Great Courses: Being Human

Subtitled: Life Lessons from the Frontiers of Science

Technically, this isn’t a book, so technically, I’m not writing a book review, and technically, I shouldn’t count this as nonfiction toward Nonfic November, right? Pshaw. I don’t care. It’s rare that I listen to a series of lectures, and as this is only my second time (ha!), I feel like I can set my own precedence here. And I kinda did already, since I also reviewed the last Great Courses lecture series I listened to (Stress and Your Body), and both Courses have been just phenomenal.

Okay. Being Human is a lecture series by Robert Sapolsky, a scientist, author, researcher and professor at Stanford. He also narrated the previous Great Courses lecture I listened to, and I find him to be an amazing lecturer. His teaching is engaging and relatable, his voice never drops into monotone, and even with subjects that I struggle to understand (like certain parts of biology), I learn tons from him. The biggest reason I enjoy listening to his lectures is that he doesn’t focus just on the biology or neuroscience or so-called hard sciences. Instead, he integrates those sciences with other kinds – sociology, psychology, anthropology, history, etc. In other words, he takes subjects and shows how broad-reaching human behavior is, and integrates it all so that you can come in and learn from many different directions. All without getting so advanced and technical that you need specific degrees to listen, but also not condescending to the listener, as I’ve often heard when trying other GC lectures. (Once, a dietitian gave a series of lectures on food, biology, psychology, and nutrition, and while I find that combination irresistible, I couldn’t listen past him saying something to the effect of, “Everyone knows sugar and bread are carbohydrates, but did you know that fruit is also a carbohydrate?” Yes, a-hole, I’m sure we’re all aware of that 1st-grade fact.)

To get more into the specifics of this lecture series, Sapolsky approaches the topic of what makes humans human. To me, the most fascinating part about this is just how similar humans are to other animals, how little is unique to us as a species. Some of the topics he addresses in various lectures include sleep/dreams, the science of bad moods, nostalgia and repetition in aging, our brains’ fascinating way of mixing metaphors into mood/thoughts, memory manipulation, dopamine response to reward/anticipation, etc. Some of the lecture series had crossover with the last series I listened to, but it’s been a few years and I loved that series so much that I didn’t mind this at all.

Favorite fun fact learned from this series: They’ve done experiments that show your neurons and mood can be changed just by mimicking the facial muscles of a smile (pen held in the teeth) or frown (pen held by the lips). Additionally, people with lots of botox injections around the face experience a muted version of emotions as their muscles aren’t as pliable. This is oversimplified – there was like half a lecture devoted to these studies – but it makes me remember back to my traumatized childhood/adolescent self. Back during that period of my life, I purposely attempted to hold my face in a mask of complete indifference, absent of all expression or emotion. (It apparently didn’t work as well as I wanted, because I have major RBF and so everyone just thought I was angry all the time.) At the same time, I was purposely trying to dampen all my emotions, to numb myself away so that I didn’t feel anything. There are some interesting correlations there.

About Amanda

Agender empty-nester filling my time with cats, books, fitness, and photography. She/they.
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