Sapolsky on the Biology of Good and Evil

Guest post by Carl Sherman

“We’re a miserably violent species,” said Dana Alliance member Robert M. Sapolsky. “But we’re also a profoundly empathic, compassionate species.”

“How do we make sense of this… how do we understand the biology of it?”

sapolsky 10-2006, Stanford News Services

Robert M. Sapolsky, Ph.D.

In his keynote lecture that launched the “Learning & the Brain” conference in New York City last week, Sapolsky, Ph.D., professor of biological sciences, neurology, and neurological sciences at Stanford University, led his audience on a whirlwind tour of the many-layered terrain from which human acts that include “the horrific, the wonderful, and everything in between” arise.

“We’ll get nowhere if we look for one part of the brain, or one gene, or one childhood experience” responsible for brutal murder and sublime self-sacrifice, he said. “Instead, we have to do something more complicated: to ask what went on in a person’s brain in the second before; also in the minutes, hours, days before; what hormones did to make that brain sensitive. We have to go back to adolescence, to childhood, to the cultures our ancestors invented, to ecosystems, all the way to evolution.”

In his talk, Sapolsky enlivened systematic explanations with intriguing details and quirky research findings.

Among its diverse role in regulating emotion, he pointed out, the insula cortex generates gustatory disgust; it activates if you taste spoiled food. “But it mediates moral disgust as well. When we hear of someone doing something appalling, we’re ‘sick to our stomach.’ It leaves ‘a bad taste in the mouth.’ The insula cortex can’t tell the difference between rotten food and unsavory behavior.” Continue reading

“Intelligent Nightlife” and The Time Traveling Brain

Guest post by Brandon Barrera

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Image: Caveat

The night promises to unfurl a bit of mystery. A cryptic figure tells us there has been a crime–sort of. We will come to learn that there is, indeed, a victim but the crime is not one in the traditional sense. The crime scene is the brain and episodic memory-loss the perpetrator. We’re told that with a little sleuthing, we can get closer to the truth.

This dramatic performance is the Mark Kennedy-McClellan directed “The Talks Progress Administration: The Time Traveling Brain,” a staged talk brought to life at Caveat in New York City on Tuesday. One of many events showcased during Brain Awareness Week (BAW), the piece feels similar to a long form TED talk, mixed-in with interactive story-telling. Our narrator frequently steps off-stage and into her “lab” (see: audience) to ask questions about breakfast, to squirrel away treats among audience members, and even hand out glowsticks. All done in the name of science, to be sure, and it’s effective in creating fun, illuminating narration.

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Get Up, Stand Up: NYU Panel Examines Policy

Guest post by Carl Sherman

Scientists should advocate for what they believe in—and bring their values to work. “Get up, get into it, be involved,” said Clancy Blair, professor of cognitive psychology at New York University. “Be the change you want to see.”

Blair was on an NYU faculty panel at a Brain Awareness Week event, “Neuroscience, Inequality & Social Policy,” organized by the Scientist Action and Advocacy Network (ScAAN) a group of students and researchers who aim “to bridge the gap between science and society, and make science a force for social change,” according to moderator and doctoral student and ScAAN member Stephen Braren.

To the panelists, this clearly and passionately meant fostering social and economic justice.

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Photo courtesy of Stephen Braren

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Unlocking the Diseases of the Brain

Guest blog by Carl Sherman

One evening last week, I met the mini-brain.

I was introduced to this intriguing concept by three scientists who know it intimately, at a presentation on “Unlocking Diseases of the Brain with Stem Cells,” at the headquarters of the New York Stem Cell Foundation (NYSCF).

Melissa J. Nirenberg, M.D., Ph.D., NYSCF’s chief medical officer, introduced the subject from the perspective of a neurologist with 20 years’ experience, primarily with patients with Parkinson’s disease and other movement disorders.

“It was frustrating,” she said. While treatment can attenuate some symptoms for some patients, “we don’t have anything to offer them to halt or even slow disease progression.” The same goes for Alzheimer’s. “That’s why I’m here. At NYSCF, we’re focusing on treating the underlying disorders.”

Science Laboratory

Image: Shutterstock

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Developing Brains at High Risk from Early Alcohol Use

Guest blog by Brenda Patoine

Underage drinking is a significant public health problem in the United States. While rates of underage drinking have declined steadily in the past decade or so, the most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported that among US youth 12 to 20 years old surveyed about their alcohol use in the past 30 days, 20% reported drinking alcohol and 13% reported binge drinking. Adolescents account for approximately 11 percent of total alcohol consumption in the U.S., according to a CDC fact sheet on underage drinking.

Because the teenage brain is at a highly vulnerable stage of development, early drinking may set the stage for later alcohol abuse.  The frontal cortex doesn’t fully develop until around age 25, and emerging data suggest that this executive area of the brain is particularly susceptible to damage from alcohol use during adolescence.

Underage Drinking fact_rightquote-01

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