Human brain with gears

People like to believe that they control what they enjoy doing—the horrible music they likely listen to and the TV dramas that sum up their teenage angst or adult lack of fulfillment—but don’t ever consider that their preferences can be traced back to their brain.

We like to take credit for the way we act; in fact, our systems of justice and faith are built upon the premise. What we fail to realize is that the debate on nature versus nurture is only a distraction from the truth: we don’t choose the environment we develop in any more than we choose our genes. This tandem of biology and the experience that shapes it not only influences, but determines who we are and how we will behave.

1. Your brain likes to move it, move it.

For healthy people, controlling your limbs is pretty simple. You think "move," your hand moves, you "accidentally" touch a girl’s boob at recess, you go to the principal’s office, your parents get called, you’re asked why you’re 24 and hanging out at playgrounds, the cops get called….

That’s the way we subjectively experience movement, but in realtime, the process is both in a different order and generally less pedophilic than that. Benjamin Libet pioneered research into volition by developing a remarkably simple way to test where will begins in the brain. Participants in the landmark study were asked to press a button (because I told you this was remarkably simple) and essentially report at which point they decided to press the button.

Upon analyzing EEGs (doesn’t stand for Eerie Elderly Guys—although Libet was one), the researchers found that it typically takes 200ms from when you decide to move, to when you actually do move. The interesting find was that a whole 500ms before participants "decided" to move, the motor cortex was already firing. So when Urkel was asking, "Did I do that?" he was posing a legitimate question…and giving Tyler Perry entirely too many racially-stereotyped sitcom ideas.

Meet the Browns DVD
Unfortunately, you did do THAT.

If you find half of a second trivial because you, like, last longer than a minute when you have sex (i.e. masturbate), a later study found that activity in the prefrontal and parietal cortexes can predict the outcome of a decision "up to 10 seconds before it enters awareness."

2. Your brain makes your financial decisions and gives you credit.

You’ve probably felt your galvanic skin response pumping before. As you anticipate the frightening climax of the horror movie you’re watching, your sympathetic nervous system fires and your skin begins to moisten like Nancy Grace’s vagina watching a kiddie pageant because you’ve realized that regardless of the outcome, the film is doomed to be included in a humorless parody by the Wayans Brothers. The galvanic skin response is an increase in the electrical conductance of your skin, which makes it sound like you’re Raiden from Mortal Kombat, but it really is just a normal response that scientists use to study the autonomic nervous system. Major economic theories are based upon the idea that we are rational decision makers (good call in 2008). We consciously juxtapose immediate gain and potential reward to maximize the long-term benefit of our decision. Sort of.

First, we aren’t really rational decision makers. We love gains, but hate losses, which sounds rational enough, but we’ll make riskier decisions when loss is involved (we’ll also make riskier decisions if there is a wider selection of choices). We will take a sure gain of $100 to a 50% chance of $200 or nothing. Conversely, we’ll take a potential loss of $200 or nothing at 50% probability over a sure $100 loss.

Second, emotional intuition has more to do with in than you think. Scientists took your regular Joes (there were actually people included not named Joe), as well as weird people with either ventromedial prefrontal cortex or amygdala damage (all you need to know is that they’re parts of the brain), and trained them in a task of recognizing which decks of cards in a game they were playing yielded large immediate rewards, but small long-term gains, versus small immediate rewards, but large long-term gains.

It turns out regular people like us are pretty good at this, but the participants with brain damage were worse than a female CEO. The researchers had a pretty good idea that the participants with cognitive deficits would fail, but they just wanted to make sure they knew their place in the world to toughen them up because they love them.

The most interesting discovery was that even when the normal people were trying to figure out which deck was correct, the galvanic skin response was stronger for bad decks than good decks as they were shuffling through them, meaning their brains already had the shit figured out before they became consciously aware of what was going on. It’s like Nelson Mandela said, "I got my mind on my money and my money on my mind."

