Belief and Biology by Robert Sapolsky (April 2003)

(This is Sapolsky’s acceptance speech of FFRF’s Emperor Award in 2002.)

By Robert Sapolsky

The challenge of trying to make sense of the biology of some of the really interesting things we do as humans, including invented belief systems, is recognizing us as just another off-the-rack mammal. Some of the time it’s just another plain old mammal using standard physiology in utterly unstandard ways, and some of the time it’s built around us being unlike anything that’s ever existed before on this planet.

Now, when you put together all these realms of knowledge — people studying the genetics of the brain, the early experience, the hormones and neurotransmitters —what you wind up seeing is, we’re getting an amazing amount of insight about all sorts of outposts of our behavior. What one has to be left with is a certain awe at the mechanistic feel of all of it: how we are sort of products of the material bases of our brains.

Let me give you two examples, because they’re really quite extraordinary, and both of them come from the realm of neurological disease. Here’s a scenario: 40-year-old guy, 20-year happy marriage, white-collar job, living in the suburbs, utterly colorless, stable life. One day, from out of nowhere, he punches somebody in the face at work, in his office, some guy at the water cooler who had made some comment about a sports team. This guy hasn’t had a fight since junior high school. Utterly bizarre, unprecedented.

Three months later, his wife of this 20-year marriage discovers he’s been having an affair with a 17-year-old kid at the checkout down at the supermarket. Totally bizarre. Three months later, he’s arrested for drunken brawling in a bar, and he never even used to drink. Three months later, he embezzles the funds from his workplace, disappears, and is never seen again.

How can we explain this guy? Explanation number one: the guy is no damned good. [laughter]

Explanation number two: he’s having the world’s most dramatic and childish midlife crisis.

Explanation number three: it’s a neurological disease; he has a single-gene defect that makes him do this.

This, amazingly, is what a particular neurological disease looks like, a disease called Huntington’s disease, Huntington’s chorea. Huntington’s chorea is most famous for a neuromuscular disorder: It starts with a tremoring, and by the time it’s done with, you have your entire body writhing. Absolutely horrendous. It kills you within a decade or so. It gets you in your mid-40s, Woody Guthrie being the most famous Huntington’s case. Three or four years before it’s a neurological disease, it’s a psychiatric disorder. You see precisely the profile that was just described: people become disinhibited. You find Huntington’s patients are famed for always showing up in the dayroom in the hospital having forgotten to wear half of their pajamas, and things of that sort. It causes a massive disinhibition of the personality, and initially, it’s a psychiatric disorder. It’s not a midlife crisis. It’s a single-gene defect.

Here’s another realm of neurological disorder, lest you think I’m going in a direction of “it’s all genetic, genetic determinism” here, an environmental component. There’s a part of the brain which, when it gets injured, something very interesting happens to us. I’m willing to bet, every day, everyone of us in this room has some thought that is boastful or lustful or petulant, or something weird, and we would die if anybody knew we were thinking that. Get this part of the brain damaged, and every time you think one of those things, you say it! Or you do it! [laughter] This is the frontal cortex.

The frontal cortex, the most recently evolved part of our brain, the most distinctly human part of our brain, is not of trivial relevance. It’s the last part of our brain to fully develop. Not until around age 30 is our frontal cortex completely online, which may explain a whole lot about what was going on about 20 years ago in your life. [laughter] The frontal cortex is the nearest thing we have to a superego. The frontal cortex keeps the rest of your limbic system, your emotional part of the brain, from going out of control.

This was first noted in one of the most famous neurological patients of all time, a man named Phineas Gage. In the 1840s, Phineas Gage worked the railroad lines. That’s about where the folk song ends, because he didn’t do anything interesting beyond that. He was a foreman, he showed up to work every day, totally reliable, sober.

