Social media algorithms, artificial intelligence and our own genetics are one of the factors that influence us beyond our consciousness. This raises an old question: do we have control over our own lives? This article is part of The Conversation’s series on the science of free will.
Many of us believe that we are the masters of our own destiny, but new research shows the extent to which our genes are affected by our genes.
It is now possible to decipher our individual genetic code, the sequence of 3.2 billion DNA “letters” unique to each of us, which forms a blueprint for our brain and body.
This sequence shows how many of our behaviors have a solid biological aptitude, which means that we may be skewed to develop a specific trait or trait. Research has shown that genes can affect not only our height, eye color or weight, but also our vulnerability to mental illness, longevity, intelligence and impulsivity. Such traits are inscribed in varying degrees in our genes – sometimes thousands of genes work in concert.
Most of these genes teach how our brain circuits are laid down in the womb and how they function. We can now see a baby’s brain as it was built, even 20 weeks before birth. There are circular changes in their brains that strongly correlate with genes prone to autism spectrum disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). They even suggest conditions that can no longer arise for decades: bipolar disorder, major depression, and schizophrenia.
Genes are shown to influence how well children do during their schooling
We are increasingly confronted with the prospect of predispositions for more complex behaviors also being wrapped up in our brains. These include what religion we choose, how we shape our political ideologies, and even how we create our friendship groups.
Nature and nurturing are intertwined
There are other ways in which our life stories can be passed down through generations, besides being inscribed in our DNA.
“Epigenetics” is a relatively new field of science that can reveal how intertwined nature and nurturing can be. It does not look at changes to genes themselves, but rather at the “tags” placed on genes from life experience, which change how our genes are expressed.
One 2014 study looked at epigenetic changes in mice. Mice like the sweet smell of cherries, so when a waffle reaches their nose, it illuminates a pleasure zone in the brain that motivates them to scurry around and hunt for the treat. The researchers decided to pair this odor with a slight electric shock, and the mice quickly learned to freeze in anticipation.
Epigenetics: what impact does it have on our psychology?
The study found that this new memory has been passed down through the generations. The grandchildren of the mice were afraid of cherries, although they did not experience the electric shocks themselves. The grandfather’s sperm DNA changed its shape and left a blueprint of the experience tangled in the genes.
It is ongoing research and new science, so there are questions about how these mechanisms can apply to humans. But preliminary results suggest that epigenetic changes may affect the offspring of extremely traumatic events.
One study showed that the sons of U.S. Civil War prisoners had an 11% higher mortality rate by their mid-40s. Another small study showed that Holocaust survivors and their children had epigenetic changes in a gene linked to their levels of cortisol, a hormone involved in the stress response. This is a complicated picture, but the results suggest that descendants have a higher net cortisol level and are therefore more susceptible to anxiety disorders.
Extreme stress in your childhood is toxic to your DNA
Do we have a space for free will?
Of course, it is not just that our lives are stoned by the brain we were born with, the DNA our parents gave us, and the memories passed down from our grandparents.
Fortunately, there is still room for change. As we learn, new connections form between nerve cells. As the new skill is practiced, or the learning is revived, the connections are strengthened and the learning is consolidated in a memory. If the memory is visited repeatedly, it will become the standard route for electrical signals in the brain, which means that learned behavior becomes habit.
Take cycling, for example. We do not know how to drive one when we are born, but through trial and error and a few minor accidents along the way, we can learn to do it.
What is brain plasticity and why is it so important?
Similar principles form the basis for perception and navigation. We make and strengthen neural connections as we move around our environment and dispel our perception of the space that surrounds us.
But there is a catch: sometimes our learning from the past blinds us to future truths. Watch the video below – we are all biased to see faces in our area. This preference makes us ignore the shadow directions that say it is the back of a mask. Instead, we rely on proven pathways in our brain, which generate the image of a different face.
This illusion illustrates how difficult it can be to change one’s mind. Our identity and expectations are based on past experiences. It can take too much cognitive energy to break down the frameworks in our minds.
As I explored in my latest book, The Science of Fate, published last year, this research touches on one of the greatest mysteries in life: our individual choice.
For me, there is something beautiful about considering ourselves as elegant machinery. Imports from the world are processed in our unique brains to produce the production that is our behavior.
However, many of us do not want to give up the idea of being free agents. Biological determinism, the idea that human behavior is completely innate, rightly makes people nervous. It is appalling to think that horrific acts in our history have been committed by people who were powerless to stop them, because it causes the ghost to arise that it can happen again.
Instead, we can think of ourselves as is not limited by our genes. The recognition of the biology that influences our individuality can then enable us to better combine our strengths and utilize our collective cognitive ability to shape the world for the better.
This article by Hannah Critchlow, Science Outreach Fellow at Magdalene College, University of Cambridge, is published from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
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