Hello, friends!

As humans, we all have brains [citation needed].  One of the coolest things about our brains is, of course, that they let us learn stuff.  But our brains can do something even cooler than that: our brains allow us to unlearn stuff, too!  That way, if we learn something that’s wrong, we’re perfectly capable of unlearning that thing and then learning a new thing that’s right (or at least less wrong).

Personally, I think this ability of ours to learn, unlearn, and relearn has been the key to our evolutionary success as a species.  If we weren’t able to learn from our mistakes, if we couldn’t modify our behavior in an ever-changing world, then we’d probably still be living in caves.  Or, even more likely, we’d be extinct.

But there seems to be this idea out there, propagated mainly by pop-science articles, that evolution has pre-programmed our brains.  There seems to be this notion that our genes pre-determine our personality traits, that our brains are hard-wired to force us to behave the way that we do.  This talk about hard-wired, pre-programmed behavior seems to be extra common as it relates to gender.  Men act like this, women act like that, because our genes say we must.

I don’t believe that.  Whether we’re talking about gender, race, class, or anything else, I don’t believe human beings come pre-programmed, and I don’t think the scientific evidence supports that notion either.  To quote from this article, entitled “Fifty psychological and psychiatric terms to avoid”:

[…] growing data on neural plasticity suggests that, with the possible exception of inborn reflexes, remarkably few psychological capacities in humans are genuinely hard-wired, that is, inflexible in their behavioral expression.  Moreover, virtually all psychological capacities, including emotions and language, are modifiable by environmental experiences.

To be fair, I’m sure genetics, evolution, and so forth do have some influence over us.  I’m sure we’re all born with certain inclinations or predispositions.  But our ability to learn, unlearn, and relearn plays a far bigger role in determining who we are as people and how we behave toward each other.  The idea that we’re born pre-programmed to be like this or like that is, I think, a pop-science myth.

But, of course, I could be totally wrong about everything I just said.  If so, then I guess I have some unlearning to do.

6 responses »

  1. I think about it as evolution does program us, but it actually *over* programs us, to the extent that, with distance senses, we end up in situations where we have competing impulses. Reasoning, learning, and volition give us the ability to selectively inhibit or allow those impulses based on learned predictions.

    So, we can override any particular impulse, any particular action program. And overriding specific action programs in particular situations can become habitual, so that our response now seems as instinctive as the original.

    All of which is to say, evolution does program us, but that programming isn’t destiny. And disentangling the mix of innate responses, learned habitual responses, and reasoned ones that compose the way we act in society is extraordinarily difficult.

    Liked by 1 person

    • J.S. Pailly says:

      I really like that explanation. So many times, doing what I actually want to do requires overriding some other impulse—-laziness, selfishness, anger… those sorts of instincts are always there, but we can learn to ignore them.

      Yeah, I like your way of looking at this a lot.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Steve Morris says:

    Speaking as a father of two, I have observed that children are born with quite a strong personality already present, but this is not fixed entirely and can change, especially during the early years. But I’m pretty confident that we can all change throughout life.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. James Cross says:

    I think there is quite a bit of preprogramming but humans in contrast to other animals have a long period of dependency during which connections in the prefrontal cortex are made. This is period during which language and many social skills are learned.

    Liked by 1 person

    • J.S. Pailly says:

      We certainly do come with a fair amount of stuff preprogrammed in, but pop-psychology tends to overemphasize this point. That’s really what I’m ranting against in this post. I’m just beginning to dig into my new psychology research project, and I’m already annoyed by some of the popular press articles I’ve read.

      Like

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