"Why We Behave the Way We Do" by Allen Weiss, MD, MBA, President & CEO

Why We Behave the Way We Do

May 15th, 2013 - Why is it so hard to keep a secret? Why do we like to be in groups and have friends? In other words, why do we behave the way we do?

Brain science can help explain our action—both the good actions and the bad actions.

Neuroscientists—aided by psychologists, psychiatrists, neurobiologists, pathologists, radiologists and other “ists” have been using many previously unavailable technologies to examine and correlate behavior with physiologic and anatomical changes in the brain. We now understand that many of our behaviors are not even under our conscious control but rather are pre-programmed genetically.

That which underlies what we do have been recently shared in A book by neuroscientist David Eagleman, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, explains these behaviors and mechanisms.

Our brains are built of complex cells called neurons. Hundreds of billions of these cells send electrical pulses to each other up to hundreds of times per second. Many interconnecting networks form a “computer” which is far more complex than any computer ever created. And this is all inside an approximately three pound pink colored organ with a consistency similar to Jell-O.

Brain function is skewed toward vision; one third is devoted towards making sense of what we see. Other smaller areas deep inside control our emotions, direct our behavior, and handle our other senses. Dysfunction in any one area can cause catastrophic results.

In 1966, a deranged shooter in Texas killed 13, wounded 33 and then committed suicide. At autopsy, the killer’s brain harbored a tumor the size of a grape in the amygdala. This area of the brain controls emotions and behavior. And when the amygdala is damaged, impulsiveness may be unleashed.

Most of the function of our brain is unconscious. As you are reading this article, you are not thinking about your pulse, blood pressure, or breathing—or any of the other autonomic functions which keep us alive.

Not just our bodily functions are on autopilot. Many of our decisions are based on reasons which we can’t explain. And don’t even know why we make them, until we are subsequently informed.

For instance, men were asked to rank how attractive women’s faces were, based on head and shoulder pictures. Unbeknownst to the men, in half the photos the eyes of the women were dilated, and in the other half they were not. Consistently, the men were attracted to the women with dilated eyes.

Cleopatra was famous for her beautiful eyes, which were dilated with opiates (belladonna). The men had no insight into why they were attracted. Bottom line, something deep in their brains signaled that dilated eyes were associated with sexual excitement and readiness. Given that all species desire to reproduce, this attractiveness is not unexpected once it’s explained.

Our brains are in the business of gathering information that is subsequently transformed into knowledge which helps us thrive. Hearing our name dropped in the background in a crowded room, even when we are engaged in another conversation, usually gets our attention.

Most of what happens in our mental life is below our conscious level. Even physical activities such as hitting a baseball pitched by a professional player are more reflex than active attention. A hardball moving at 95 miles per hour allows a batter 0.4 seconds to respond. No one can ponder about which way the ball is breaking in that fraction of a second. The reflexes of a good batter lock him onto the ball, and send his arms swinging.

More than just physical responsiveness is explained by subconscious behavior. Historically, Sigmund Freud thought that bringing out a person’s hidden state would explain a person’s behavior—both good and bad. Our dreams are so hard to recall, yet they seem interesting and satisfying. Dream interpretation, therefore, has been thought to be a window of opportunity into our subconscious. Much about psychoanalysis has been discredited, but Freud was early in delving into our unconscious state.

Even seemingly coincidental behavior may have underlying mental connections. Consider a study of 15,000 public marriage records performed in 2004. It showed that people are much more likely to get married to others with the same first letter in their first name than would be explained by chance. The theory is that folks select mates who remind them of themselves. People love looking in the mirror and seeing images of themselves.

This “implicit egotism” also comes into play as we choose our professions. A different study showed that people named Denise or Dennis are disproportionally likely to become dentists, Laura and Lawrence are more likely to become lawyers; roofers are more likely to have first names beginning with “R”; hardware store owners are more likely to have names with “H.”

Enjoying a runner’s “high” or getting into the “zone” with an athletic event, or having a period of particular creativity, are also examples of subconscious behavior surfacing in a beneficial way. Sometimes a thought just “pops” into our mind; it solves a problem, moves us towards a solution, or satisfies us in some manner.

Sleep can take away worries and let us wake up refreshed. This balance between the conscious and unconscious has evolved over the millennium, and differentiates us from all other forms of life.

Also part of our subconscious are complex instincts which are not learned. Instincts are not unique to humans; many creatures rely on instincts for survival. Newborns of all species gravitate towards their parents, who in turn form healthy nurturing relationships. Instinctually, for the survival of any species, the young need to be nurtured.

Instincts are also partially responsible for how we gravitate towards others. We all prefer to “hang around” others who are like us. Interestingly, one of the predictors of our body weight or predilection to exercise is the size of our friends and their propensity to be physically active.

Philosopher and psychologist William James once asked, “Why do we smile when pleased, and not scowl? Why are we unable to talk to a crowd as we talk to a single friend? Why does a particular maiden turn our wits so upside-down? And so, probably does each animal feel about the particular things it tends to do in the presence of particular objects.”

Although we humans are the only species capable of higher cognitive thought and speech, we share so much with other species on the evolutionary ladder.

Understanding our behaviors—both conscious and unconscious—can be a humbling but important experience. Understanding that many of our behaviors are unconscious helps us appreciate how important our rational, ethical, and moral behaviors are for the organized society we all enjoy and appreciate.

Past Health Advice Articles

Dr. Allen Weiss is CEO & President of the NCH Healthcare System. He is board certified in Internal Medicine, Rheumatology and Geriatrics, and was in private practice in Naples, Florida from 1977 - 2000. Dr. Weiss is active in a variety of professional organizations and boards, and has been published in numerous medical journals, including the American Journal of Medicine and the Journal of Clinical Investigation.