When Your Brain Has A Mind of Its Own

Posted on September 25, 2017


This month’s issue of AARP Magazine will be of special interest to those readers who frequently announce “The Devil made me do it,” when confronted with their own self-damaging and/or inexplicable behavior. With all due respect to The Devil, Life in the Boomer Lane believes said Devil has been working overtime to create any number of tragic global events and US presidential brain spewings to be concerned with explaining why you just polished off all of the ice cream in your freezer.

According to the AARP piece, “When the Brain Has A Mind of Its Own,” The Devil, it turns out, is no match for our very own brains when it comes to explaining a lot of our negative behavior. According to Stanford neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky, “Our most impulsive actions aren’t always determined by the moments when they happen…Rash decisions…result from what happens to a person’s body in the moments, hours, weeks, months, and even years beforehand, going all the way back to childhood and perhaps even further, to our genetic make up and the culture into which we were born.”

LBL, after having read this statement about a dozen times, can only conclude “Whoa, doggies.” This is huge (what Sapolsky said, not the sentence “Whoa, doggies.”). This flies in the face of The Devil, ones mother, menopause, Mercury in retrograde, and the Haagen Dazs company for being responsible for our aberrant behavior. Now, we must consider thousands of years of conditioning for the reason why we got annoyed with our spouses or significant others or children or UPS delivery person. We must blame unseen forces for overeating, arriving late to all appointments, purchasing a lot of stuff on QVC, forgetting to stop at a stop sign, and believing that Trump occasionally makes sense.

If all this is true, how can we ever be in charge of ourselves?  Is all lost?  Are we simply pong balls, randomly bouncing off the walls of our lives? The answer is, like the response to “Is the world about to end?,”  “Yes” and “No.”

Yes: Sapolsky says “If you’re a neuroscientist who studies behavior, it becomes mighty hard to find a space in there for the notion of free will. If there is free will, it’s in all the uninteresting places, like whether I choose to wear my new shirt.”

No: (What is in our control is) “how we raise our children, how we assess our moral system, how we accommodate the stressor in our lives.”

So, to recap: Sapolsky puts choosing which shirt to wear in the same category as deciding how to raise children.  LBL, not being a world-famous neurobiologist, and having already completed the child-rearing process for better or worse, will now deal with this seeming contradiction by choosing whether to put on a particular shirt or to polish off the rest of the ice cream in the freezer. She invites you to make your own choices at this time.