One day there was a dynamite accident, and a metal rod was blown through his forehead and out the other end, and took his frontal cortex with it, and amazingly, this was such a concussive trauma that it cauterized all his blood vessels. He got knocked on his rear, and stood up again and kind of dusted himself off, and walked to the doctor who examined him. The guy in charge of the worksite said, “Gage, tell you what. Take the rest of the day off, see you tomorrow morning.” [laughter]

Gage came back the next morning, literally and metaphorically transformed overnight. And this man was now a drunken, aggressive bully, hypersexual, completely disinhibited. He was never able to hold a stable job again. When the doctor examined him, the doctor looked in the hole there and said, “Geez. No frontal cortex,” and thus concluded, “Ah! This part of the brain reins in our animal energies.”

And 160 years later, that’s as good a description as you can get about what this part of the brain does. Damage the frontal cortex and you disinhibit how the rest of you works. This is a part of the brain that keeps you from burping during the quiet part in the wedding ceremony [laughter], or it keeps you from telling a person exactly what you think of their new outfit, or keeps you from being a serial murderer. Aged individuals have strokes that often damage the frontal cortex, and you get these disinhibitory syndromes. Blow away that part of the brain, and there’s a transformed person.

After looking at an extreme, look at the in-between zone and the fact that all of us differ as to how many brain cells we got in that part of the brain, and how well those brain cells work, and all that individual variability stuff. This is so well recognized by neuroscientists that they even use the term “frontal” in an everyday sense. You’re in some conference and some poor quivering grad student gets up and gives their first professional talk, a five-minute talk. “Hooray, the kid pulled through it okay,” and “Great topic.”

Then some total jerk big-shot in the field gets up in the back row and savages the kid over some sort of minutiae with the statistics, and chest thumps and attacks his enemy. At some point, somebody’s gonna lean over to somebody else and say, “Geez! That guy’s getting more frontal every day!” [laughter] That may not just be a metaphor or a figure of speech–we differ in how every part of our brains work, and the frontal cortex is spectacularly sensitive to experience as it develops. Once again, we are the products of this material basis of our brains.

So you then begin to ask, “What do modern neuroscience and psychiatry begin to tell us about how we as a species invent these systems of belief, these systems of organized, shared, ritualized, culture-bound beliefs?” What does this tell us about religion? It turns out there are a whole bunch of outposts where neuropsychiatry tells us something about the stuff we keep creating in culture after culture. Let me tell you about two very interesting examples of this, amid many.

One of them has to do with one of the great puzzles when people think about the evolution of psychiatric disorders. Ever deal with anybody with one of the most horrendous of all psychiatric diseases, schizophrenia, and you come away just appalled at how a life can be demolished by some biological storm in the brain. Schizophrenia: a disease of disordered thought, disconnected socialization, hallucinations, paranoia, delusions, a 50% rate of attempted suicide. This is a totally disastrous disease, and it’s one that we’re very, very slowly beginning to understand the neurochemistry of.

One of the keys about schizophrenia is that it’s a disorder with a genetic component. That doesn’t mean it is genetically guaranteed. It is not genetically determined. There is a genetic risk for this disease, as is the case with most psychiatric disorders. The minute you see there’s any genetics on the scene, you’ve got to ask an evolutionary question, which is: “Where did these genes evolve from?” Why do we have schizophrenia in every culture on this planet? From an evolutionary perspective, schizophrenia is not a cool thing to have.

What’s evolution about? Evolution is the process by which adaptive traits become more common. Schizophrenia is not an adaptive trait. You can show this formally: schizophrenics have a lower rate of leaving copies of their genes in the next generation than unaffected siblings. By the rules, by the economics of evolution, this is a maladaptive trait. Yet, it chugs along at a one to two percent rate in every culture on this planet.

So what’s the adaptive advantage of schizophrenia? It has to do with a classic truism — this business that sometimes you have a genetic trait which in the full-blown version is a disaster, but the partial version is good news.

What’s the example we all learned in the textbook case? Sickle-cell anemia: full-blown version, fatal hematological disorder; partial version, you don’t get malaria. Tay Sachs disease: full-blown version, your nervous system is destroyed within a couple of months of life; partial version, you’re resistant to tuberculosis. Cystic fibrosis: full-blown version, you’re typically dead by 20; partial version, you’re resistant to cholera. This turns out to be a theme with a lot of human genetics. As long as there’s enough folks with the advantageous partial version, you can afford the occasional cousin with the full-blown version.