Nelson Mandela smiling
"I showed her ass cheeks apartheid."

3. What you enjoy is decided for you.

Musical preference can be a litmus test for the personality of other people. When getting to know someone, we want to know they have similar interests that are reflected in their musical choices. They hate the same bands as you that you liked six months ago, but have met some financial success so you can’t listen to them anymore; they pretend to go to concerts to see obscure opening acts; and they think there’s a difference between listening to pop and listening to pop ironically.

However, is it really someone’s fault that their taste in music is distasteful? You can’t possibly discount exposure and cultural influence. Let’s be honest, no one from outside Tunisia thinks Tunisian music is any good. You also aren’t going to take to something you’ve never heard of; that’s the ONLY reason not everyone in the world has converted to Christianity. As I referenced in my last article, exposure is not only necessary for affinity, but it absolutely reinforces it. We like things we’re familiar with.

The music that is appealing to your ear-holes is also (you should have come to this conclusion already) determined by brain physiology. In fact, scientists can predict what you’ll buy even before you do. When researchers hooked participants up to science machine stuff, they found that increased activity in the nucleus accumbens (the area in the brain linked to reward) while listening to music predicted not only whether a person would buy a record, but also how much money they’d spend on it if it wasn’t Smashmouth and you weren’t me and didn’t just steal it.

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4. What you believe is hardwired in your brain.

Maybe you’re a conservative because you’ve evaluated the precedents and are convinced pregnant, gay Mexican teenagers who took prayer out of schools caused 9/11.

Maybe you’re a liberal because you’ve evaluated the precedents and are convinced every teacher with a degree and wooden desk is above reproach.

Maybe you’re fated to one of those positions and only assimilate information that supports your stance.

A study found that conservatives have larger amygdalas (brain structure that processes fear and emotion) while liberals have more cell bodies in the anterior cingulate cortex (area implicated in predictions and reason). This proves that there is a principal difference between how conservatives and liberals process information and elucidates the polarization of our political discourse. To further escalate the problem, we are keen at extracting only information that supports our thesis unconsciously, which is called the assimilation bias. This is the reason experimental studies are double-Stevie Wonder (black).

Glenn Beck crying
"Something, something, Constitution, something, Mexicans."

If you think this means we are destined as a country to beat each other to death with Bibles or copies of new gun legislation, then you’re probably Happy Glenn Beck or Sad Glenn Beck, respectively. The good news is, in a game of risk, the brains of right- and left-wingers fired in different regions, but they ultimately made the same risky choices in the study. Maybe there is hope after all (everybody hugs and listens to something Bono said).

5. Your genes decide who’s getting in your jeans.

Here at PIC, we aren’t your parents. We can’t assume the responsibility of teaching you about the birds and the bees because we don’t know nearly enough about how poultry and insects fuck to hold an informative conversation about it. What we do know, however, is that true love is blind. That is, we are blind to the determining factors that drive one’s "choice" in finding a partner.

You may think of your immune system as only being useful for sneezing and being the setting for Osmosis Jones, but part of your immune system is the major histocompatibility complex (MHC). The MHC is a family of genes that are involved in the comings and goings of a variety of immune cells, but they are also involved in odor production and detection. A study utilizing guys whose participation was their sole source of non-mom income from the year involved presenting t-shirts to women from the men who had worn them for two consecutive nights. The researchers rubbed the women’s noses in the shirts to allow them to sniff and rate the odor of each one.

Ramones t-shirt
"No! Bad girl!"

