Saturday, December 08, 2007

The Illusion of Choice

March 1995

It was senior year. Two months before graduation. I still hadn't decided which college I would be attending in the fall. One one hand there was Louisiana Tech, biomedical engineering, my best friend, and little scholarship money. On the other hand was Florida A&M University, business school, no friends, and a full five year ride. The weight of this choice pinned me in place like an anchor. Which way to go?

* * *

We've all experienced potentially life-altering choices like the one above. It is part of the experience of living and learning. We are each tested in unique ways. But the more I think about it, the more I realize how little choosing I've actually done in my life. I know it sounds wild. We make choices everyday don't we? What clothes to wear, what to eat, how fast to drive to work, whether or not to work out, whether or not to smoke, drink, take drugs, go to church, believe in God. The list of choices is endless.

What if I told you that the word we use to describe the paths we choose in the rat maze is nothing more than an illusion? What if I told you that what we call choice is actually instinct on steroids? defines choice as follows:

1. an act or instance of choosing; selection: Her choice of a computer was made after months of research. His parents were not happy with his choice of friends.
2. the right, power, or opportunity to choose; option: The child had no choice about going to school.
3. an alternative: There is another choice.

Choice has a ton of synonyms: alternative, appraisal, cull, decision, determination, discretion, discrimination, distinction, druthers*, election, evaluation, extract, favorite, finding, free will, judgment, opportunity, option, pick, preference, rating, say, substitute, variety, verdict, volition, vote, weakness.

Interestingly but not surprising, instinct is not mentioned as a synonym. defines instinct as follows:

1. an inborn pattern of activity or tendency to action common to a given biological species.
2. a natural or innate impulse, inclination, or tendency.
3. a natural aptitude or gift: an instinct for making money.
4. natural intuitive power.

It's surprising to me that choice and instinct are not mentioned together more often, because don't our natural and innate impulses precede any sort of decision making capacity? Don't our actions have alot more to do with our inborn patterns and tendencies than intense cognitive activity. Do the smartest people make the best choices? Do the dumbest make the worst? Or is what separates us in reality who has truly honed their instincts or not?

* * *

Everything in me was telling me to take the scholarship money and run. But I didn't want to let down my best friend. LA TECH had been my idea in the first place. How could I change the plan in the 9th inning? Besides, I had never attended an all black school. The idea was so foreign, I couldn't even conceive of how it would be.

One Saturday afternoon, I was in my bedroom reading, when my mother told me someone was on the phone wanting to speak with me. She described this person as my Godmother. Very strange, because up until that moment, I wasn't even aware that I had one...

* * *

What's the first thing that happens to you when you have a major decision to make. Does a little voice speak to you, nudging this way or that? Do you listen to this voice, or have you learned to ignore it?

I have to interview people frequently for my work and I have learned to listen to this sense. I get feelings off of people. Some good, some bad, some blah, but there's always something. Some signal as to the inner nature of the creature before me.

* * *

My Godmother introduced herself, and mentioned that the last time she'd seen me was when I was an infant. I responded accordingly, and then she preceded to explain why she wanted to speak with me. Apparently she was a close personal friend of the university president. She spoke eloquently of all the reasons going to a historically black university would be beneficial for me. I was sceptical. This woman didn't know anything about me, but was trying to give me advice about the most important decision of my young life...

* * *

I googled frontal cortex and choice and got an interesting website ( The site talks about the amygdala or thoughtless instinctual braincenter and the cortex or thoughtful instinctual braincenter. Interesting how instinct prevails in both settings. Which leads me to wonder, if we are wired to make all choices, either thoughtless or thoughtful, based on instincts, than there really isn't any choice, is there? We are either reacting emotionally or logically to some stimulus. And if we can only react, then we really are more like puppets than we may like to think.

From the womb to the tomb, all we do is react. We come out of the womb and react to the cold and light. We grow up and react to inner biological changes as well as our ever evolving external environment. We learn more about ourselves and react to that inner guidance that some call conscience. I'm sitting here racking my brain, and can't remember a time when I acted of my own accord. Can you?

