What it Means to Have Something “Hardwired” (Part 1)

neurons.1 Listen to psychologists talk and you will often hear about how some behavior or attitude is “hardwired.”  It’s a pretty descriptive term – particularly since the brain is an organ characterized by electrical circuits.  For another example, just consider the most popular adage among neuroscientists over the past dozen years or so, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.”  It suggests a certain immutable permanence in ways we think or act.  Consider all the incredible identical twin studies in which they are separated at birth and meet decades later to find that they are wearing the same color, are married to women with the same name, pursue the same career and have named their children identically.  One great example involves two brothers reunited after 39 years.  Each was incredibly fastidious and detailed – compulsively neat and orderly in every respect.  They were both completely convinced that their character was a function of nurture rather than nature.  The first was asked why he was like that and he replied, “My mother is the reason!  She was exactly the same way and I was raised to be compulsively neat.”  The other replied, “My mother is the reason!  She was so disorganized and such a slob that I had to be this way just to survive.”

Among the researchers who have been studying the brain’s inherent (“hardwired”) character is a man named Jaak Panksepp.  His work with animals is incredible.  One fascinating observation he shares in his book Affective Neuroscience – The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions involves the problem they had with rats who were very distressed and active after their cages were cleaned by a certain lab tech.  After some investigation, they found that the tech had housecats and some of the dander was carried with him to the lab.  What is fascinating is that these rats were born and bred in the lab.  They had never seen a cat in their lives….nor had their parents or grandparents.  They had been separated from actual exposure to a natural predator  by many generations.  Still, they reacted strongly to the scent of the cat.  That’s one great example of being “hardwired.”  What is even more important for us, is that Panksepp has found that certain emotions are hardwired into our brains.  This will be the subject of a later post.