Choice

| Jun 19, 2017

“. . . you’ve already made the choice. Now you have to understand it.”

The Oracle, Matrix Reloaded

I am often asked whether being transgender is a conscious choice. The problem of choice for me is a scientific issue not a philosophical or political issue but it borders on both of the latter. To say that being transgender is “just a conscious lifestyle choice” is often used to denigrate transgender people as if transgender people chose to commit some sort of crime or sin. The often-heard reply is that it is not a choice, I was born this way, and therefore I cannot be held responsible. Admittedly transgender behavior violates the Western cultural gender system which is binary, cisgender and rigid, but is that a conscious choice or a choice at all? So, what does science say about choice and is there something in between conscious choice and primitive automatic behavior that makes sense scientifically and ethically?

An easy, although simplistic answer that gets us into the science is that there is no such thing as a “conscious” choice. There have been numerous studies that show that there are physiological changes that indicate what choice you have made that appear well before you are aware that you have made the choice. The studies started out with Libet in the 1980s. He found EEG changes which indicated the choice outcome took place several seconds before “conscious” awareness. Such studies have been repeated with fMRI which measures blood flow in real time within the brain. Since the brain cells are real energy hogs, active areas of the brain receive more blood flow containing red blood cells and the fMRI detects the increase in iron (that makes the cells red).

But does the few seconds of separation between brain changes and realization of a decision really explain what happens outside of limited studies in the laboratory?

The answer is that there are plenty of examples of decisions that are made at the subconscious level. Our nervous system contains innumerable mechanisms or “widgets” that we inherited from our forbearers. Lots of decisions are made in the nervous system without “conscious” intervention. Sure, you can hold your breath but other parts of the nervous system eventually force you to breathe again even if you pass out. And holding your breath is a result of subconscious mechanism. When you get seasick there are mechanisms in your lower brain stem that make you dizzy and nauseous. There is nothing that you can do about them, you cannot control these widgets, although you probably wish you could. There other examples that involve more sophisticated widgets. For example, consider the brain mechanisms that make you think that the world is a continuous visual space. It is an illusion. The truth is that your eyeballs take snapshots whenever they stop or fixate. Somehow the visual cortex in the back of your head strings these snapshots together, making us perceive a continuous visual field with smooth movements of objects. Yet you do not consciously make up the motion picture. During the time between eye movements you are essentially blind. Subconscious mechanisms also mediate processing of data from the other senses and understanding/generation of verbal behavior.

From the above and numerous other examples of subconscious mechanisms, neuroscientists agree that most of the nervous system work is subconscious and consciousness is only minimally involved or is only along for a ride as an observer. And some believe that consciousness itself may only be an illusion. Brain evolution efficiency explains the limited role of consciousness. If a conscious function were to control all of the decision processes going on, it would have to have direct connections in both directions with all parts of the body. The “wiring” alone would never fit into our small brain cavity and spinal cord. So, our brain mechanisms are mainly if not exclusively subconscious.

Perhaps at this point you are worried about the idea of free will. Does it exist? We can salvage the idea of free will if we assume that is mediated by subconscious mechanisms. We have free will but it does not need to involve consciousness. (I warned you that scientific discussion of choice might verge on philosophy.)

At the other extreme from consciousness, are behaviors we regard as automatic which we usually attribute to lower life forms. We do not usually consider primitive animals as having consciousness; their behavior is governed by genetic programs. Animal species that do not have effective automatic mechanisms would soon die out. Such things as food seeking and light seeking or light fleeing behavior are all genetically preprogrammed in microorganisms such as the ameba and paramecium. They are called “tropisms.” Plants have them too. Those species that have the right programming survive and continue. We normally not consider that humans have such tropisms or automatic behaviors.

Higher order animals are not so rigid as microorganisms and plants. Birds have the “instinct” to build nests but they adapt to whatever safe nesting spots and nesting materials are in the environment. They do not just use the same type of vegetation for nest building and they incorporate string, fabric, feathers from other birds and even rocks into their nests. You know the story of the ugly duckling. Ducklings and other birds tend to follow their mothers but if their mothers are absent, they will learn to follow other birds and even people. We call this learned adaption “imprinting.” The point is that bird and other animal instincts are not totally automatic and can be modified by learning. Higher species such as apes have instincts to seek out food such as insects and they can actually learn to make short sticks and insert them into termite nests to pick up the termites for eating. They also learn to hunt in cooperative groups.

So, what does all this have to do with being transgender? The point is that there is a big middle ground between automatic tropism behavior and purely conscious behavior. Instincts can be modified by learning and decisions we may think are made by conscious mechanisms are really made by subconscious mechanisms.

My term for this middle ground is biological behavior predisposition. Except for the most primitive animal microorganisms, all animals have predispositions to behave in certain ways as a result of genetics and epigenetics. For example, humans have predispositions as to which hand to use for particular tasks. They have predispositions for musical talent, fear of mathematics and loneliness. All of these behaviors have been shown to have biological predispositions. The findings about loneliness may surprise you but the primary genes for loneliness have been isolated at Vanderbilt using a full genome scan. They are in the process of obtaining funding for their next project will be to do the same for being transgender.

Behavioral predispositions are modified by learning and with respect to gender behavior, learning takes place by 2-3 years old. You cannot be transgender unless you know about the gender system and transgender emergence starts at 4-5. As one learns about the gender behavior categories of a gender system, children recognize which gender category fits them best. If it is the Western gender system they are only presented with two categories, masculine and feminine; if another system 3, 4 or even 5 categories may be presented. The best fit gender category for a person may not agree with the insistence of Western culture that all birth males must fit into the masculine category and all birth females into the feminine. Some find a fit in a category that culture wants to deny to them and they become transgender. Some may not find a fit into either category and are genderqueer. These are not choices, they are people with biological predispositions that do not fit into the Western gender system. And why should they fit? Humans developed the Western gender system, not biology.

So, is being transgender a choice? No, it is a biological predisposition which does not fit well with the Western culture gender system.

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Category: Body & Soul

About danabevan: Dana Jennett Bevan holds a Ph.D. from Princeton University and a Bachelors degree from Dartmouth College both in experimental psychology. She is the author of The Transsexual Scientist which combines biology with autobiography as she came to learn about transgenderism throughout her life. Her second book The Psychobiology of Transsexualism and Transgenderism is a comprehensive analysis of TSTG research and was published in 2014 by Praeger under the pen name Thomas E. Bevan. Her third book Being Transgender will be released by Praeger in November 2016. She can be reached at danabevan@earthlink.net.

Comments (1)

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  1. KoolMcKool says:

    It’s both. Every trans person (and every human being for that matter) makes choices on what they will and will not become, along with the influence of genetics and environment.
    Trans folks would be unwise to claim it is all pre-programmed, allow yourself the freedom and gift to makes creative, good and bad, choices in life.