Social media algorithms, artificial intelligence and our own genetics are factors that affect us, beyond our consciousness. This raises an old question: can we control our lives? This article is part of a series of articles on the science of free will in Dialogue.
Many of us think that we are the masters of destiny, but new research shows the extent to which our behavior is affected by genes.
It is now possible to decipher our personal genetic code, which is the unique sequence of 3.2 billion DNA “letters” for each of us, and constitutes the blueprint of our brain and body.
This sequence reveals that our behavior has a great biological tendency, which means that we may be biased towards the development of specific attributes or characteristics. Studies have shown that genes may not only make our height, eye color or weight easier, but also make us more vulnerable to mental illness, longevity, intelligence and impulse. These characteristics are written into our genes to varying degrees, and sometimes thousands of genes work together.
Most of these genes indicate how to lay our brain circuits and their functions in the uterus. Now, we can even see the baby’s brain 20 weeks before the baby is born. There are electrical changes in the brain, and these changes are closely related to genes that are susceptible to autism spectrum disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). They are even inclined to diseases that may not appear in decades: bipolar disorder, major depression and schizophrenia.
Genes are shown to influence children̵
We are increasingly faced with the prospect that susceptibility to more complex behaviors similarly permeates our brains. These include which religion we choose, how we form our political ideology, and even how we build our friendship groups.
Nature and nurturing are intertwined
Apart from being engraved in our DNA, there are other ways in which our life stories can be passed on from generation to generation.
“Epigenetics” is a relatively new field of science that can reveal how nature and nurturing are intertwined. It is not concerned with the changes in the genes itself, but with the “labels” on the genes in life experience. These labels will change the way our genes are expressed.
A 2014 study looked at the epigenetic changes in mice. Mice like the sweetness of cherries, so when a feather reaches their nose, the pleasant area in the brain will light up, prompting them to run around and find food. The researchers decided to pair this smell with a mild electric shock, and the mice quickly learned to freeze.
Epigenetics: How does this affect our psychology?
Studies have found that this new memory has been passed down through generations. The mouse’s grandson was afraid of cherries even though he was not shocked. The grandfather’s sperm DNA changed shape, leaving a blueprint for the experience of gene fusion.
This is ongoing research and novel science, so there are still questions about how these mechanisms can be applied to humans. But preliminary results indicate that epigenetic changes can affect the offspring of extreme traumatic events.
A study showed that the death rate of the sons of American Civil War prisoners in their 40s increased by 11%. Another small study showed that the survivors of the Holocaust and their children had epigenetic changes in genes related to their levels of cortisol, which is a hormone related to stress response. This is a complicated picture, but the results show that the offspring have higher levels of cortisol and are therefore more prone to anxiety.
Extreme stress in childhood can be toxic to your DNA
Do we have the scope of free will?
Of course, it is not only our birth that is bound by our brains, but the DNA that our parents gave us, and the memories left by our grandparents, put our lives in a deadlock.
Fortunately, there is still room for change. As far as we know, new connections will be formed between nerve cells. When practicing new skills or relearning, the connection will be strengthened and the learning will be integrated into the memory. If the memory is accessed repeatedly, it will become the default path of electrical signals in the brain, which means that the learned behavior becomes a habit.
Take cycling as an example. We didn’t know how to ride a bike when we were born, but through trial and error and some minor accidents, we can learn to do it.
What is brain plasticity and why is it so important?
Similar principles lay the foundation for perception and navigation. When we move around in our surroundings, we establish and strengthen neural connections, and are reminiscent of the perception of the surrounding space.
But there is a catch: sometimes our past learning makes us blind to the truth of the future. Watch the video below-all of us prefer to see faces in the environment. This preference causes us to ignore the shadow prompt and tell us that this is the back end of the mask. Instead, we rely on tried and tested routes in the brain to generate an image of another face.
This illusion shows how difficult it is to change your mind. Our identity and expectations are based on past experience. It may take too much cognitive energy to destroy the frame in our brain.
As I discussed in the book “The Science of Destiny” published last year, this research touched upon one of the biggest mysteries of life: our personal ability to choose.
For me, it is so beautiful to see myself as an elegant machine. Input from the world is processed in our unique brain to produce output as our behavior.
However, many of us may not want to give up the idea of becoming a free agent. Biological determinism, the concept that human behavior is completely innate, should make people nervous. It is abhorrent to think that the appalling actions in our history were committed by helpless people, because it increases the possibility that people suspect that they might happen again.
Maybe the opposite, we can think of ourselves as Unrestricted Recognizing the biology that affects our personality through our genes can enable us to better use our strengths and use our collective cognitive abilities to improve the world.
This article by Hannah Critchlow, a science outreach researcher at Magdalene College, University of Cambridge, was republished from Dialogue under the license of Creative Commons. Read the original article.
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