Book Review: Behave

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Longlisted for the 2018 Wellcome Prize, Behave sets out to explain, from a rational and scientific perspective, why people behave as they do. As the author notes, it’s complicated. The reader must first learn about the neurobiology of how components of behaviour interact – the role of neurons, hormones, genes, evolution, culture, and ecological influences. There are many controlled studies to consider, the results of which offer better understanding but with limitations. The terms used are explained in some detail. Areas of the brain play different roles that must be understood before their impact on behaviour can be rationalised.

As an example of the writing style, from Neuroscience 101:

“some of the most interesting findings that help explain individual differences in the behaviours that concern us in this book relate to amounts of neurotransmitter made and released, and the amounts and functioning of the receptors, reuptake pumps, and degradative enzymes.”

Chapters explain the separate areas of the brain and how they function, reminding the reader that this is simplified as it is a continuum. It is then pointed out that all can change due to experience. Brain structure can adapt over time.

At close to 800 pages, around half of which is fairly technical, this is not a book that can be rushed. The main text regularly refers to notes at the back where the studies cited are detailed. There are also three appendices and an index. Footnotes elaborate on certain deductions reached by the author. It is dense but fascinating.

Examples of behaviours are given throughout, such as how a person reacts when they encounter another who is in pain. The distress this causes may render some incapable, unable to do more than deal with their own resulting suffering. Others will immediately rush to help. Individual reactions depend on brain function. How one judges another’s actions and needs, how they deserve to be treated, also varies depending on how ‘other’ they are judged to be.

Many of the studies detailed involve a variety of primates, some captive and others observed in more natural settings. The former allows changes in areas of the brain to be monitored, such as when processing rewards (the mesolimbic/mesocortical dopamine system). The results are familiar.

“What was an unexpected pleasure yesterday is what we feel entitled to today, and what won’t be enough tomorrow.”

Other studies of the brain’s reactions are more uncomfortable to consider, particularly when a subject observes those of a different race. The exploration of us/them is important and returned to frequently. At its most basic it is an innate desire to reproduce, to pass on copies of genes. The reader is reminded that subjects can learn and modify behaviour.

The topic is complicated as everything is linked to everything else, including the environment in which one exists. The difference between collective and individual cultures is explained along with the impulse markers of those who migrate. Psychology and anthropology have an effect but in drawing neurobiological conclusions there are limitations due to the size and makeup of historic sample data. Many recent human studies have been carried out on university students but did not balance for gender or race. In concluding the first half of the book the author states

“Instead of causes, biology is repeatedly about propensities, proclivities, interactions, modulations, contingencies, if/then clauses, context dependencies, exacerbation or diminution of pre-existing tendencies.”

The second half of the book, while still veering into technical explanations at times, is less demanding to read. The key points from the first half include what has been learned about the function of the amygdale and the frontal cortex – natural vs learned. The author notes of people

“we are just like other animals but totally different”

Moral decision making is explored along with the introduction of spirituality, the effects of proximity on moral intuitionism, entrenched bias, the impact of social groups and perceived beauty. It is clear that primates have us/them minds and that kinship matters. People act the way they do because of how their brain is structured, but brains can learn and change. Empathy is affected by attitudes to others, and if they are perceived to be to blame for their situation.

“our moral intuitions are neither primordial nor reflexively primitive. They are the end product of learning; they are cognitive conclusions to which we have been exposed so often that they have become automatic […] In the West we nearly all have strong moral intuitions about the wrongness of slavery, child labor, or animal cruelty. But that didn’t used to be the case. Their wrongness has become an implicit moral intuition, a gut instinct concerning moral truth, only because of the fierce moral reasoning (and activism) of those who came before us, when the average person’s moral intuitions were unrecognisably different.”

Aroused empathy, or tunnel vision compassion, such as raising money for cancer research after a loved one dies of the disease, is shown to do more harm than good in the broader measure of such things. Help is more likely to be offered based on emotion rather than rational decision making.

The Rwandan Genocide killed more people than the Nazi Holocaust yet garners less attention. Irrational behaviour, including such violence, often relies on dehumanising. The brain confuses reality with metaphor, supporting symbols over people. Contact can decrease willingness to inflict or passively accept other’s suffering. Justice is shown to be difficult to achieve. Even when dealing with individual transgressors in the West

“every judge should learn that judicial decisions are sensitive to how long it’s been since they ate”

Wealth and stability are shown to affect behaviour, although these may not lead to improved acceptance. After basic needs have been met, satisfaction depends not on what one has but on how this compares.

“When humans invented socioeconomic status, they invented a way to subordinate like nothing that hierarchical primates had ever seen before.”

The book concludes on a hopeful note pointing out how much has changed over time. Hateful behaviours still exist but many of these are viewed through a cultural lens. War may bring out the worst in participants but it has been shown that individuals struggle when ordered to kill. Studies prove that cooperation is more beneficial for all than aggression, and that greater equality improves economic growth and stability (if only our current leaders could understand this). Whatever our neurobiological makeup, change in behaviour is possible.

As a personal footnote, I cannot help but feel discomfort at the animals held in captivity and used in the many studies referred to within these pages. I ponder the benefits achieved at the cost of their suffering. The increase in understanding that they provide may be of interest but will people, as a result, change how they behave?

Any Cop?: This is a challenging but ultimately rewarding book to read. The topic is fascinating and explored in detail. The biases of the author are clear but do not detract from what may be learned. It will likely appeal most to those with a pre-existing interest in the science.

 

Jackie Law

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2 comments on “Book Review: Behave

  1. I have been eye-ing this book for a while now. It sounds so good! I’m torn between Sapiens and this one..

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