Women consistently ranked the t-shirts worn by men who had the most dissimilar MHC genes as having a more attractive musk. The science dweebs running the study took a break from trying to figure out how the findings could help them build a computer model of Kelly LeBrock to speculate that finding a mate with a different MHC could promote the rapid diversity that is necessary to stay ahead of the evolutionary game. Interestingly enough, when women were given oral contraceptives, the preference reversed. So if she’s [your sister] just not that into you…

Not only is your attraction to potential mates out of your conscious control, but so is your propensity to find satisfaction in a relationship and remain committed. The Our-Aunt-Julie-Who-Just-Can’t-Catch-A-Break-But-Has-Met-All-Four-Husbands-Working-At-Applebee’s of the Animal Kingdom, mammals, display monogamy in only 3% of species. Research into voles (small rodents; see picture below) has revealed that species that are monogamous have a higher level of oxytocin and vasopressin 1a receptors—important neurochemical receptors implicated in social bonding—in certain areas of the brain than the species that are polygamous. Expanding on the findings with a probe into humans (large assholes; no picture), who exhibit monogamy in 17% of societies studied, researchers found that men who have more copies of a certain section of the gene that codes vasopressin function, RS3 334, were twice as likely to have a marital crisis and also reported more dissatisfaction with their relationships in a survey their nagging wives or girlfriends probably made them complete.

Vole in human hand
It’s a vole.

6. You really can’t take credit for being good.

Let’s take baby steps. When you take an anti-depressant, it changes your neurochemistry, and it makes you happy or commit suicide because we kind of suck at psychiatry at this point. When you get drunk, it changes your neurochemistry, and you feel elated, uninhibited, and become anti-Semitic. When you have an egg-sized tumor on your right orbitofrontal cortex, it changes your neurochemistry and you make sexual passes at children. What?

Yes, a perfectly healthy, married teacher began visiting child pornography sites and trying to pick up hookers. His wife found out he had made advances towards children and eventually he was convicted of child molestation. Before his sentencing, he complained of a headache, and at the doctor’s office, it was revealed he had a giant tumor in his brain (to be clear it was a human tumor, just a really big one). Upon removal, all of these deviant activities ceased. Sometime later, the urges crept up again and he went back to the doctor. Unlike any script sent to Nicholas Cage, it returned. When the tumor was gone once and for all, he no longer had any issues with sexual promiscuity and pedophilia and polysendeton and alliteration.

What this implicates is that your "morality" is also traced back to your brain. You may say, "Well, not all pedophiles have brain cancer." That’s very true, but then you’ll realize that if the ultimate cause of the man’s pedophilia was determined by his neurobiology, wouldn’t that mean that a run-of-the-mill pedophile would also have a brain different than yours or mine, which he or she can’t control, leading to his or her behavior? Aren’t you fucking bright!

This would mean that being a good person has more to do with fortune than merit, and people who do bad things can’t be blamed. Yes! And should go free! No! The ultimate goal of our justice system should be rehabilitation, not retribution. However, at this stage, there are certain segments of the criminal population who cannot be rehabilitated by our current methods (like repeat recreational marijuana users who are really dangerous with their hemp necklaces and Jimi Hendrix albums). These people cannot be simply let out on the street to re-offend in the solitude of their own homes where they aren’t hurting anyone, regardless of whether it is their "fault" or not. In this way, society has failed them in the same way they’ve failed society.

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7. Your brain writes a story and you believe it.

Some patients plagued by seizures that are unsuccessfully treated with medication undergo a split-brain surgery. Contrary to the way the procedure makes it sound, nevermind , it’s exactly how it sounds. The brain is cut down the corpus callosum into right and left hemispheres. For the most part, your brain hemispheres function incredibly well independently—you can even have an entire hemisphere removed without serious impairment if it’s before you’re 8 years old. Nevertheless, some things can get a little bit interesting.

