Tradeoffs, Happiness, & the Biology of Our Cacophonous Selves

You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?” – Steven Wright  (comedian)

 It seemed like a good idea at the time.” – S.A. (neuroscientist, friend)



Lately, I keep seeing a recurrent theme in a number of widely different sources. It’s a concept taught in Economics 101, that of tradeoff and opportunity costs – money or time invested in one object or activity cannot be spent on another. A related concept, foundational to biology, is life history theory (LHT). In his book “Patterns of Human Growth,” the biological anthropologist Barry Bogin defined LHT as:

the study of the strategy an organism uses to allocate its energy toward growth, maintenance, reproduction, raising offspring to independence, and avoiding death. For a mammal, it is the strategy of when to be born, when to be weaned, how many and what types of pre-reproductive stages to pass through, when to reproduce, and when to die.” (1999: 154)


you could be a winner at the game of life

To achieve these goals, species have various strategies to suit their ecological conditions. Some grow quickly and reach reproductive maturity early. Others delay reproduction and grow slowly. Some have many offspring and invest minimally in parenting (think ‘insects’), while others have few offspring and nurture them for a long time (think ‘primates’). There is some wiggle room, and individual organisms can adjust how much to invest in these varied activities depending on circumstances, but the larger point is that these strategies are about tradeoffs. Energy, time, and nutrients can be shuffled around in various combinations in order to survive, maintain health, and reproduce, but they are ultimately finite resources. We cannot do anything and everything all at once.

When it is operating well, it is easy to think of the human body as a single, functional unit. But in an evolved body of trillions of cells, it should be expected that there will be glitches in the system. During times of corporal disharmony (a specific injury, an autoimmune disorder, cancer, etc.), the discordance among the separate parts can become stark. For example, consider how selfish the bladder is to wake us up in the middle of the night, making the entire body leave a place of comfort. What’s remarkable is that our bodies function as well as they do.

From an LHT perspective, bodies are not required to be perfect, just good enough. To Richard Dawkins, bodies are akin to ‘vehicles’ that house and perpetuate the genes (which he called ‘replicators’). At a minimum, all the vehicle has to do is get the individual to a point that it has a chance at having offspring (who in turn are capable of having their own offspring), just as a car just has to take its riders to its destination, the 106 miles to Chicago. After that, in a sense it’s all bonus. In fact, in one species of Amazonian frogs, it’s even possible – though obviously not ideal – for females to reproduce after being mauled to death by competing males (surely a candidate for the most macabre mating system ever).

There is no guarantee that it will be a smooth ride along the way, or that all parts will work in harmony. Instead, various parts and behaviors are prioritized at different points of the life cycle. Sometimes, this is by design, such as holding off reproductive maturity until adulthood. Other times, there seems to be some chaos in the system.

It got the job done

It got the job done


Conflicted Genes

Even genes in the same body may conflict with each other. One example of this are ‘imprinted’ genes in some mammal species, where one copy – inherited either from the mother or the father – is silenced (Haig 2000). Many of these are related to prenatal and early postnatal development. In general, paternally inherited genes appear to increase the fetal growth and nursing demands of the offspring, while the mother’s copy tries to keep growth from spiraling out of control and sapping her resources and health (Sapolsky 1999).

Consistent with this notion of conflict between imprinted genes is that they occur in placental and marsupial mammals, where fetal development takes place inside the mother, but have yet to be found in fish, birds, reptiles, or even in monotreme mammals like the platypus, which retained the ancestral condition of laying eggs (Renfree et al 2009). For an egg-laying mother, there is no need for genes to tamp down the excessive demands made by paternal genes, since pre-natal development of offspring occurs outside of her body. Furthermore, imprinted genes appear to be more common in promiscuous species than monogamous ones, but that story requires its own separate post.

Another way that genes may conflict is by having different effects at different points in time over the lifespan. Anne Buchanan at The Mermaid’s Tale reminds us about the importance of genetic pleiotropy (a gene having multiple phenotypic effects), and how a gene can have beneficial or harmful outcomes at different points in time – a concept known as ‘antagonistic pleiotropy.’ One example she used was the BRCA-1 gene, which has a particularly important role in fetal development. Later in life, however, it has the potential to harm:

“The gene called BRCA1, Breast Cancer 1 is associated with elevated risk of early onset breast cancer, but despite its name, it is not a gene for breast cancer.  It is a perfectly normal, functional DNA repair gene, expressed in a number of organs during different developmental stages and throughout life… It’s only when its function has been disrupted by mutation and the protein can no longer repair errors in DNA that it can be associated with cancer.”

