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09 important lessons from this lecture:

00:03:34 What do having your period, having a brain tumor, eating a lot of junk food, and taking anabolic steroids have in common? They all have been successfully used in the courts of law to explain the behavior of a murderer.


  1. Sometimes, the stuff that is going on in your body can dramatically affect what is going on in your brain.
  2. Sometimes, the stuff that is going on in your head can dramatically affect what’s going on in your body.

00:08:36 Humans think in categories:

  • How fast does a person have to be able to run a mile before we are impressed? Generally speaking, people would agree on 4 minutes because we have all created this classification.
  • If a painter explained he was an accomplished painter because he could paint using 12 different colors, humans would not consider that as proof of accomplishment because they do not classify the quality of paintings along those lines.
  • Even with the color spectum, humans categorize the differences using markers because it makes it easier to store the information. These markers in the color classification spectrum are different from culture to culture and language to language, meaning two people can actually disagree on what color something is.

Categories are simply the easiest, most convenient way to make sense of something and to communicate that something to someone else. However, there are a bunch of problems when it comes to categorical thinking:

  • Just as there are differences in classification in the color system, there are different sounds in each language. For example there are two distinct “TH” sounds in the English languages (say: “this thing.”), yet not in the French language. Also, the Finnish language makes no distinction between the English “P” and “B” sound (say: “pear and bear”). These sounds can have a dramatic effect on what you remember and what you forget.
  • Each country has different ways of saying their phone numbers (in France it’s in double digits:; in the US it’s in 3 and then 4 digits: 123-4567.). As long as you respect the telephone categorization, humans have little difficulty writing down telephone numbers. But once you break up that categorization pattern they are accustomed to, their ability to recall that number drastically decreases.
  • When you pay too much attention to category boundaries, you don’t see the big picture; all you see are categories.
  • When you think in categories, you underestimate just how different two facts can be when two things “fall under” the same category. Likewise, you over-estimate how different two facts are when they “fall outside” of the same category.

What is the next number in the following sequence: 4, 14, 23, 34, ??

Answer is at the bottom of this post.

00:22:30 For each behavioral category, you must look at:

  1. What the behavior looks like
  2. What went on in that organism a half-second before that behavior occurred which caused that behavior to occur – which is the world of neurons and circuits and what parts of the brain were activated, thus causing the behavior
  3. What smell, sound, or sensory information in the environment caused those neurons to get activated, thus producing the behavior
  4. What were the various hormone levels in that person during the past few hours, and how did they change how sensitive that person was to those smells, sounds, and sensory information in the environment which caused those neurons to get activiated, thus producing the behavior
  5. What is the evolution and genetic makeup of the individual, population, species

Most people understand that human behavior is a complicated subject, and that a conversation on human behavior. But there are many people who don’t understand how categorical thinking limits their logic:

“Give me a child at birth from any background, and let me control the total environment in which he is raised, and I will turn him into anything I wish him to be, whether doctor or lawyer or beggar or thief.”

-John Watson, 1912. One of the founding fathers of the school of psychology called Behaviorism.

00:27:13 You cannot have 100% control over the environment and stimuili, both genetically and environmentally over a person in order to turn that person in to whatever you want. This quote is an example of a guy living pathologically in a categorical thinking bucket, believing that humanity can be explained solely by understanding reward and punishment.

Shortly after making this claim, John Watson was driven from academia after a wild scandal (an affaire with his graduate-student-assistant) that he was involved in and spent the rest of his career as an extremey successful advertising executive.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: The documentary Human Resources: Social-Engineering in the 20th Century paraphrases John Watson’s quote to “give me a baby, and I can make any kind of man,” and builds upon it to show “how humans are regarded as a resource by corporations–something to be exploited for pecuniary gain–by following the history of psychological experiments in behaviour modification, conditioning and mind control; applying the outcomes to modern day establishment experiments such as institutionalised education, military training, and social engineering by way of things like television…” (Source: ThoughtMaybe.com)]

“Normal psychic life depends upon the good functioning of brain synapses and mental disorders appear as the result of synaptic derrangements. Synaptic adjustments* will then modify the corresponding ideas and then force them into different channels. Using this approach will obtain cures and improvements but no failures.”

