Can we condition ourselves to be heroes? | Robert Sapolsky

The article is a theoretical piece.

The article explores the role of the frontal cortex in decision-making and impulse control. It discusses how training and strengthening the frontal cortex can lead to better decision-making, but also notes that automatic and instinctual behavior can override the frontal cortex in moments of heroism.

Main topics: frontal cortex, decision-making, impulse control, heroism. Secondary topics: training, automatic behavior, instinctual behavior.

  1. Failure to do the right thing because of impulsive actions
  2. The role of the frontal cortex in impulse control, emotional regulation, and long-term planning
  3. Training the frontal cortex for better impulse control
  4. The importance of automaticity in doing difficult things, such as altruistic acts
  5. The study on cheating behavior and the role of the frontal cortex
  6. Willpower vs. grace in preventing cheating behavior

Training the Frontal Cortex for Better Decision-Making

Robert Sapolsky believes that failure to make the right decisions is one of society's biggest problems. This happens when we give in to temptations, impulses, and urgent emotions, but ultimately, we can blame this on the frontal cortex which is responsible for impulse control, long-term planning, and emotional regulation.

Sapolsky suggests that we need to train our frontal cortex from childhood to be able to resist temptations and make better decisions overall. When we encounter difficult situations, a robust and studly frontal cortex will give us the ability to make the right choices.

Automatic Altruism

However, when we look at individuals who perform heroic acts, we see that it is not because they have the strongest frontal cortex. These individuals do these acts automatically because it's not even considered a difficult choice. It's as simple as not doing something because you don't do that.

Sapolsky cites a study conducted by Josh Green, a Harvard researcher, who put participants in a study and gave them an incentive to get the task right. When given the opportunity to cheat, participants who cheated showed an increase in frontal cortex activity while those who did not cheat did not have their frontal cortex activated. This indicates that decisions are not purely based on willpower and strong frontal cortexes but on one's ability to automatically make the right choice.

In conclusion, we can train our frontal cortex for better decision-making, but automatic altruism can also play a significant role. Therefore, we need to focus on shaping our automatic responses to make better choices without having to think about it too much.

The information in the article about the role of the human brain's frontal cortex in decision making can influence other areas of knowledge such as psychology and ethics. Understanding how the frontal cortex works can help psychologists develop treatments for impulse control disorders and addiction. Additionally, this information can inform discussions on ethical decision making, including what factors contribute to a person's choice to act altruistically or selfishly.

One area of knowledge that complements this information is neuroscience. The article focuses specifically on the frontal cortex, but a broader understanding of how different parts of the brain work together would give a fuller picture of decision making.

The author of the article misses a discussion of sociocultural factors that influence decision making. While the frontal cortex may play a significant role in individual decision making, societal values and norms also play a role in shaping behavior. The article also presents a somewhat dichotomous view of decision making, with only two models presented: willpower and grace. However, decision making is likely much more complex than that and influenced by a variety of factors.

Question 1:

What is the part of the brain that controls impulse control and emotional regulation?

The frontal cortex is the part of the brain that does impulse control, long-term planning, emotional regulation- does all the stuff where it's the frontal cortex that whispers in your ear saying, "Do you really, really want to do that right now?"

Question 2:

What is the aspect that determines if the world will be freed of impulsive horrors?

What's going to determine whether the world will be freed of impulsive horrors- if only we can all get stronger frontal cortices trained in childhood to be able to hold out, where you can have one marshmallow right now but if you wait you can get two later, and training from an early age so that your frontal cortex has the most, like, fabulous aerobic metabolism ever.

Question 3:

What makes people do the truly difficult thing, like running into the burning building to save a child?

When we do our most amazingly, like wondrous altruistic acts, it's not because we've got the most incredible frontal cortexes on Earth that could like reason us, it's because it's out of the realm of the frontal cortex, and it's out of the realm of temptation and limbic stuff. We do the harder thing in a case like that because, for us, it's not the harder thing. It's become automatic.

Question 4:

What is the reason why the people who never cheat did not cheat in the experiment?

The people who never cheated, it wasn't 'cause they had the strongest frontal cortexes, it's because you don't do that. It was that simple. It wasn't a temptation.

Test 1: Frontal Cortex

    Question 1: What area of the brain is responsible for impulse control and emotional regulation?

  • a. Limbic system
  • b. Cerebellum
  • c. Frontal cortex
  • d. Medulla oblongata
  • Correct answer: c. Frontal cortex

    Question 2: What does the frontal cortex do?

  • a. Whisper in your ear
  • b. Control impulses
  • c. Plan for the long-term
  • d. All of the above
  • Correct answer: d. All of the above

    Question 3: Which part of the brain is the most recently evolved and complex in humans?

  • a. Limbic system
  • b. Cerebellum
  • c. Frontal cortex
  • d. Medulla oblongata
  • Correct answer: c. Frontal cortex

Test 2: Altruistic Behavior

    Question 1: What motivates people to perform acts of heroism?

  • a. A strong frontal cortex
  • b. Reasoning through long-term consequences
  • c. Automatic response
  • d. Overcoming temptation
  • Correct answer: c. Automatic response

    Question 2: How do people distract themselves from temptation?

  • a. Reasoning through the decision
  • b. Activating the limbic system
  • c. Making it automatic
  • d. Avoiding the temptation entirely
  • Correct answer: c. Making it automatic

    Question 3: What determines whether someone is likely to cheat?

  • a. Willpower
  • b. Grace
  • c. Strong frontal cortex
  • d. Overcoming temptation
  • Correct answer: b. Grace

Test 3: Cheating and Willpower

    Question 1: What happens in the brain of someone who is considering cheating?

  • a. Limbic system is activated
  • b. Cerebellum is activated
  • c. Frontal cortex is heavily activated
  • d. Medulla oblongata is activated
  • Correct answer: c. Frontal cortex is heavily activated

    Question 2: Why do some people never cheat?

  • a. Strong frontal cortex
  • b. Willpower
  • c. Grace
  • d. Overcoming temptation
  • Correct answer: c. Grace

    Question 3: What is the difference between someone who cheats and someone who doesn't?

  • a. Willpower
  • b. Grace
  • c. Strong frontal cortex
  • d. Overcoming temptation
  • Correct answer: b. Grace
  1. Train your frontal cortex: One of the keys to resisting impulsive decisions is training your frontal cortex through exercises such as long-term planning and emotional regulation. This can be applied in everyday life by taking the time to think through decisions before making them and practicing impulse control through exercises such as waiting for a reward.
  2. Practice automatic altruism: Sapolsky suggests that some of the most heroic acts occur automatically without thinking. This can be applied in everyday life by making a habit of doing kind or selfless things without thinking, such as helping a stranger or volunteering your time.
  3. Avoid temptation: While the frontal cortex can help with impulse control, it’s often easier to avoid temptation altogether. This can be applied in everyday life by removing yourself from tempting situations or distractions, such as avoiding junk food if you’re trying to eat healthier.
  4. Build good habits: Sapolsky suggests that some people don’t cheat because they simply don’t do it – it’s automatic. This can be applied in everyday life by building good habits and routines, such as consistently exercising or setting a daily reminder to drink more water.
  5. Recognize that willpower has limits: While willpower can be important, Sapolsky’s study suggests that relying on it exclusively may not be effective. It’s important to recognize that willpower has limits and to practice other strategies such as distraction or habit-building to avoid temptation.

Of these tips, building good habits may be the easiest to include in daily life. By consistently practicing positive habits, they can become automatic and effortless, making it easier to make selfless or responsible decisions without relying solely on willpower. It’s also important to recognize that willpower has limits and to avoid tempting situations whenever possible.