Another example might be the HFE gene, which can lead to the condition of hemochromatosis. One variant (C282Y) of this gene may help early in life by enhancing dietary iron absorption, preventing anemia, and possibly conferring resistance to certain infectious diseases (Carter and Nguyen, 2011).  However, that enhanced absorption may be too efficient in the long-run, harming the liver via a buildup of iron deposits.

Overall, genes which have antagonistic pleiotropic effects may be worth the price, because they can be instrumental in getting an individual to the age of reproductive maturity. However, once such genes are passed on to offspring, they carry both their positive and harmful potentials in perpetuity, unable to be removed. But the point is that our genes – imprinted or antagonistic – can be in conflict with themselves. This is true of two different genes opposing each other, or the same gene having varied effects at different points of the life cycle.

This seemed appropriate here: two parts of a single unit travelling similar paths, but at different speeds.

Seemed appropriate here: two parts of a single unit travelling similar paths, at different speeds.


Cognitive Conflict

Just as our genes may sometimes be conflicted, so may our brains operate in an analogous way. Along these lines, the developmental psychologist Bruce Hood has referred to the self as an illusion, an attempt to make sense of the cacophony of information and emotional states within us. In his book, Hood (2012) argued that our brains construct a narrative of the individual self in order to make sense of our various unconscious mental processes and to give ourselves a notion of coherence:

“Even as adults, we are continually developing and elaborating our self illusion… Sometimes we even describe our self illusion as multifacteted, as if we have the work self, the home self, the parent self, the political self, the bigoted self, the emotional self, the sexual self, the creative self, and even the violent self. They seem to be almost different individuals but clearly there is just one body. We seem to switch effortlessly between these different selves, but we would be wrong to think that there is an individual doing the switching. That’s part of the illusion. There is not one self or multiple selves in the first place. Rather, it is the external world that switches us from one character to another. This idea that we are a reflection of the situations is sometimes called the ‘looking-glass self’ – we exist as the reflection of those around us. ” (p. XV)

Occasionally, these parts come into conflict, which threatens the illusion. Hood uses the example of cognitive dissonance to illustrate how we attempt to maintain the narrative of ourselves, to keep the  internal messiness in check (why we go to war if we are not really a bellicose nation; or why we may have bad thoughts about others if we are still good people):

“Cognitive dissonance protects the self from conflicting stories and is at the heart of why the self illusion is so important, but it also reveals the dangers that a strong sense of self can create. We use it to justify faulty reasoning. Although we do not appreciate it, our decision-making is actually the constellation of many processes vying for attention and in constant conflict. We fail to consider just how much of our decision-making is actually out of our control.”  (p. 160)

This is a somewhat discomforting way of seeing ourselves: that the whole is comprised of largely cooperative, partly illusory, and slightly chaotic, competing parts. One reason something like this might have evolved, aside from the obvious fact that nature’s design is always haphazard, is the need for mental speed, even if it means we are not always self-aware of why we behave the way we do. Aamodt and Wang (2008:2) framed it like this:

Your brain lies to you a lot… Even when your brain is not doing essential and difficult stuff, you’re not aware of most of what’s going on… Your brain doesn’t intend to lie to you, of course. For the most part, it’s doing a great job, working hard to help your survive and accomplish your goals in a complicated world. Because you often have to react quickly to emergencies and opportunities alike, your brain usually aims to get a half-assed answer in a hurry rather than a perfect answer that takes a while to figure out. Combined with the world’s complexity, this means that your brain has to take shortcuts and make a lot of assumptions. Your brain’s lies are in your best interest – most of the time – but they also lead to predictable mistakes.”

One powerful example of this was the research done by Lars Hall and colleagues on “choice blindness” (Hall et al. 2012). Study participants were given a questionnaire about moral issues, and then tricked into believing they had given a different answer from what they actually had. When asked about their answers, many defended their response even though it was contrary to their actual belief. Reports of our rationality may have been greatly exaggerated.

If our brains lie to us, and the self is mostly an illusion, then who are they lying to? Are the parts lying to each other? To some extent, there is evidence that the brain can be broken down into smaller functional, but overlapping, units. Some of the better known examples are Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas involved in language processing. Recently, Mo Costandi (2013) summarized research on people who were largely incapable of fear as a result of having an incapacitated amygdala, generally thought to be the brain’s “fear center.” Only after they experienced an experimentally-induced lack of oxygen did fear result, suggesting separate, localized mechanisms – one for asphyxiation and one for other stimuli, such as threatening animals or horror movies.

