Update: 2017-08-2543


How much of who we are is biology? How much is learned? And how much can we change? This hour, TED speakers on how genes and experience collaborate — and compete — to make us who we are. Guests include neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky, epigeneticist Moshe Szyf, pediatrician Nadine Burke Harris, and psychologist Brian Little.

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before we get started we'd like to share a quick message from dough with one phone call Dell's dedicated US based advisors can customize tech solutions including PCs powered by Intel tailored to your business call eight seven seven by Delta connects with Adele advisor today this the is the Head Radio Hour each week groundbreaking Ted talks the Technology Design at Stanford delivered and Ted conferences around the world gift of the human imagination we had to believe in impossible the true nature of reality beckons just beyond those talks those ideas adapted for radio NPR guy rise so most of us think we know ourselves pretty well write some sort of a hippie pacifist in terms of general persona that were good people dominate the scientist with a large beard and Blake Perkins stars who make good choices given error of equilibrium as much as possible but do you who we are and why we act in certain ways and we have any control over that anyway I'm now this is Robert's house key he said of neuroscience at Stanford University we have very different potentials and this was the tendencies for behavior working in us and I think some sort of surprising shocking appalling wonderful cases of human behavior is when one side of its suddenly comes out from a person who never ever expected that the one extreme you that the person mum suddenly runs into the burning building people running into the fire to save a trapped rat the only room that houses being headless chickens not knowing what to knit the wow had the the the in the moment the other extreme you have people ranging from like the RV Ghraib scandal to buy pictures of Iraqi prisoners being abused by American soldiers like the fame and stature person experiment the the the ER people turn out to two things never in their darkest moments with the match and the people of the way the man is absolutely accustomed to anything I dream of doing capable of a lot of stuff what is sure it's human nature when it comes to these good and bad behaviors and the Astros could be it depends when or what you had for breakfast what you had when you were fetus and somebody whom back when what your culture has been little bit of what your genes your brain is wired up it depends depends enormously on context that so on the show today we're going to explore a lot of that context ideas about whether we're hard wired about what makes us who we are and why we behave the way we do how much of that is biological how much of it is learned and how much of it if any can we change and his robber suppose he points out human nature and its whole spectrum of behaviors is complicated even for the people who study it because despite his serene presence of calming enough that my students regularly to nap during my lectures so that must be a good index of the robber actually has a pretty violent recurring fantasy here's how he described it on the Ted stage the fantasy always run something like this I overpowered his Elite Card burst into a secret bunker with my machine gun ready he lunges for his Luke or I knocked out of his hand he lunges for cyanide pill I knock that out of his hand he snarled comes to me with other worldly strength we grapple we fight I managed to pin him down and put on handcuffs Adolph Hitler I say I arrest you for crimes against humanity here's where the Medal of Honor version of the fantasy ends in the imagery darkens what I do if I had Hitler was not hard to imagine once I allow myself severed his spine at the neck take out his eyes with a blunt instrument puncture his eardrums cut out his tongue leave him alive on a respirator tube fed not able to speak or move or see or hear just to feel and then inject him with something cancerous it's going to fester and postulate until every cell in his body is screaming in agony until every second feels like an eternity in hell that's what I would do to help her the town proper to come like this violent streak in you especially this hippie pacifist and you have this is very vivid fantasy the old Yeah I've heard that one since I was little remarkable number of people have now told me that they had ones along similar lines and alms person is far from being violent as possible yet I harbored these thoughts yet um opposed to the death penalty yet there's some people I would certainly like to see remove from the plan until a guy like violent movies going for strict gun control you know where all the confusing mixture of a whole array of impulses and the biology underlying the fact that some of those impulses come to the forefront in some circumstances in other contexts is a huge challenge biologically our nature is to be context dependent are we here the the title make sense of the biology of our best behaviors are worst ones and all of those ambiguous Lee in between the challenge is to understand the biology of the context of our behaviors and that's real tough one thing that's clear though is you're not going to get anywhere if you think there's going to be v brain region or the hormone with the gene or the childhood experience