted to turn a chimp into a human in terms of the brain give it three, four times as many neurons. Suddenly, the same exact kind of neurons start inventing consciousness and aesthetics and philosophy and things like that. The really interesting things about the human brain emerge from the complexity that you can get when you have a hundred billion neurons instead of sixty thousand or so that you find in a fruit fly. The really unique features don’t come out of the blueprint of what makes us human; it comes out of the fact that if you throw enough things together, the outcome is something really fancy. In a lot of ways, a great metaphor for that you take one ant and you put it on a table and you watch what it does, and it does not make a whole lot of sense. And you put 10 ants and about the same thing happens. You put on a hundred ants; maybe they start making a trail to the breadcrumbs. But you put ten thousand ants together and suddenly they start making colonies and they regulate the temperature of the underground passageways and they grow mushrooms. Suddenly you’ve got this complex society and no single ant has a blueprint for how to do that. And none of those ants are behaving any more complexly that when it was just ten ants wandering around stupidly on the table making no sense.

So, if we added more neurons to chimps, they would become humans?

SAPOLSKY: It is a little bit of a sarcastic level. If a chimp brain had as many neurons as a human brain, I bet it would be capable of the same degree of complex thoughts and abstractions and all of that. I bet it would be completely different aesthetics and theology and philosophy that a chimp with a hundred billion neurons would come up with as opposed to a human with a hundred billion neurons, but if you want to make a primate as complex as us, just have the chimp brain divide neurons a couple of extra rounds.

Is this doable?

SAPOLSKY: No, thank god!

I can’t help asking you about your decision to be atheist.

SAPOLSKY: It wasn’t quite a decision (laughs). Frankly, I wish I could decide otherwise, but no, it’s just…it’s somewhere in there, as a 13 year old, that just became clear that I had absolutely no capacity to believe in anything like that, that none of it made any sense for me and the view ever since is: we and everything else in the living world are nothing more or less than biological organisms.

Really? Some believe that the similarities between our building blocks support the belief that the Creator is one.

SAPOLSKY: If it comes to trying to make sense of the Big Bang and how the universe began, I know absolutely zero, I understand none of that stuff. I suppose I understand why cosmologists who think about that stuff have a higher rate of being religious than biologists do. And that makes perfect sense on a certain level; Einstein clearly was capable of that. But when it comes to making biological systems, how life began, and the ways in which that did not require a blueprint and how evolution works…I don’t know. I just don’t see any reason there to speculate on a omnipotent blueprint-maker.

When asked about biology and the behavior of racism, “We humans are like most other social primates in that we very quickly, very unconsciously, very automatically tend to divide the world into “us” and “them.” And not like “thems” a whole lot, “answered Dr. Sapolsky, and when asked about his position from the Israel-Palestinian conflict, “I grew up as an Orthodox Jew, which was the religiosity that I broke away from. Now I am part of the way-too-small community of Jews who are anti-Zionist. It’s a little bit horrifying that among American Jews, 99 percent of the time, you’re finding people whose views are very different from my wife’s and mine. We’re not fans of what has been done in Palestine over the last 70 years.”

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