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We Are The Boss: The Surprising Science of Self Control

Dec 23 2013, 9:07am CST | by

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We Are The Boss: The Surprising Science of Self Control
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We Are The Boss: The Surprising Science of Self Control

You are not running the show—that’s one of bigger lessons from the cutting edge of biology.

In recent years, scientists have identified over 100,000 viral elements in your genome, compared to the 20,000 human protein coding genes. Eight to nine percent of our DNA belongs to them and not us. Or, as science writer Carl Zimmer explains: “You’re six times more virus than human.”

Moreover, the average human body contains ten times more microbial cells than human cells.

In other words, biologically, you are a we.

And, it now appears, we are in charge.

What does this mean? It means that the way you think and feel and the decisions you make as a result of thoughts and feelings that not entirely your own.

For example, we now suspect that it is viral DNA that causes schizophrenia. The popular press dubbed this idea the “insanity virus” and debate is still ongoing, but the idea here, as Discover magazine recently explained, is that “the insanity virus…may challenge our basic views of human evolution, blurring the lines between “us” and “them,” between pathogen and host.

Along similar lines, anecdotal evidence has long suggested that our microbiome can easily hijack our emotions and, by extension, our decision-making processes. In May of 2013, we got hard proof.

In a well-regarded study, researchers at UCLA found that women who consumed probiotics had significantly altered brain function. Further research has shown that the connections between different brain regions differ depending on which species of bacteria dominate gut flora.

How much or how little this ends up controlling behavior is not yet known, but Stephen Collins of McMaster University in Ontario discoverered that if you took gut bacteria from nervous mice and replaced them with the gut bacteria of fearless mice, the nervous mice became friendlier and far less anxious.

This means that our emotions—arguably the part of ourselves that we most identify with—are not entirely our own. How much or how little remains to be seen, but this does mean mean that what we most likely think of as an individual decision—I, Steven Kotler, am making this choice—is actually—we, the collective living within Steven Kotler, are making this choice.

So who’s really running the show? We haven’t the faintest idea.With we being the operative term.

*This piece is the second in a series being co-written with Laura Anne Edwards, head of Global Content Partnership, Unreasonable Group.

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