Q. When I ask my children “why” they did or didn’t do something, the typical response is, “I don’t know.” I tell them, “That’s no answer,” and then we usually end up arguing. Any suggestions?
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.
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 regurgitate. Others are designed to elicit reasons for behaviors that you did or did not exhibit. Every brain is unique and only has its own opinion. Therefore, there may be as many different answers to the same “why” question as there are brain’s involved. Because of this, I avoid asking “why” questions. Period. Instead, I use different words to elicit information.
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 then 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. “Why” you made that choice was likely impacted by a whole host of factors, some of which you may not even be aware of. Your response may be, “Because I thought a few beers wouldn’t matter.”
“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 as an answer to a “why” question.
When I am asked “why” questions, I typically preface my response with, “In my brain’s opinion...”