A necessary illusion: How your cells decide your immediate behavior
SALINAS, Calif. — What if the next time you needed an excuse for cheating on your diet, workout plan or forgetting a friend's birthday, you could respond with "my cells made me do it"?
Your friends, family or personal trainer may not be so understanding at first. That is, until you pass along Professor Robin R. Hayes' book "My Cells Made Me Do It: The Case for Cellular Determinism."
"Cellular Determinism is just an explanation of our behavior and why we do what we do," he says. "When you interpret what's going around you — your sight, sound — all those senses are all interpreted at a cellular level."
Hayes, a microbiologist and professor at Hartnell College who has been studying cellular determinism for more than 10 years, explains that all the information the body collects is interpreted on a cellular level through the cell's surface receptors on the membrane.
"Cells are also bathed in chemicals, hormones and neurotransmitters influencing the way each one acts," Hayes says.
Behavior is an in-the-moment response, Hayes says.
"That's really what behavior is — we are reacting to what's happening and that reaction is dependant on our body's cells and their cellular biology," he says.
Three main elements contribute to our behavior: our genes, experience and environment.
"We can plan behavior for the future like, 'When I encounter this condition, I'm going to do this' but until you actually encounter a condition, you can't really know what you're going to do," he says.
Human behavior depends on the cells' environment and their available genes. Depending on the perceived stimuli, our cells make a decision on how to act using the neuronal networks created by previous experiences. Our perception of past stimuli establishes pathways for cells to use in the moment. How we respond in any given moment is a matter of how on a micro level, our cells — and on a macro level, our cellular networks — will respond to current conditions, according to Hayes.
"There isn't a fine line that separates (genetics, experience and environment) because there is a lot of play between them, but each one contributes significantly to how we are responding to what's going on in our lives," he says.
Am I freely thinking?
Hayes says that our body's complex and intricate cellular networks interact in milliseconds so it seems that we are making a choice, instead of just responding to stimuli based on our environment and genetic makeup.
"Free will is a sense that I'm responsible for what I am doing and I'm making the decisions and choices and so are other people," he says.
We want people to be responsible for their behavior as well, Hayes says.
"Free will is this sense that we are in fact in charge of what we are doing," he says. "And if you think about it mentally, our person — who we are — is an internal narrative of us explaining to ourselves exactly what we are experiencing and seeing."
This constant narrator is effectively us, Hayes says. Thought (the constant narrator) is not free will but rather electrical activity in the brain.
"Thought is the result of us experiencing things. When you are having thoughts they are thoughts of the things that you have experienced, and generally, even thoughts into the future, are all based on experiences," he says. "When you have this internal thought process going on it's really an explanation of what you have experienced in the past."
Hayes says this is a key component to cellular determinism: thoughts are just experiences.
"So when this internal narrator reacts to the circumstances to the situation, it feels like our free will response but when we dig down deeper, we can almost always find a cellular cause or some kind of cause to that behavior," he says.
A 'necessary illusion'
Hayes argues that, to a degree, we as a society already accept and understand this idea through our language with the use of phrases like "That happened for a reason," or "God works in mysterious ways."
"We have this understanding that (some) things are determined, but we want to have this sense that we are in control," he says. "We describe our choices and actions as free will choices even though we understand that there is a cellular influence to those things."
Because of this, Hayes says cellular determinism is similar to religion.
"If God knows all that I'm going to do or is omnipotent then that suggests there is a deterministic theme to the universe," he says. "But religion will also turn around and tell you that God gives you free will."
In order to react, we must have this belief in free will, Hayes says.
"Much of what we do — and many of our actions — are in fact determined by circumstances," he says.
Still, Hayes says society creates the need for the belief in free will, so we can continue to control and punish people who behave outside of its norms.
"Maybe the three things — your genes, experience and environment — will lead you to do something bad," he says. "Whether or not you're responsible for doing for what happened, society will make you responsible because we get a little bit of pleasure when 'the bad guy gets what he deserves.' "
Hayes argues that if people were evaluated on their cellular biology then we could perhaps understand why they do what they do.
"Certainly if we dig deep enough we could find those answers," he says. "But in order to deal with those behaviors, we try to eliminate the genes by removing people from the gene pool by prison or — depending on the society — death."
The emotional nudge
While behavior may be dictated on a cellular level due to our genes, experiences and environment, most often the ultimate deciding factor will be an emotional cue from the amygdala — the section of the brain that carries emotions.
"Whenever we make a decision about what to have for dinner or what to wear — not to mention the big decisions, like getting married or taking a job — they all involve a little bit of an emotional nudge," Hayes says. "Studies have shown people who have their frontal cortex separated from their emotional centers may still be just as smart as they ever were but when it comes making a decision, they get stuck in analysis — paralysis because they can't pull the trigger."
Hayes says people with this type of brain trauma may not ever be able to make decisions because their amygdala cannot send the emotional push needed.
"If we understand what the emotional push is that ultimately affects us — maybe it's a person, preference or desire — then we have a better understanding of why we are making the decision that we are making," Hayes explains.
Although some feel uneasy about cellular determinism, Hayes admits he still sees the benefits that we can all gain from fully understanding our in-the-moment responses to situations.
"So many times we beat ourselves up for reactions that we have had in the past. If we reflect on what those actions were, we might be able to see a cause behind it — a cellular response — and understand why we did that," he says.
In reflection, Hayes says we are developing other neural pathways.
"This way we are going to have new neural connections so the next time we encountered that situation we might behave differently," he says.