I do what I do.

Posted: May 20, 2011 in attitude, biochemistry, chemistry, in the news, just for fun, you asked!

A friend and I met for an afternoon chat; we saw one another in the parking lot and together headed toward our destination. We talked as we walked, slowly tracing our way to the awaiting patio. At some point along our journey, we simultaneously noticed that we had begun to drift apart. We exchanged a look and each of us gazed down, both wondering what had caused us to subconsciously choose different paths. Interestingly, she had unwittingly followed a curvy sidewalk carved into the landscaped lawn. I, on the other hand, had continued to march straight toward the destination, inadvertently pursuing the shortest distance between two points.

We giggled, as girls do, sparking a lively discussion regarding our innate differences – which, of course, resulted in an appreciation of our overall similarities. I realized the acquaintances who become my close friends mimic the phenomenon we experienced while walking: They are the people who confidently and independently follow their own path, yet arrive at the same destination. (I’m certain there’s an Ayn Rand quote in here somewhere.)

We do what we do. And we do what we want. (Caveat: What some people want is to do what they think others want them to do, or expect them to do.) But why is this? Are mere chemicals responsible for free will? What pathways give us individuality, from whence stems innate motivation (or lack thereof); can a change in chemicals change innate responses? Are our subconscious decisions predetermined? Are they dynamic in space, time, and circumstance? Can we purposely choose against them? Are we able to permanently alter our seemingly inherent characteristics?

I could go on and on with these questions; unfortunately, not I nor anyone else really has an answer. We have many clues, glimpses, hopes; but alas, nothing concrete, nothing that holds true uniformly or ubiquitously for the entire human population. Interestingly, while there are many drugs that affect personality, decision-making, and preference, these compounds are often among the least understood; in fact, the mechanisms of action for entire classes of mood-altering substances remain wholly elusive. Doctors prescribe anti-depressants based solely upon the appearance of effectiveness, with no understanding whatsoever of how or why they work. There do seem to be some consistent biochemical messengers that pop up again and again in studies of personality, attitude, choice, inclination, and other cognitive-based traits; these compounds are inevitably influenced by the drugs we find effective at eliciting responses in these areas (though, oddly, often we only notice this ex post facto).

I’m enthralled by these compounds. Not only are their direct effects (those we’ve discovered so far, anyway) amazing, but there seems no bodily pathway immune from some indirect effect of their action. They serve as a dynamic reminder that our bodies run not on a series of one-way linear biochemical reactions, but that we function as a network of interconnected, amenable reactions – and because the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, even the most innocuous compounds are vital to our optimal functioning.

Monoamine neurotransmitters appear to play an important role in linking our conscious behaviors with our subconscious existence. These include the lately in vogue compounds serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and their relatives. Just knowing which compounds are involved seems only the tip of the iceberg, however: Not only does the manufacture, quantity, location, and concentration of the chemical in question matter, but so does the characteristics of the corresponding receptor proteins as well as their ratios and interactions with seemingly unrelated pathways along the route. It seems that dopamine, in particular, has a functional role in our decision-making processes, all of which probably have a subconscious component.

Do yourself a google for the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis and read all about how our major body systems are intertwined and interdependent. I especially enjoy learning about how my gut has a mind of its own – complete with literal mood swings and impressionable responses to my bodily conditions and those substances I choose to expose my innards to.

Fascinatingly, these compounds that make us individuals also seem to play a role in social interactions and cohesion. I am currently reading The Wisdom of Crowds, given to me by a former student (and ongoing friend); I cannot help but suspect maybe culture is actually the average of our individuality, beautiful and wondrous exactly by its projection of the best of our collective biochemical tendencies, exactly capturing the perfection of our imperfections.

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