Q. Why is it that different brains give different answers when all are presented with the same “why” question?

A. No two brains on this planet are believed to be identical in structure, function, or perception. Not only do you start life with a brain that is slightly different from all other brains, every thought you think, every behavior you exhibit, every new bit of information you learn, everything you ingest, and so on, can alter the very structure of your brain. Because you never consistently think the same thoughts, exhibit the same behavior, learn the identical information in the same way, hears information in personal style, and so on, your brain actually become more different from others as you age. Since every brain is unique and only has its own opinion, there may be as many different answers to the same “why” question as there are brain’s involved.

Of course there are “why” questions and “why” questions. Some “why” questions are designed to elicit information that you have learned from others and are expected to be able to regurgitate (a typical style in mainstream education). Others are designed to elicit reasons for behaviors that you did or did not exhibit. PET Scans have shown that “why” questions may trigger anxiety, especially if the implication is that you should have or should not have done a specific something and are expected to justify your behavior with an answer that the questioner will accept. The resulting anxiety can actually direct the brain’s energy and attention toward subconscious layers of the brain—a natural phenomenon that can be unhelpful if you really need to engage in conscious thought.

“Why did you drink and drive?” presumes you messed up. What can your brain answer? “Because I thought a few beers wouldn’t matter?" The reason you made that choice was likely impacted by a whole host of factors, some of which you may not even be aware of. Typically, your response is not accepted by the questioner, who may come back with, “What kind of answer is that? That’s not an answer.” It’s tempting to argue in such situations, which usually just perpetuates the bad feelings.

“Why did you forget your homework?” implies you should have remembered it. Your response may be, “Because I was busy taking out the garbage,” but that simply reflects your brain’s opinion. There is no magical, empirical, double-blinded study response to offer.

I try to avoid asking “why” questions. I typically respond to questions by saying, “In my brain’s opinion...” I usually know my brain’s opinion and am willing to state it, at least on most topics. (There are some I steer clear of, including politics and religion.) If time is available, I’m also willing to listen to the opinions of others. Through it all I’m clear that all I have is my brain's opinion (no matter that it may be based on my understanding of high-quality research). I’m also clear that all the other brain has is its own opinion. Therefore, there’s really nothing to take personally, defend, or get upset about. That perspective can be very freeing.

 

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