Destiny, Genes and Neurons

“I was the architect of my own destiny,” wrote Mexican poet Amado Nervo, one hundred years ago. “I planned each charted course, each careful step along the byway, and more, much more than this, I did it my way,” singer and composer Paul Anka penned for ‘The Voice’ of Frank Sinatra, fifty years later. Quite often, many in my generation have echoed such positive and encouraging messages.

Are there indeed architects of their own destiny? Do really some bold and persistent people do things their way? The triumphalist says ‘yes’. But genes and neurons seem to disagree. Our DNA, the legacy of our parents, and our neuronal software, self-coded on us by both the media and the environment, without our permission, could be the determining factors of our behavior, our successes and our failures. On our genes, our control is zero. On our neuronal programming, we could perhaps exercise some control.

Redundant ego is the variable volatile harmful portion of our self that, when loose, do on us whatever it wants. The portion, of what? Of the huge set of neural instructions in our brain that, after all, define everything we are, do and think. The redundant ego originates in the countless cravings and aversions that have been sown in our head by both environment and culture, from the very moment of our birth.

Dr. David A. Kessler, former Commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), has been a dedicated researcher of the addiction to food, tobacco and alcohol over the past two decades. In his latest book, Dr. Kessler suggests that the same mechanisms that subjugate us to eating in excess, smoking or drinking are also the driving forces that enslave us to beliefs, obsessive thoughts, people or places. Such obsessions take possession of our attention, alter our perception of facts, and make us lose control of our thoughts and actions.

‘Capture’, the title of the book just mentioned, is also the designation that Dr. Kessler uses to refer to this hijacking of the brain by alien factors. There is no reference in this book on the role of our redundant ego. Nonetheless, this notion may well be likened to Doctor Kessler’s ‘capture’ since the redundant ego takes possession of our will and leaves us with limited control over our neurons’ self-programming and, consequentially, over the power of will through reason and judgment.

​​The ancients believed in fate. According to Hinduism, the first great religion, we are born programmed by the karma of actions carried out in previous existences; the accumulated charge, enlarged or diminished by the actions in the present life, determines, in turn, the future of our next reincarnations. Let’s play with words by associating the Hinduist karma with science.

Somebody’s DNA is defined by the genes of her ancestors and could be assimilated to the natural innate karma. Neuronal programming, developed and modified permanently by external factors, would be equivalent to the culturally acquired karma. Our power to modify the natural karma is zero. Furthermore, our influence on the cultural karma, our influence on the cultural karma is very limited. Were right the ancient Hinduists, up to a certain extent?

There are a variety of methods–mindfulness meditation is the approach that this columnist practices–that allows us to take advantage of the flexibility of our brain connections for ‘adjusting’ our cultural karma. However, as argued by the skeptics of our ability to control our destiny, the rigor and perseverance demanded by the ‘systematic training of the will’ are in themselves inherited genetic qualities: If we were born undisciplined, we will lack the ‘ability’ to enhance discipline.

In different words, the architecture of personal destinations and the way of life that we believe we have drawn by ourselves may be simply the outcome from the natural karma (this is, genetics), and the neuronal coding (this is, cultural influences) that were imposed onto us.

If just the disciplined ones by birth can be methodical and rigorous, they will also be the only ones that will overcome all the obstacles that life puts on everybody. So, both the successful and the failed alike will live their way… The one set on them by their genes and their neurons.

Gustavo Estrada
Atlanta, July 23, 2016​​


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