Top positive review
A stupendous book!
Reviewed in India on 23 December 2018
In the shortest possible summary, let me start by saying that Behave is a stupendous book, and among the best science books I have read. While it is a book of science, and very detailed in parts at that – it is still highly recommended reading for everybody. After all, who is not curious about why we behave the way we do. This book is certainly a tribute to the remarkable progress science has made in understanding our brain and our behaviours. However, be warned that it is a big book, which has a lot of detail and you might be in for a slower read than many other books.
Robert Sapolsky invokes interest and curiosity right from the start - talking about how we are very conflicted in our beliefs – especially we condone many acts of violence, but do support others. I have to admit I have many conflicts I am unable to resolve myself – such as the fact that I find very impressive the progress that science has made as detailed in this book, and yet I am very pained that much of this has come with cruel experiments on animals.
The organisation of the book is very logical – it traces an action from when it happens, to moments before, months/years before and potentially several years earlier in cases. Experiments show that there are several markers in our brain which light up, before we take any action. So the big question (which the book Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari explores as well) – do we really have free will? Do we have the ability to stop when the natural instinct kicks in? As it turns out, much of how we act is a result of a multitude of factors – events which have happened at any time previously - sometimes well in the past, our genes, environment, and many others, some of it still to be determined. This has extremely important implications for law enforcement as well.
There are excellent examples: eg: when you compliment a child on good work, telling them they are clever vs telling them they are hardworking invokes very different responses. While we appreciate empathy – the ability to step into and feel the others experience, empathy stalls action. Compassion is more effective. The discussion around how the brain responds to meditation are alluded to – though I think it deserved far more coverage. There are also other interesting lessons around how judges and juries decide punishment based on a number of factors which logic says should have no bearing.
The issues of “Us” vs “Them” is discussed in detail, and deservedly so. Our brain instantly associates some faces as “Us” and some others as “Them”. We develop this categorisation over time and this association is very strong in adulthood and near impossible to get over. While this is true even in animals, our behaviours are more complex. The “Us” categorisation could be based on country, language, religion, colour, and others. The natural tendency is to think in terms of aggregate labels rather than as individuals, accounting for much of our biases.
This is a big book, and one for which I should have taken notes. But I did not. Since there is a wealth of important information, I expect I will have to revisit the book again – when I feel I am forgetting its contents.
The Appendix has information on Brain / Genes / Hormones which is worth taking a look at. This is an exceptional book, though certainly not light reading. Since it packs great amount of detail, it is a more difficult read than for instance “Sapiens” by Yuval Noah Harari. However, I very strongly recommend this – for reading at the earliest possible