or the evolutionary mechanism that explains everything the instead every good behavior has multiple levels of cause Al but understand that we have to step back a little bit the move is going on in the environment seconds to minutes before our first two days before the tacky years back for example to her adolescence even further back to childhood back to when you were just a fetus back to when all you were a collection of jeans back centuries what were your ancestors up to date back millions of years because if we're talking about jeans implicitly we're now talking about the evolution of genes basically what we're seeing here is if you want to understand the behavior whether it's in hauling one wondrous one or confuse that Lee in between if you want to understand that you've got to take into account what happened a second before two million before everything in between ok so if for just the sum of all these parts the what what do we actually control well just to really take us into potentially not touch with a ten foot pole turquoise my personal biases we've got no agency at all um I don't think there's a shred of free will out there from spending my decades thinking about behavior and the biological influences on it I'm convinced by now free will is what we call the biology that hasn't been discovered yet it's just another way of stating that we are biological organisms determined by the physical laws of the universe everything you're saying here now and everything I'm saying to you now and the thing to do for the rest the day and they you're going to do for the rest then the interactions are going to have and I'm going to have very little say in that actually remarkably little sort of conscious access to it an awful lot of the time say if we choose behavior it turns out there was some subterranean tumult that led to that for example when you put people in positions of making moral judgments about behavior you see for example more emotional parts of the brain activates sooner than the quarter cool parts in one study that just floors me in that regard Tom has carried out in Israel all of the judges in Israel hearing parole board hearings over the course of the year something like five thousand cases in them looking at who got granted parole who got sent back to jail booking all sorts of variables and the strongest predictor of judges' decisions with how many hours it'd been since they'd eaten a meal wow which is ongoing except it's not because there's a biology that explains it and they're not going to say because I'm hyper glycemic right now it's hard to feel imperfect fruits for quote some philosopher they had to read school or whatever they're going to assume and filling the void with the pretenses of pure agency know with every passing year as we learn about everyone of these domains in what has to do with behavior things where we used to say Ah that's volition all of that's him and what he chooses or chooses not to do more and more that keeps falling by the roadside as we say hog no actually it turns out that's a psychiatric disorder with these genetic component of for example this is not a child who is lazy these little micro abnormalities in the kids' core tax producing learning deficits and know when you look at the space that free will has been getting crammed into more with each passing year of insight into the biology behavior or say it's going to get really really crammed in or nonexistent at some point yeah yeah at the same time I realize I have absolutely no idea how somebody is supposed to really believe that stuff intellectually I believe there's no free will but I still have absolutely no idea how to get around complimenting somebody on like her hair you would be pleased if somebody says something complementary to the charitable thing that they did he would say Hey that was so great he fell to ISIS this is so complex in what's amazing about is that you you acknowledge that there are things about this and even you don't understand oh ya and worse is there's things about or that I understand which nonetheless I have no idea how to incorporate into behavior I mean I can move past our biology the sad that's all there is the for better everything in between there's would roll the monkey was sitting on our brains there that inside the brain but not made of brain York State is made of like gumption and backbone and Calvinist self discipline the biology the way down the We are the some of the the posts keep their professor of neuroscience at Stanford University you can see his full talk at Ted dot com and the other showed a hardwired and in a moment a different a gun whether we can change our biology the guy rising listening to the Ted Radio Hour from NPR and the Art o Hey Everyone Just a quick thanks to two of our sponsors who helped make this podcast possible first a stance dot com use stamps 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guy rise and I should a hardwired ideas about what determines our personalities are traits or behaviors and even the choices we make and usually when we talk about the way humans are wired talking about our genetics our DNA everything we do is so cold and cool with that in our DNA and comes after millions and millions of years of evolution and that defines essentially a lot of our lifes of future lives this is mushy share fees at professor at McGill University the end when you're at the geneticist right a Yes but is about doing the field of genetics