Visual information criss-crosses in the brain (jump, jump). What you see in your left visual field is processed in the right hemisphere, and vice versa. To say that any one region is solely responsible for anything an inchoate take on the brain, but speech essentially originates in the left hemisphere. A split-brain patient was presented pictures and then asked to point to another picture that fit with what was originally presented. In the left visual field (right hemisphere) a snow scene was shown. In the right visual field (left hemisphere; speech center) a chicken was shown. The patient pointed to a shovel with his left hand and a chicken with his right hand. When asked why he chose the chicken (left visual field, speech center) he easily replied that a chicken matched the chicken claw. When he noticed that his left hand was pointing to a shovel, without difficulty, he expressed that the shovel would be useful in cleaning a chicken coop. He couldn’t vocalize that the snow scene was the original picture that fit the shovel because his left hemisphere didn’t know about it, but instead of conceding to inability, the left hemisphere interprets information available and constructs a narrative without any doubts from you about its validity.

In healthy participants, a similar result is found. If you’ve ever watched a ghost hunting show before, you can draw two conclusions: there is no such thing as ghosts and Ouija boards are a scientific anomaly. As upset as I am to break it to the Paranormal Activity franchise, Ouija boards are a far cry from proof of conjuring. Unless you’re conjuring Patrick Swayze. In that case, get the pottery wheel warmed up.

Patrick Swayze headshot
Nobody puts Swayze in the corner.

Ouija boards have been studied pretty extensively by scientists. It’s true, you have no recollection of moving the cursor, but that’s because it’s an ideomotor effect, much like tear creation in response to an emotional event. In an experiment with a modified Ouija board, participants reported that they intentionally controlled stopping at a certain object—when it was actually a confederate doing the stopping (hired goon of researcher, not ghost of racist soldier)—if they heard the name of the object beforehand.

8. You’re just doing what you’re told.

Nazis are bad. Captain America knew it. Indiana Jones knew it. The Catholic Church is still trying to figure it out (hasn’t excommunicated them yet). We don’t buy the whole, "I was just doing my job" nonsense, do we? That’s the Nuremburg Principle: you’re responsible for your actions, even if you’re just obeying a superior (not to be redundant, but again, you’re exempt if it’s Patrick Swayze).

We may want to rethink our self-righteousness, however. The Milgram experiment was an ethically questionable pioneer study into how big of dickmonkeys humans really are. Subjects sat in a room with the experimenter where they had a list of questions and what they thought was a machine that would electrocute a person in the other room for getting the questions wrong, but was actually a confederate that wasn’t getting shocked at all. Instead of the appropriate response of "shit, white people crazy as fuck," 26 of 40 subjects not only "shocked" the "victim" at the advising of the experimenter (they were aware they could discontinue at any time), but continued all the way to the final shock which they were told was fatal.

The experiment was since repeated and the findings confirmed, prompting a horned-demon to simulate fellatio in front of a downcast Jesus.

* * *

You may be upset by the prospect of not having free will, or may even be wondering why you have been deceived in the first place. Can you imagine how life would be if we were merely conscious of our behaviors, but without the deception of agency? You’d be paralyzed and imprisoned in your consciousness, never knowing what’s coming next.

Now imagine the alternative.

Of course you wouldn’t want control over EVERYTHING. You’d want to forfeit certain processes like breathing and heartbeat. It would be arduous to have to control over your sensory input, so volition in hearing, sight, etc. would be handed over. Now, you’d want to be able to use that sensory input to guide decision-making in your everyday life and wouldn’t possibly have the time to filter out extraneous information; there’s one more facet of freedom you’d surrender. How many choices do you make in a given day? Most are just passing and seemingly menial occurrences that you wouldn’t remember unless something out of the ordinary happened, such as losing your keys, and you had to—usually poorly—recall it.

You wouldn’t get very far if you were held up by these split-second decisions, so you would probably want to make them on auto-pilot, as well. As far as the big decisions go, would you not want all of your life experiences to shape you as a person so that you’d be more apt at making sound decisions? Would you want to go through every single one of them individually a countless number of times every day, or would it be easier for your brain to assimilate and adapt along the way and be ready at a moment’s notice to crunch the numbers? Which part along the way did you play a part in?

Life would be hell if you didn’t feel like you had free will; life would be impossible if you actually had it.