Evidence suggests this is what the genetics of schizophrenia is about. What’s the partial version? It’s the disease that got identified about 30 years ago. The first study that found genetic evidence for schizophrenics looked at about 20,000 people adopted in Denmark, looking at patterns of inheritability of schizophrenia; were you likely to share schizophrenic traits with your adopted parents, or your biological parents?

This was a massive multi-year study. Psychiatrists talked to more relatives of schizophrenics than any psychiatrists had ever done before in a career. What they noticed was, there’s something kind of weird about relatives of schizophrenics — not every single one of them, but at higher than expected rates. This “kinda weirdness” is now called “schizotypal personality.”

What is schizotypal? It’s a more subtle version of schizophrenia. This is not somebody who’s completely socially crippled; they’re just solitary, detached: these are the lighthouse keepers, the projectionists in the movie theaters. These are not people who are thought-disordered to the point of being completely nonfunctional; these are people who just believe in kinda strange stuff. They are into their Star Trek conventions. They’re into their astrology, they’re into their telepathy and their paranormal beliefs, they’re into — and you can see now where I’m heading — very, very literal, concrete interpretations of religious events.

Schizophrenics have a whole lot of trouble telling the level of abstraction of a story. They’re always biased in the direction of interpreting things more concretely than is actually the case. You would take a schizopohrenic and say, “Okay, what do apples, bananas and oranges have in common?” and they would say, “They all are multi-syllabic words.” [laughter] You say “Well, that’s true. Do they have anything else in common?” and they say, “Yes, they actually all contain letters that form closed loops.” [laughter] This is not seeing the trees instead of the forest, this is seeing the bark on the trees, this very concreteness.

What you find with schizotypals is what is called metamagical thinking, a very strong interest in new-age beliefs, science fiction, fantasy, religion, but in a very concrete, literal form, a very fundamentalist style. Somebody walking on water is not a metaphor. Somebody rising from the dead is not a metaphor; this is reported, literal fact.

Now we have to ask our evolutionary question: “Who are the schizotypals throughout 99% of human history?” And in the 1930s, decades before the word “schizotypal” even existed, anthropologists already had the answer.

It’s the shamans. It’s the medicine men. It’s the medicine women. It’s the witch doctors. In the 1930s an anthropologist named Paul Radin first described it as “shamans being half mad,” shamans being “healed madmen.” This fits exactly. It’s the shamans who are moving separate from everyone else, living alone, who talk with the dead, who speak in tongues, who go out with the full moon and turn into a hyena overnight, and that sort of stuff. It’s the shamans who have all this metamagical thinking. When you look at traditional human society, they all have shamans. What’s very clear, though, is they all have a limit on the number of shamans. That is this classic sort of balanced selection of evolution. There is a need for this subtype, but not too many.

The critical thing with schizotypal shamanism is, it is not uncontrolled the way it is in the schizophrenic. This is not somebody babbling in tongues all the time in the middle of the hunt. This is someone babbling during the right ceremony. This is not somebody hearing voices all the time, this is somebody hearing voices only at the right point. It’s a milder, more controlled version.

Shamans are not evolutionarily unfit. Shamans are not leaving fewer copies of their genes. These are some of the most powerful, honored members of society. This is where the selection is coming from. What this shamanistic theory says is, it’s not schizophrenia that’s evolved, it’s schizotypal shamanism that’s evolved. In order to have a couple of shamans on hand in your group, you’re willing to put up with the occasional third cousin who’s schizophrenic. That’s the argument; and it’s a very convincing one.

If you look at all these 1930s and 1940s anthropologists, there’s a certain dead-white-male racism that runs through all of this stuff that anthropology still has not recovered from. If you read their writings, what was between the lines — and often not between the lines — was, this is about “them.” This is about the folks with the bones in their noses and no clothes who wind up in the National Geographic nudie pictures. These are them and their subjective paranormal beliefs; thank God we live in objective modern societies. [laughter]

What is perfectly obvious here is that this entire picture applies just as readily to our western cultures. Western religions, all the leading religions, have this schizotypalism shot through them from top to bottom. It’s that same exact principle: it’s great having one of these guys, but we sure wouldn’t want to have three of them in our tribe. Overdo it, and our schizotypalism in the Western religious setting is what we call a “cult,” and there you are in the realm of a Charles Manson or a David Koresh or a Jim Jones.