* * *

I decided to go to Florida A&M shortly after hanging up the phone. My Godmother's arguments were persuasive true, but that's not what swayed me. There are signs out there that help us make the right choices and I was keenly aware that this strange woman calling me out of the blue was one such example. And if there are signs guiding us right when we need them, then doesn't it stand to reason that we really have less control over this whole scenario than we'd like to believe?

I like playing this game. I take a moment in my life and go back trying to connect the dots that have lead me to the current situation. Try it out. I think you'll find that what you thought were choices were actually suttle or not so suttle nudges in one direction or another.

Many people reject the idea that our lives are not our own to live. I understand that notion. No one wants to believe that they have no control over their own destiny. But I think it's more productive surrending myself to my destiny. My hands are on the wheel and it doesn't matter much to me who's actually driving.

I recently read a book called the God Delusion where the author painstakingly goes about proving that God does not exist. But the illusion of choice proves to me that we are not alone in this.

To finalize, here's a poem I wrote on the subject. Food for thought. Grab a plate.

The Feather and the Rainbow

Once upon a time...
There was a feather flowing with the breeze,
Going with the winds and doing as it pleased.
From each day to the next, it did not know what would occur,
Until the day the wind died and the feather could not stir.
The feather in this moment began to question its existence,
And it decided that against the wind it would gather a resistance.
It was tired of never knowing what was next to come,
And the feather could no longer recall where it had come from.
In the aimless existence that it had known for so long,
Suddenly the feather realized that everything with its life was wrong.
Because to live a life without a purpose or a plan,
Was as foolish as traveling to the desert in search of a tan...
Still, the feather had no notion of how to reclaim its control,
And all the days of recklessness had taken their toll.
Just then, the winds current once again began to rise,
The feather screamed out Why? The wind drowned out its cries.
Now for the first time it could recall, the feather no longer wished to live,
For it had only taken from life and did not understand how to give.
It had struggled, it had fought, but to no avail,
Because in its life it had only learned how it felt to fail.
At one with the wind in the sky once again,
The feather vowed to take control of its life right then.
By learning from the mistakes it had made in its time,
The feather could rotate its life from pitiful towards the sublime...
The feather now realized that it had little choice in where it went,
But it still hoped to make an impact, and promised good intent.
For it had finally began to grasp with understanding,
What really took place during that fateful landing.
By catching a glimpse of its own mortality,
The feather had to adjust its perception of reality.
For the wind was not the enemy that the feather had to fear,
Its enemy was the ignorance that it deemed so dear.
Faced with these truths the feather was humbled,
And as if in agreement with this action the skies began to rumble.
The feather, now lost in the elation of its epiphany,
Thought the sounds from thunderclouds a beautiful symphony...
Unaware that there was trouble on the way,
The feather for the first time tried to pray.
It wanted to give thanks to its creator,
For sending the powerful message sooner and not later.
The feather nearly bursting with its hope for tomorrow,
Did not see the clouds growing dark with sorrow.
As the skies started to cry and pummel the earth,
The feather realized just how much its life was worth.
Its joy turner to disdain with the first jolt of pain,
Still the feather prayed harder trying to speak through the rain.
With no place to go and no place to hide,
Soaked with cold the feather shivered, withered, and slowly died...
The feather now realized that life was rarely fair,
Life did not coddle and life did not care.
It was the ultimate test full of strife and stress,
So the feather was grateful to finally receive rest.
Interrupting these final thoughts then a voice began to speak,
It answered the feathers questions and gave it a peek.
A peek that showed the feather its own soul,
A warm place full of light part of a greater whole.
The voice then showed the feather a new vision,
And conveyed to the feather the reason for life's mission.
Overcome with love the feathers soul began to overflow,
Just as the rain subsided revealing a glorious rainbow...

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