Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst

Chapter 3: Seconds to Minutes Before

Universal Rules

Any behavior can be made more or less common through “operant conditioning” (a term Skinner coined), the process of controlling the rewards and punishments in the organism’s environment

Interoceptive Information

  • The James-Lange theory, suggests that you decide what you feel based on signals from your body
  • There’s support for the idea:
    • Forcing depressed people to smile makes them feel better
    • Instructing people to take on a more “dominant” posture makes them feel more so (lowers stress hormone levels)
    • Muscle relaxants decrease anxiety (“Things are still awful, but if my muscles are so relaxed that I’m dribbling out of this chair, things must be improving”).
  • Nonetheless, a strict version of James-Lange doesn’t work, because of the issue of specificity – hearts race for varying reasons, so how does your brain decide if it’s reacting to a lion or an exciting come-hither look? Moreover, many autonomic responses are too slow to precede conscious awareness of an emotion
  • Some brain regions with starring roles in processing social emotions – the PFC, insular cortex, anterior cingulate cortex, and amygdala – receive lots of interoceptive information. This helps explain a reliable trigger of aggression, namely pain, which activates most of those regions. As a repeating theme, pain does not cause aggression; it amplifies preexisting tendencies toward aggression. In other words, pain makes aggressive people more aggressive, while doing the opposite to unaggressive individuals
  • Sensory information streaming toward your brain from both the outside world and your body can rapidly, powerfully and automatically alter behavior. In the minutes before our prototypical behavior occurs, more complex stimuli influence us all

Even Subtler Types of Unconscious Cuing

  • The mythic elements of the Genovese syndrome prompt the quasi myth that in an emergency requiring brave intervention, the more people present, the less likely anyone is to help – “There’s lots of people here; someone else will step forward”
  • Our social environment unconsciously shapes our behavior over the course of minutes. As does our physical environment

A Wonderfully Complicating Piece of the Story

  • It turns out that the brain biases us toward preferentially looking at eyes. This was shown by Damasio, studying a patient with Urbach-Wiethe disease, which selectively destroys the amygdala. As expected, she was poor at accurately detecting fearful faces. But in addition, while control subjects spent about half their face-gazing time looking at eyes, she spent half that. When instructed to focus on the eyes, she improved a recognizing fearful expressions. Thus, not only does the amygdala detect fearful faces, but it also biases us toward obtaining information about fearful faces

The most important point of this chapter is that in the moments just before we decide upon some of our most consequential acts, we are less rational and autonomous decision makers than we like to think.

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