You can only do post-hoc forensic psychiatry on Koresh and Jones, but Charles Manson is a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic. But get it just right, and people are gonna get the day off from work on your birthday for millennia to come. [laughter]

This is great! I think this is the first time I’ve ever said that line without somebody getting up and leaving in a huff from the audience. [laughter] It’s very nice being here. Thank you! [applause]

What I’ve just been considering is the superstructure of religion — the big building blocks. There are multiple deities, there is but one god and he is Allah, “I am who I am,” — any version of this — is an awful lot like schizotypalism. Who is it that invented the notion that virgins can give birth? Who is it who first came in with the extremely psychiatrically suspect report about hearing a voice in a burning bush? In most of the cases we don’t know much about the psychiatric status of these folks. In the more recent historical cases, we certainly do, and schizotypalism is at the heart of non-Western and Westernized large theological systems.

Now the second chunk of neuropsychiatry and religion I want to talk about is one that shifts to a different scale of what religion is about. Certainly a big chunk of religion is these big theological bits of superstructure that you build your whole belief system on. But what religion very often really is about is the daily behaviors. The daily rituals. Insofar as the devil is in the details, god is in the details too. It’s in that realm where we can get insight into the roots of this aspect of religiosity: another neuropsychiatric disorder.

Now I will guarantee that just as all of us have those frontal thoughts, fortunately inhibited, probably all of us find ourselves, during some stressful period, not being able to stop from counting the number of steps as you go up a flight of stairs. Or you get some incredibly irritating TV jingle stuck in your head for half the day.

Or: you’ve got some really important letter that you need to mail off, so you go to the mailbox, you put it in the mailbox, and you make sure it goes down, because this letter’s really important. Then you check again, just to make sure [laughter], and you just want to make really sure, and there’s nobody else around, so you look underneath. We all do this … actually, maybe we don’t all do this so I’m embarrassing myself horribly [laughter] — but my guess is, this sort of ritualism is what we do during times of anxiety. It’s creating solid ground when the most fundamental ground is like quicksand underneath us.

In the last 30 years we’ve seen a whole new psychiatric disorder, of people whose rituals take over and destroy their lives. OCD: obsessive compulsive disorder. These are people who don’t merely find themselves counting when they go up a flight of stairs. These are people whose lives are destroyed by this disorder. They wash their hands eight hours a day. They stop eating most foods because of the conviction of contamination, germs. They get very ritualistic and phobic about entering spaces, leaving spaces. They can’t enter a building until they’ve walked a number of steps that’s a prime number. Very mathematical numerology comes through this, and it is an utterly paralyzing disease. This is one of these biological disorders that destroyed people’s lives back when, up until 30 or 40 years ago, there wasn’t even a word that described this. We can describe it now, and we know a lot about the genetics of this disorder, and the neurochemistry.

Where does this one fit in with religion? There’s a remarkable parallelism between religious ritualism and the ritualism of OCD. In OCD, the most common rituals are the rituals of self-cleansing, of food preparation, of entering and leaving holy places of emotional significance, and rituals of numerology. You look in every major religion, and those are the four most common ritual forms that you see.

You could look at any of these organized religions, though we’re very accustomed by now that, when we think of religion, it’s often interspersed with good works or a sense of community, and see that religion in its orthodoxy is about rules — how you do every single thing all throughout the day. You look at orthodox versions of any of these religions, and there are rules for which direction you face after you defecate, which hand you wash, how many swallowings of water, which nostril you breathe in with, which nostril you breathe out. These are all rules that Brahmins have in order to get into heaven. Numerological rules: how many times you have to say a certain prayer in a lifetime.

Orthodox Judaism has this amazing set of rules: everyday there’s a bunch of strictures of things you’re supposed to do, a bunch you’re not supposed to do, and the number you’re supposed to do is the same number as the number of bones in the body. The number that you’re not supposed to do is the same number as the number of days in the year. The amazing thing is, nobody knows what the rules are! [laughter] Talmudic rabbis have been scratching each others’ eyes out for centuries arguing over which rules go into the 613. The numbers are more important than the content. It is sheer numerology.

