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Behavior changing neurobiology–on the complexity of cause

“Don’t let us forget that the causes of human actions are usually immeasurably more complex and varied than our subsequent explanations of them.”

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Idiot


The causes of our actions are many and complex, but our explanations tend to be much more simple.  Think of why you are reading this blog post.

OK. Done?

You needed to learn to read and then to hear about me in some way.  The internets needed to be invented.  Perhaps you would not be reading this if Napolean had not decided to invade Russia in 1812.  There’s a story that I could tell of a distant predecessor’s brother being kicked in the head by a mule, so the family stayed in St. Louis rather than moving to California, allowing my ancestors to eventually meet, so that I can sit here typing away.

But when asked “why are you reading this” I doubt you told the story of humankind.  You were doutbless selective in the cause(s) you cited. 

The causes we select are affected by a variety of factors.  Which explanations catch our attention?  Which explanations do we prefer?  We reach into the bag that contains many, many causes and pull out one or two.

One set of causes has drawn a great deal of attention in recent decades–the neurobiological.  There are many pictures of brains lighting up correlated to some things that people do.  Perhaps because we are aware of these biological explanations, perhaps because we prefer the simplicity of biological reductionism, perhaps because we live in a culture that points us at the biological as cause, or perhaps for other reasons, it is easy for us to fall into a habit of explaining our behavior by biology. And surely thinking of biology as cause is sometimes useful, just as it is sometimes helpful to remember Napolean.  But the biological is only one sort of explanation and those ties of illuminated brains to behavior are just correlational, and so to do not speak clearly of cause. 

The piece linked to below pushes in the other direction. Can changing what people do change their neurobiology?  It gives a number of instances in which the answer is “yes.”  Our actions matter and sometimes it is useful to think of our actions as causal when we ask why we and others do what they do.

When we think of why we do what we do and find ourselves citing biological causes perhaps it would be helpful to remember Dostoyevsky.



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