To Meunier et al (2010), it makes sense that natural selection should favor clusters of localized functions among brain networks, as this would increase efficiency by reducing the costs of long-distance wiring across scattered nodes of mental activity. This intersects with a notion championed by evolutionary psychology, that we evolved compartmentalized, cognitive “modules” for solving certain problems likely faced by our ancestors. To be honest, I don’t know the nuances of this literature well enough. But I’ll add that Downey and Lende (2012: 28-30) raise some concerns about the more hardline iteration of “massive modularity,” including an overreliance on adaptationist arguments, a focus on innate mental processes, and de-emphasizing cognitive flexibility. Likewise, John Hawks criticized the lack of data surrounding specific neural mechanisms in hypothesized cognitive modules.

But if we do have modules, how well do they get along? Related to Hood’s point that we have conflicting mental processes, Daniel Dennett proposed that there is an anarchic element to the brain, where the components can elbow each other for space:

“We’re beginning to come to grips with the idea that your brain is not this well-organized hierarchical control system where everything is in order, a very dramatic vision of bureaucracy. In fact, it’s much more like anarchy with some elements of democracy. Sometimes you can achieve stability and mutual aid and a sort of calm united front, and then everything is hunky-dory, but then it’s always possible for things to get out of whack and for one alliance or another to gain control, and then you get obsessions and delusions and so forth.”

balanceFor Dennett, attaining equilibrium among the parts is an “achievement,” not the default state. However, it may be a delicate balance where specific regions, on occasion, can rise above the others. He goes on to speculate (he admits it is speculation) that the fundamental units of the brain – the neurons – have the potential to act like rogue agents and might even be “a little bit feral.” The reason he suggests this is that all cells are descended from free-ranging, unicellular ancestors who were skilled at surviving and acquiring resources. By contrast, to Dennett, a neuron’s life in the brain is akin to it being imprisoned.

It’s an interesting idea, but it isn’t clear why he singles out neurons, specifically human neurons, as being rogue. All cells in a multicellular organism had single-celled ancestors. Again, pure speculation. But the concept of the parts rebelling against the whole is a tantalizing one. If this is speculation, then why include it in this essay? I don’t know. My brain told me it was interesting. Maybe it lied to me. But how would I know? Who’s in charge here?

Obviously, the question of agency (moral agency in particular) is a serious one, particularly as the frequency of neuroscientific arguments increases in public discourse. Just yesterday, the defense attorney of the teens convicted in the Steubenville, Ohio rape trial said he would appeal the verdict, adding that his client was young and that scientific evidence supported the notion that the brain isn’t “fully developed” at that age. I don’t know that any brain is ever “fully” developed (after all, even Nobel Peace Prize laureates can say hateful things), but this is a very weak excuse. The philosopher Adina Roskies highlighted some of the holes in the argument that “my brain made me do it,” noting that:

“the more we understand the brain, the more we see that we are our brains (though not just our brains—we are also fundamentally embodied beings). If I am my brain, then “my brain made me do it” is equivalent to “I made me do it.” That is the basis of moral responsibility…. To be a morally responsible agent is to be answerable to legitimate demands of others. What demands are legitimate may largely be determined by the norms of the society, and may of course be questioned and altered over time.”

As moral agents, not only are we obligated to the legitimate demands of others. We are also responsible to the demands made by our multifaceted selves.


Life Lessons: Our Beautiful, Conflicted Complexity

To draw some larger lessons from the above, I think we probably could afford to introduce more complexity into understanding ourselves. Vaughan Bell, writing about how popularized neuroscience is often oversimplified, lamented that:

“Yet instead of revealing the beautiful complexity at our core, we live in a culture where dull biological platitudes make headlines and irritating scientific clichés win arguments. In response, we do not need a simpler culture but one that embraces complexity.”

We can tie that complexity back to where we started, with life history theory and tradeoffs. Organisms try to juggle many physiological needs – survival, growth, maintenance, reproduction, parenting, etc. But it isn’t possible to do all at the same time, and people choose different paths by prioritizing specific needs at different crossroads in the game of life.

Motorcycle juggling: a metaphor for life. (Comedian Michael Davis)

As humans, we are also burdened with trying to juggle additional needs and desires, such as finding meaning and happiness (however defined), which are influenced not only by individual philosophies, but also by cultural norms and whatever opportunities and social barriers lie in front of us. Roughly speaking, some research suggests that people define ‘meaning’ as transcending the self, while ‘happiness’ is about satisfying personal desires. But which desires and at what point in time? This is complicated even further when we consider that our desires (and happiness) at age 8 will differ from those at age 18 or 58. An inherent tension exists in trying to juggle our needs as we travel through time, summarized by Jerry Seinfeld’s parable of Night Guy:

 “I never get enough sleep. I stay up late at night, because I’m Night Guy. Night Guy wants to stay up late. ‘What about getting up after five hours sleep?’ ‘Oh, that’s Morning Guy’s problem. That’s not my problem; I’m Night Guy. I stay up as late as I want.’ So you get up in the morning, you’re exhausted, groggy. Oh, I hate that Night Guy! See, Night Guy always screws Morning Guy. There’s nothing Morning Guy can do. The only thing Morning Guy can do is try and oversleep often enough so that Day Guy loses his job and Night Guy has no money to go out anymore.”  