António Egas Muniz, neurologist and developer of the lobotomy

00:28:41 *By synaptic adjustments, the speaker is referring to full-frontal lobotamies.

Mr. Muniz, by the way, won the nobel prize for his research on this matter on the backs of 100,000s of people who had nothing wrong them them, yet were treated for disorders resulting from Mr. Muniz’s work – one of the darkest chapters of where psychiatry gets in bed with ideology, the result of Mr. Muniz’s living pathologically in a categorical thinking understanding how synapses work and then adjusting them.

“The selection for social utility must be accomplished by some social institution if mankind is not to be ruined by domestication-enduced degeneracy. The racial idea as a basis of our state has already accomplished much in this respect. We may, and we must rely on the healthy instincts of the best of our people for the extermination of ailments of the population loaded with dregs.”

Konrad Lorenz, one of the founding fathers of ethology and one of Adolph Hitler’s main scientific propagandists, somebody living patholotically in a categorical thinking that doesn’t even exist and having no notion of race and ethnicity and genetics, etc.

00:31:05 These quotes aren’t coming from complete idiots or unintelligent people, these are quotes from a pool of the most influential scientists of our last century; people who were highly-educated, respected and highly-influencial, and living pathologically out of their own categorical thinking of how they could explain the entire world.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: In his lecture Critical Thinking Skills: Limits To Intelligence Testing And If (A) then ©, Ray Hyman points out that intelligence doesn’t predict smartness, and intelligence tests turn out to be poor predictors of whether or not you will be sensible and/or gullible. Stupidity is a derogative term, but let’s face it: stupidity is stupidity, and even the smartest individuals are prone to do and believe stupid things because expertise in one field doesn’t translate into an expertise in another area.

Secondly, in his book Redirect: Changing The Stories We Live By, Timothy D. Wilson points out that many interventions which are universally accepted, massively used and optimistically-touted have not in fact been verified as actually verified in retrospect as having provided the claims they proport, and that many of these interventions and techniques have been made popular solely through the belief that they are and will be productive.

Lastly, in our interview, Executive Creative Director and Vice-Chairman for OgilvyOne Rory Sutherland points out that bad models, once they’ve become widely accepted, have an extraordinary capacity to survive – through a kind of lazy consensus… Once you’ve invested a lot of effort in learning the lingo, you’re pretty reluctant to abandon it.

Also, it’s worth remembering that there is also a lot of vested interests, because there are a lot of people who stake their career in on claim who stand to make a lot of money by selling that claim to people who don’t understand that claim.]

00:33:18 Three intellectual challenges present themselves with regards to biology:

  1. Recognizing circumstances where there are nothing fancy about humans whatsoever; that humans are just like every other animal out there, such as the McClintock Effect where female animals living in close proximity to each other synchronize their menstrual cycles, with the dominant female dictating the cycle. This happens with nearly every type of animal.
  2. Recognizing circumstances where we appear to be just like everybody else, but we do something very different, such as the human’s ability to burn 1,000s of calories per day by simply thinking; humans are able to use our physiology in ways no other animals can.
  3. Recognizing circumstances when we are doing things that no other animal out there can do, such as the human’s ability to repetitively engage in the same ritualisitic behavior: breakfast, work, dinner, discussion, sex, discussion, sleep, breakfast, work, dinner… and what other animal on the planet talk about sex after having had sex?

00:46:32 Recommended readings for this course:

  1. Chaos: Making A New Science by James Gleck
  2. The Trouble With Testosterone: And Other Essays On The Biology Of The Human Predicament by Robert Sapolsky

00:47:53 If you want to understand something complicated you break it apart into its little pieces. Once you understand the little pieces and put it back together, you will understand the complex thing. This is true for fixing clocks, but this isn’t true for understanding and fixing behavior, which is more like trying to understand rain  by taking apart a cloud.

What is the next number in the following sequence: 4, 14, 23, 34, ??

Answer: 42
Explanation: In order to know the next number, you must live in an environment or with a population who thinks or lives with this particular set of categories in their head. Anyone from NYC and familiar with the metro system knows that 4th, 14th, 23rd, and 42nd are the subway stops.

Une réponse à “117. Human Behavioral Biology: Dangers & Challenges Of Categorial Thinking”