Deciding to burn your hand on the stove

Devin asked:

I have a question about human consciousness. How come we can actively disobey what our brain is trying to tell us (for example, if we put our hand on a hot stove, although it is our natural response to pull away, we can choose to keep our hand on the stove)? If our brain was the ‘control center of the body’, then shouldn’t it be able to pull the hand away from the stove if it was in control? If it is not in full control, then does this prove human consciousness? If not, then how come I can actively choose to disobey my natural response? (I apologize for my stringing of questions.)

Answer by Henk Tuten

I’m not a biologist or neuroscientist but in general I agree that our brain is the organ that steers the rest of our bodily behavior. Though I’m sure that there are steering/ control units outside the brain.

Behavior is largely a DNA matter and for a tiny part cultural. Our brain handles both, DNA matters majorly in the brain stem. And though tiny, cultural commands can be stronger than DNA commands. Evolution archived in DNA says that it is better to stay away from burning heat, because it is damaging.

Cultural decisions can be otherwise for all kinds of reasons. Our brain weighs both, and that way can overrule DNA reactions.

Consciousness is an abstract concept, and the behavior connected to it shows that we can distinguish between ourselves and the hot stove. And that our brain can decide that it is safer to let ‘John’ burn his hand than let it happen to ourselves. But also that we can decide to fight the hot stove, for serious reasons or just for fun.

That I decide to damage my hand doesn’t prove that I’m ‘conscious’, only that my brain can decide for behavior that damages part of the body of which the brain is the dominant organ. Brains can even decide for suicide, but also ant DNA can make ants show self-destructive behavior.

Are ants ‘conscious’? That depends on the definition. But in general being able to overrule DNA behavior has a lot to do with the capacity of this brain. Our brains in the long term (millions of years) in DNA select effective behavior.

I leave a more detailed and maybe better answer to neuroscientists.

But fine question.


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