For a more serious take on the same phenomenon, the psychologist Paul Bloom had a very insightful, somewhat pessimistic, piece (“Negotiating with Our Future Selves”) on why we’ll probably never be able to please all of the cacophonous desires of our different selves.

“Think of your happiness now and ask yourself how much you will give up, not for your brother or neighbor, but for yourself one week from now, one year from now, or decades from now… Presumably, the answer isn’t nothing—anyone who saves money for retirement is sacrificing the happiness of Present Self for that of Future Retired Self. So is anyone who puts off an enjoyable experience for the future, or does something unpleasant now to make life more pleasant later. But it also isn’t everything. Anyone who procrastinates is choosing to make Present Self happier at a cost to the happiness of Future Self. Indeed, any choice to experience a one-shot pleasure now rather than later (seeing a certain movie for the first time, say) is prioritizing Present Self over Future Self.”

So we hedge, trying to find not a perfect happiness formula (it doesn’t exist), but a workable one that we predict will keep Present and Future Selves happy. And what a hard thing to predict. I once heard a philosopher say that even the most comfortable chair in the world would become excruciating if we sat in it long enough. As in life history theory, we change over time, and our needs shift as we grow and develop. Along the way, we pull from some categories of needs to try to satisfy other needs (education, career, fun, relationships, security, adventure). According to Doris Kearns Goodwin, the late famous psychologist Erik Erikson taught his students that “the richest and fullest lives attempt to achieve an inner balance between three realms: work, love, and play, and that to pursue one realm to the disregard of the others is to open oneself to ultimate sadness in older age, whereas to pursue all three with equal dedication is to make possible a life filled not only with achievement, but with serenity.” It can be a challenge to try to satisfy all of these in some combination that is satisfactory to us.

We probably can’t have it all. Not everyone can be a Rhodes Scholar Olympian. And even they cannot live forever, have a million babies, and discover the meaning of life. Unfortunately, nor do we all have equal opportunities at having it all. The window of opportunity is smaller for people born without a head start, be that from social position, ethnicity, gender, etc.  But as Holly Dunsworth wrote, having it all is not the goal. It’s about having the opportunity to choose which categories are most important to us. And that formula is specific to each of us.




Bogin B. 1999. Patterns of Human Growth (2nd ed.), Cambridge, UK & New York: Cambridge University Press. Link

Carter AJR,  Nguyen AQ. 2011. Antagonistic pleiotropy as a widespread mechanism for the maintenance of polymorphic disease alleles. BMC Medical Genetics 12:160  Link

Costandi M. 2013. Researchers scare ‘fearless’ patients. Feelings of terror did not involve the brain’s ‘fear centre’. Nature News Feb 3. Link

Dennett D. 2013. The normal well-tempered mind. Edge  Link

Downey G, Lende DH. 2012. Neuroanthropology and the encultured brain. In Lende DH, Downey G (eds.) The Encultured Brain p. 23-65. Cambridge: MIT. Link

Haig D. 2000. The kinship theory of genomic imprinting. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 31: 9–32.  Link

Hall L, Johansson P, Strandberg T. 2012. Lifting the veil of morality: Choice blindness and attitude reversals on a self-transforming survey. PLoS ONE 7(9): e45457. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0045457 Link

Hood B. 2012. The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity. Oxford. Link

Meunier D, Lambiotte R, Bullmore ET. 2010. Modular and hierarchically modular organization of brain networks. Front Neurosci. 2010; 4: 200. Link

Nesse R, Williams GC. 1994. Why We Get Sick: The New Science of Darwinian Medicine. Vintage: New York. Link

Renfree MB, Hore TA, Shaw G, Graves JA, Pask AJ. 2009. Evolution of genomic imprinting: insights from marsupials and monotremes. Annual Review of Genomics and Human Genetics.10:241-62.  Link

Sapolsky R. 1999. Sex and control. Discover May 1 Link



4 thoughts on “Tradeoffs, Happiness, & the Biology of Our Cacophonous Selves

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