Why did you do that?

Many of us have been confronted with that question at some point, maybe even recently. The question often leads to some confusion. Sometimes we can’t think of an immediate answer. However, generally we think of something plausible and offer an explanation of sorts, and then in the form that can best be called a rationalisation. An honest answer would often be: “I don’t know!”

Neuroscience and psychological research suggest a fascinating if sometimes troubling alternative: we do not (consciously) know why we do or say certain things, or make certain decisions. Decisions to do or say things are created in the subconscious mind, to which we have no direct access. In other words, no matter how self-aware we may think we are and no matter how skilled we are in interpersonal behavioural skills we sometimes say and do things, which are hurtful or puzzling to others. How often have you thought to yourself, “I don’t know what got into me?” or “I was beside myself”?

Who is the “me” that something got into? Who or what is the “self” that I was beside? Recent research has not offered a quick answer, but it raises interesting questions.

In one apparently simple experiment, a subject was placed in a brain scanner and told to press one of two buttons, one of which he held in his left hand and the other in his right hand. He just had to make the decision and immediately push whichever button he liked. Surprise: the person watching the brain scan knew a full six seconds before a button was pushed which one it was going to be! So who or what ‘decided’?

There are a number of good books about neuroscience, like David Eagleman’s Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain. BBC’s ‘Horizon’ programme has run several fascinating documentaries, available on YouTube, like “What makes us good or evil?” The field may be a scary one to get into, but it can lead to a better understanding of what we like to call our ‘self’, and a more compassionate understanding and acceptance of others – and their sometimes strange behaviour. The ‘buttons’ that we sometimes push, or get pushed, are deeply buried.
Nico Swaan