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

AAAS and Learning & the Brain Conferences

This weekend, Dana Foundation staff are traveling to opposite coasts to exhibit at conferences in San Francisco and Boston, and we hope to see you there!

In California, we’ll have a table at the Learning & the Brain conference (February 17-19), “The Science of How We Learn: Engaging Memory, Motivation, Mindsets, Making and Mastery.” Stop by for free publications, puzzles, brain-shaped erasers, and our ever-popular squeeze brains (they go fast!). For those interested in Brain Awareness Week (March 13-19), you’re in luck, as the director of the campaign, Kathleen Roina, will be there to answer any questions you may have.

squeeze-brains

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Developing Smarter Students

Have you ever thought you knew something, then tried to explain it to someone else and realized you didn’t? Researchers call this the illusion of explanatory depth: We humans think we understand the world better than we really do. This is a problem. “When you teach something to someone else, that’s when you really learn it,” said Arthur Markman, Ph.D. “Because you discover all the pieces you didn’t understand.”

Markman, a psychology professor at the University of Texas and the executive editor of Cognitive Science, spoke at the Learning & the Brain Conference yesterday in New York. He argues that acquiring real knowledge—a true understanding of how something works—and being able to communicate that knowledge are among the most important skills a student can have.

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April 10: Learning & the Brain New York

Learning & the Brain will hold a one-day symposium in New York City on April 10 that will explore the mindsets and motivation in student success. According to the website,

This one-day symposium will bring cognitive scientists, psychologists and educators together to explore the role that mindsets, attitudes, anxiety, goals, optimism, dopamine, intentions, resilience, persistence and character play in student success and achievement in life and school. Learn strategies you can use to make students more successful, motivated and resilient.

Regular registration ends April 5, so be sure to sign up before then to avoid paying an additional fee.

The Dana Foundation is a co-sponsor of the symposium, and will have a table at the event. Please stop by and say hello and pick up some of our free literature.

Hope to see you there!

– Ann L. Whitman

ADHD, Multi-Tasking, and Reading

This weekend, more than 900 teachers, researchers, and other education experts met to share what they know about how we learn. At a session of the Learning & the Brain conference titled “The Web-Connected Generation: How Technology Transforms Their Brains, Teaching and Attention,” we heard a lot about multi-user virtual environments, enhanced reality, the myth of multitasking, and individualized web-based learning. But the tech story that most caught my attention was a slightly older one: reading.

Why do many kids with ADHD “suddenly” start to lag in reading comprehension by the fourth grade? They seem to have acquired the basic skills at the same rate and competence as their peers; they recognize and use phonemes, they can recall words at sight. One part of the reason is that we’ve been assuming that once kids master all the basic language skills they need, fluency just comes naturally, but that doesn’t always seem to be the case. Another is that the act of reading itself is a form of multitasking, and in some ways kids with ADHD have a harder time doing it.

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