Then, obviously getting closer to home for most people here, there is the realm of the number of rosaries and the number of Hail Marys. Religious ritualism is shot through with the exact same obsessive qualities.

Now, when you look at this, what you immediately have to begin to ask is, “Why the similarity?” Outside of the realm of organized religion, shamanism, schizotypalism, is a little bit of a peripheralizing bunch of traits. Outside of the realm of religion, OCD destroys people’s lives. It is incompatible with functioning. Not only can you function with those rituals in the religious context: you can make a living doing it. [laughter] People make a living doing rituals ritualistically in the context of religion.

If you are an aged Brahmin, and you feel the shadow lengthening, and you haven’t done the 2,400,000 versions of a certain mantra you need to do in your lifetime, you can hire a whole bunch of other Brahmins who will come and have this whole big numerology blowout for you [laughter], and they will come and count for you, and you pay them.

Or you can be an Orthodox rabbi who spends your time in a slaughterhouse. You don’t ritualistically slaughter the animals. Your job is to make sure everybody else is doing it. Your job is to ritualistically make sure they follow the rituals. And you get paid, and you get your health insurance. In the crudest sort of anthopological terms of economics, while the peasants are sweating to produce the bread that they need to consume, they’re sweating to produce the bread that the clergy is consuming as well. We are paying, thoughout history, for people who are the best, most avid, psychiatrically-driven performers of ritual.

To get a real insight into this, we have to come back to that question, “Why is there this similarity between religious ritualism and OCD rituals?” You could say, “It’s just by chance.” Or you could say, “There’s a biological convergence going on there.” It’s not random that we’re most concerned with rituals about keeping our bodies healthy, our food clean, that sort of stuff. But another answer in there has got to be, “People with OCD invented a lot of these religious rituals.”

Let me give you one example of this. A 16th-century Augustinian monk named Luder for some reason left a very detailed diary. This is a man who grew up with an extremely brutal father, had a very anxious relationship with him, was very psychosomatic illness-oriented. One day he was out walking in the field. There was a thunderstorm, and he got a panic attack, and vowed, “If I’m allowed to survive this, I will become a monk and devote the rest of my life to God.”

He survives, becomes a monk, and throws himself into this ritualism with a frenzy. This was an order of monks that was silent 20-some hours a day. Nonetheless, he had four hours worth of confessions to make every day: “I didn’t say this prayer as devoutly as I should have. My mind wandered when I was doing this, doing that.” The first time he ran a Mass, he had to do it over and over because he got the details wrong. He would drive his Father Superior crazy with his hours and hours of confession every day: “God is going to be angry at me for doing this, because I said this, and I didn’t think this much, and I didn’t do this the right way, and I …” until the Father Superior got exasperated with him and came up with a statement that is shockingly modern in its insight. He said, “The problem isn’t that God is angry with you. The problem is that you’re angry with God.” The most telling detail about this monk was, he washed and washed and washed. As he put it in his diary: “The more you wash, the dirtier you get.” Classic OCD.

The reason why we know about this man Luder is because we know him by the anglicized version of his name: Martin Luther. [laughter]

Schizotypalism and OCD are but two examples. There are aspects of brain damage you can get with a certain type of epilepsy, making you fascinated with religious subjects. There’s another part of the brain which, when damaged, creates trouble seeing the connections between cause and effect. The formal behaviorist term for it is, you are more subject to superstitious conditioning.

What is it that one winds up concluding from this? Am I saying you gotta be crazy to be religious? No. [laughter] Am I saying most people who are religious have to be neuropsychiatrically suspect? Not even saying that, either.

It is absolutely fascinating if these hiccups of biological abnormality explain even one single person in all of history who has reached their religious beliefs for those reasons. Am I saying that the undercurrent of this is trying to pathologize how to think about religion? On a certain level. But as a scientist, what one should find absolutely equally fascinating is how it works in the opposite direction.

