If you’ve ever wondered why one person is drawn to a career in a creative industry while someone else loves to sit in an office and crunch numbers, the answer might be in their genes. Behavior and choice are responses from our cells to the environment, and they have more impact than you might realize, says Robin R. Hayes, author of My Cells Made Me Do It: The Case for Cellular Determinism.
“We’re often unaware of why we make the decisions we do, and these decisions can be easily manipulated and influenced by subtle environmental cues,” he says. “The evidence suggests you do not have free will, that it is illusionary, and that all of your behavior is determined by how your cells respond to their surroundings.”
Cells can limit how much an individual can do if they don’t have natural capability. For example, certain physical attributes help in a variety of careers, as can a propensity toward a specific talent.
“Some individuals are really good at math, and they probably have a genetic advantage with increased neuronal and dendrite connections to process information,” says Hayes, a microbiologist and professor at Hartnell College in Salinas, California. “There’s a separation from the [Big Bang Theory] ‘Sheldons’ of the world and the normal person who is a high school math teacher. The teacher could be very good and know the subject well, but the separation is that those who master with ease have a genetic predisposition for certain skills.”
Our Past Affects Our Cells, Too
In addition to the genetics, our experiences affect our cells. “We react based on what we’ve encountered before that has impacted our neuronal network,” says Hayes. “Certain events trigger emotional feelings. Later, when similar events occur, it influences our behavior. Even when we’re in a positive setting, if we had experienced a negative impact in the past from something similar, it impacts the decision we make in the moment.”
This is often described as gut instinct—an “emotional nudge” that comes from an experience that was similar, says Hayes. “It comes from how we’re raised or jobs we’ve done in the past,” he says. “It’s a cellular biology response.”
Those experiences are stored in our cells through the building of neuronal networks. The brain sends out dendrites that establish more elaborate networks. When things are repeated, it establishes stronger connections that we remember readily. “A level of cell change takes place, but you also have memories that occur on the surface of the cells with our surface receptors,” says Hayes.
Rewriting Your Genes
While genes and experiences predispose your decisions, it’s possible to override your fate, but you’ll probably only get so far, says Hayes. “Talent can be developed, but it’s going to be limited in potential based on genetic makeup,” he says.
You can also take steps that turn genes on and off, adds Hayes. “A recent study found that individuals that exercise have 200 more genes turned on than those that don’t, or those that exercise at lower level,” he says. “Our environment can also change the types of genes turned on. Turning on certain genes could lead to release of certain neurotransmitters or hormones that could lead to an increase in certain surface receptors and neuro-hormones that cause you to feel better about your day, self, or what you’re doing.”
As of now, though, not enough research has been done to leverage our genetic on/off switch, says Hayes. “We’re starting to learn more about genes and protein production,” he says. “It’s very difficult right now to look at a gene, see the protein it makes, and say that this protein is responsible for a certain action or behavior. We can’t yet do it with success, but we’re starting to see positive responses based on exercise.”
Free Will Is Still Important
So if our cells are making our decisions, why bother with plans and goals? Because looking solely at your genes has faults, says Hayes. “Is it moral or ethical to analyze someone’s genomes to see what they can and cannot do?” he asks. “Someone might say, ‘Don’t pigeonhole me.’ We certainly want to feel like we have our free will, even though in reality we don’t. We want to feel in control.”
Things will happen regardless of what you do, but you are still a player in the world events, says Hayes. “Your action or inactions will not only affect you, but also anyone who interacts with you,” he says. “To say you have no choice may not be entirely accurate. You still have to make the decisions.”