Mirror of Zen Blog

Dr. Robert Sapolsky on “Stress, Testosterone, and Free Will”

Dr. Robert Sapolsky is one of my favorite scientists. He is one of my favorite go-to human beings. Full stop. He is legendary for his pioneering fieldwork with troops of baboons in East Africa over 30 years, living with them as they grew and bonded and mated and fought and built complex social interactions mirroring closest our human state. The fruits of his research inform so much of what we understand today about the effects of stress on the human brain and body, generally. He is also a supremely generous soul who offers his insights for free online and through a series of truly fascinating books. He is also a great bodhisattva.

This very recent conversation with Andrew Huberman is incredible, even by Sapolskian standards. Please try to gift yourself the time and full attention to absorb it all, undistracted. This will have immediate benefits for your life. Their discussion about “common myths and actual truths about testosterone” really reoriented things quite profoundly in how we can view behavior, or “karma”.

But for students of Zen, what might be especially fascinating is his neuroscientific insight into the nature of so-called “free will”.

“Well, my personal, way-out-in-left-field, inflammatory stance is, I don’t think we have a shred of ‘free will’, despite 95% of philosophers and I think a majority of the neuroscientists [who say that] we have free will in at least some some circumstances. I don’t think there’s any at all. And the reason is, you do something, you behave, you make a choice — whatever. And to understand why you did that — ‘Where did that intention come from?’ — part of it was due to the sensory environment you were in in the previous minute. Some of it is from the hormone levels in your bloodstream that morning. Some of it is from whether you had a wonderful or stressful last three months, and what sort of neuroplasticity happened [as a result]. Part of it is what hormone levels you were exposed to as a fetus. Part of it is what culture your ancestors came up with, and thus how you were parented as a kid. All of those are in there, and you can’t understand where behavior is coming from without incorporating all of those. And at that point, not only are there all of these relevant factors, but they’re all ultimately one factor: If you’re talking about what evolution has to do with your behavior, by definition you’re also talking about genetics. If you’re talking about what your genes have to do with your behavior, by definition you’re talking about how your Bain was constructed, what its proteins are coded for. If you’re talking about, like, your mood disorder now, you are talking about the sense of efficacy that you were getting as a five-year old. They’re all intertwined. And when you look at all those influences, basically the challenge is, ‘Show me a neuron that just caused that behavior (or show me a network of neurons that just caused that behavior), and show me that nothing about what they just did and show me that nothing about what they just did was influenced by anything in the sensory environment one second ago, to the evolution of your species.’ And there’s no space in there to fit in a ‘free will’ concept that winds up being in your brain but not of your brain. There’s simply no wiggle-room for it there.” [Listen to the whole discussion of that point from 01:13:17]

Readers of this blog might know that I feel that Sam Harris’s long-form explanation of the topic comes closest to my own views — i.e., that there is no “free will”, that the very notion of “free will” is just an illusion. (And there is one caveat in my agreement with Sam, one point of variance, that I would like to ask him one day on one of his “Ask Me Anything” podcasts. It has to do with the question of “karma”, that we have a “choice” to be controlled or over-determined by our karma or not, and the route to this choice is carried out in our relationship to the Precepts.) I include a link here to Sam’s truly phenomenal explanation of “free will”, for those who might be interested — it is an extremely simple and clear and helpful talk, worth every minute of listening:

And then Sam’s further discussion on the topic with Lex Fridman. This discussion is important for understanding Sam’s views — and really getting to the heart of the matter generally — is that, unlike Sam’s own-podcast explanation, in this discussion, the discursive question-and-answer format of Fridman’s podcast allows Sam to be probed a little deeper. I really benefitted from that.

Listening with deep satisfaction and gratitude to these four great minds discuss the topic, from the standpoint of science, I can only quote the title of Robert Wright’s recent book, Why Buddhism is True.

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