I was raised in an Orthodox household, and I was raised devoutly religious up until around age 13 or so. In my adolescent years, one of the defining actions in my life was breaking away from all religious belief whatsoever. What does it say if, in all of history, there was even one religious person whose religiosity was due to some neurotransmitter hiccup, and in all of history there was even one person whose atheism was due to a different type of neurotransmitter hiccup?

What I find, when teaching about this stuff, is it’s right around this point that people start getting really nervous and uncomfortable. [laughter] Obviously there are scary political implications. The good side of all that might be if this kind of science teaches us to be more compassionate and recognize neurochemical kinship in ways that we wouldn’t otherwise.

What people often get most unnerved about at this point is what this means personally. There’s a zillion of these subtle disorders, and none of them existed 30 years ago. None of them had names then, and they all have names now, and we’re just going to keep discovering more and more of them. Eventually, every single one of us will have two or three of those labels. [laughter] At some point, that’s going to stop being the biology of “them and their diseases,” and it’s going to be the biology of “what makes us us.”

People get nervous because it taps into one of our greatest human pretenses; this notion that lots of us of cherish, which is: every one of us is an individual, and has a vibrant flame of individuality that’s never existed before and we’re untrappable, indescribable, and “no hunter can trap us, no scholar can map us.” Suddenly, as those scientists learn more and more, we turn into a bunch of equations, or a bunch of chemical formulas, and all of the magic will be gone.

There’s a wonderful Arthur C. Clarke story that perfectly captures this fear that people have of what scientific knowledge can bring, called “The Nine Billion Names of God” (the traditional Tibetan belief that there are nine billion names of God, which is meant metaphorically to be an unattainable number). A bunch of Tibetan monks have teamed up with the greatest computer scientists, and thanks to the power of this computer, the computer is now doing the impossible. It is going to spit out all nine billion names of God. As the story goes, as each new name comes out, one of the stars in the sky is extinguished. This is the metaphor for what people fear when science is going to describe what makes us human. They’re going to learn more and more about less and less and with each new factoid yet another light of our individuality and uniqueness is going to be extinguished.

I don’t think anybody needs to worry about that. As a scientist, I don’t fear that. I am a reasonably emotional person, and I see no reason why that’s incompatible with being a scientist. Even if we learn about how everything works, that doesn’t mean anything at all. You can reduce how an impala leaps to a bunch of biomechanical equations. You can turn Bach into contrapuntal equations, and that doesn’t reduce in the slightest our capacity to be moved by a gazelle leaping or Bach thundering. There is no reason to be less moved by nature around us simply because it’s revealed to have more layers of complexity than we first observed.

The more important reason why people shouldn’t be afraid is, we’re never going to inadvertently go and explain everything. We may learn everything about something, and we may learn something about everything, but we’re never going to learn everything about everything. When you study science, and especially these realms of the biology of what makes us human, what’s clear is that every time you find out something, that brings up 10 new questions, and half of those are better questions than you started with.

It is perfectly summed by a quote by a geneticist of the 1930s, John Haldane, who once tried to describe this notion: “Life is not only stranger than we imagine; life is stranger than we can imagine.”

That’s really the most important thing to emphasize. The purpose of science in understanding who we are as humans is not to rob us of our sense of mystery, not to cure us of our sense of mystery. The purpose of science is to constantly reinvent and reinvigorate that mystery. To always use it in a context where we are helping people in trying to resist the forces of ideology that we are all familiar with.

So on that note, thank you very much for this award; it is a tremendous honor.

Robert Sapolsky is a professor of neurology at Stanford University. He received an A.B. in Biological Anthropology from Harvard (Phi Beta Kappa) in 1978 and his Ph.D. in Neuroendocrinology from Rockefeller University in 1984. He did postdoctoral work at the Salk Institute and was a research associate at the Institute of Primate Research, National Museums of Kenya (1985). He is a MacArthur Fellow (1987) and has won many awards for teaching, science investigation and writing. His books include the best-selling “A Primate’s Memoir” (2001), “The Trouble With Testosterone and Other Essays on the Biology of the Human Predicament” (1998) and “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers” (1994).

Freedom From Religion Foundation