is interested in how genes are program so if you think about our genes is some sort of hardware of computer every genetic software makes it work right if you buy computer that has only hardware without software is useless basically she tries to understand whether the DNA we inherit his texts or whether it can change right so this is the Big B discussion of our century and the idea was very dominant that most if we are is defined by the kind of teams we heard from our ancestors you can look at it as it gives you freedom because it makes no difference what you do if you have a gene that you're going to be smart you'll be smart and if you're not don't waste your time studying as some people believe that the genes that make us rich make us anxious or not anxious so that was the general idea but as genetic research advanced there was a good conviction among some people that they must be something else going on in DNA the DNA by itself is not sufficient to explain behavior much has been studying this idea for decades starting with some groundbreaking experiments with rats Schiff tells the story from the Ted stage it all came to life and a dark bar in Madrid I encountered my colleague from Miguel Michel me and were drinking a few beers unlike scientists do he told me about his work and he told me that he's interested in her home other Ras licked their pups after they were born and I was sitting there and saying this is where my tax dollars are wasted on this kind of soft side and he started telling me that when the rats like humans lick their pups in very different ways some mothers do a lot of that some mothers do very little and most are in between but what's interesting about it is that when he follows these pups when they become adults like years of human life long after their mother died in a completely different animals the animals that were licked and groomed have really are not stress they have different sexual behavior they have different way of living than those that were not treated as intensively by her mother so then I was thinking to myself this magic does this work as a geneticist with like you to think perhaps the mother hide the bad the mother gene that caused her pups to be stressful and then it was passed from generation to generation is all determined by genetics or is it possible that something else is going on here so in rats we can ask this question and answer it so what we did as a cross fostering expire essentially separate the litter the babies off his route at birth to two kinds of fostering mothers not the real mothers but mothers that will take care of them high leaking mothers and lonely teen mothers and the remarkable answer was it wasn't important what the G D you got from your mother it was not the biological mother that defined this property of these wrath it is the mother to care if the polls so how can this work is it possible that the mother is somehow re programming the gene of her offspring through her behavior has been ten years and we found that there is a Cascade of biochemical events by which to licking the mother the care of the mother is translated to biochemical signals going and into the DNA programmed differently so now the animal can pair it sells you they all forceful don't think the rats being maternal but but but I guess they they they are yes the candy they are and if you watch Run Snow thank you you can see that they are really big room and there is also very clear that it's not the biological mother that is important in this case it is the fostering mother it's the experience yes so it was very clear around twenty years ago the DNA has two identities aid in a hurry to the identity and another identity that is formed during MBA Genesis during the time the fetus develops in the womb the mother of course the next question was does it and there and that is does the NE have a third identity which I call it experiential identity identity of past experience that somehow also use the same kind of biochemical concepts to give DNA different identities but in this time this will be an identity of an experience is a true only for us the problem is we cannot test this in humans because ethically we cannot administer trial diversity in a random way sofa poor child develop a certain property we don't know whether this is caused by poverty or poor people have allergies so geneticist would try to tell you that poor people are poor because their genes made them for every geneticist will tell you poor people are in a bad environment or an impoverished environment that creates that feed into that property so he can do experiments we can administer adversity to humans but God does experiments with humans and it's called natural disasters so one of the natural disasters the hardest natural disaster in history happened in my province of Quebec Ice Storm of nineteen ninety eight we lost the entire electrical grid because of an ice storm when the temperatures were in the dead of winter of Quebec minus twenty minus thirty and were pregnant mothers during that time my colleague Suzanne King followed the children of these mothers for fifty years and what happened was that as the stress decreased and here we had objective measures of stress how long you were without power where did you spend your time was that your mothers in law apartment or in some matte polish a comfy home so all these added up to social stress killing you can ask the question How did the children look like and it appears that as stress increases the children develop more autism develop more metabolic diseases and they develop more often you see the two mothers passed on the stress factor to the baby yet so we look for the DNA you know when the kids were fifteen use all the lame the blood and immune system and we saw differences in the way the epi genetics was prob so this in my opinion was one of the first evidence that in human stew and experience can result in long term changes to the way genes our program this would suggest that we are prone to constant change based on our environment or in Iraq no you're absolutely right so in one hand a We have a whole genome right it's the millions of years old that's fixed on the other hand we have a changing world that is talking to our DNA and this balance probably was selected by many millions of years of evolution to provide them with us with this amazing vehicle plus the city on one hand and fixed character is on the other hand writes We need both the We need the immutable and immutable operating together and that's amazing paradox and challenge of like say not just a sequence of letters it's not just the script DNA is the dynamic of our experiences are being written into the movie which is interactive you like watching a movie off your life with the DNA with your remote control you can remove an actor and as an actor and this has a tremendous optimistic message for ability to now and counter some of the deadly diseases like cancer mental health with new approach we can be genetically intervene reversed a movie by removing an actor and setting up shit talking with the scheme earlier the question is how much free will we actually have them I mean but if you say DNA is like a good dynamic movie and it seems like you could also make the argument that we actually do have some agency over who we are absolutely and I think they were the agency's extremely important question is who has agency right is it you as an individual is due as a family if you as a community is due as a country the USA World and I think all of the above So agency is now split it's not just you the agency is the interactions between all these elements if this is true and I believe it is there's a lot of hope if you look at look at humans what they have hundred years we've doubled lifespan right yeah I think it's it's the well being I think it has to do with much lower levels of adversities in at least in some parts of the world of humans were use to for thousands of years right we know our next meal is there and that knowledge removes the tremendous amount of stress from our lives of course you can always argue that it all if this was pre wired like the script was pre written including those changes I think that there is between the hard wiring and the ultimate result there is a space where freedom of foolish operate and its operating on those genetic process the If we understand this process and kept in to these processes we can be ruler over RT by providing the right environments and that's where we as societies have a responsibility the the shift is at the geneticist at McGill University you can find his full cock dot com so if Mo shift is right that positive experiences can rewrite DNA and improve health the one about negative experiences well that ten years ago pediatrician named Mae Dean Burke Harris was asking herself that very in the back of my Marines I always thought like I wonder if stress hormones are affecting the health of my patients I wonder if that's even possible back then maybe in his chest finish her medical training at Stanford that's Ray and I started a clinic a pediatric clinic and in baby highest point which is one of San Francisco's most low income and underserved neighborhoods and is seen as a demon open the clinic she started to notice something a lot of kids were being referred to me by teachers principals school counselors for ADHD it was a lot like what it was that like two or three it was a lot from him and then she noticed another thing that at first seems totally unrelated one of her patience came and with asthma I asked what he could be setting off your daughter's ass not could it be pet dander pollen like when you know is that her asthma flares up and this mom said to me you know the good that I noticed that her asthma tend to get worse when her dad punches a hole the hearing that convinced a gene to start asking all of her patients about what was happening at home so I had all of these patients who had the symptoms of ADHD as the eggs from a skin rash but who also had severe histories of adversity are you know violence in the community violence at home parents who were either mentally ill or substance dependent or incarcerated what I observed a nice guests started to notice this pattern that my patients who had the worst symptoms were also the ones who had the worst histories of adversity she ceased to think that that this adversely this trauma is is potentially affecting their physical health yes this is a hunch at the beginning right yes that's exactly right yet like that voice to the back of your mind thing ha so what did you do well one day my colleague Doctor Winton Clark walked into my office and he said have you seen enough and he was holding in his hand research paper called the adverse childhood experiences Study and it was light I was hit by a bolt of lightning can because what it said was child adverse
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