The first introduction to psychology usually comes in the form of biology classes. Many biology students already come into class with at least basic understanding of psychology. They understand that their genes determine how their bodies work, how they physically function and, to a certain extent, how they act or what illnesses they might develop. But hardly any of these students have a clear understanding of what exactly DNA is, where it’s found in the body, why it causes problems, and how it can be manipulated or altered.
In the case of evolution, the genes passed from one generation to the next only need to survive. Genes are nothing more than instructions for doing things. People, as all living things, are programmed through thousands of years of natural selection to engage in behavior that is survival oriented. The foundation for this programming is the expression of certain genes that cause specific traits, such as aggressiveness, violence or sexuality. In the case of psychology, the genes that are passed on to us through our parents, grandparents, or other kin will determine such behaviour.
In terms of understanding what is happening genetically, we’re still in the era of molecular biology. Within this frame, genes are just packets of information carrying instructions. This is how humans, plants and animals have been evolving for thousands of years. Nevertheless, in the last 50 years or so, a revolution in the field of psychology has happened known as molecular biology or genomics. Genomics provides a new lens through which we could view the relationships between behavior and genes.
The molecular basis for behaviors and human memory is in fact quite simple – it is all about the epigenome. The Epigenome is a cellular memory storage that determines whether a behavior is going to be expressed or not. Like all memory storage systems, it contains information that is “programmed” in advance by the genome.
What we now know is that the genetic material that determines behaviour exists in all of us, but in varying quantities. Most of the variations come from the variation in the copies of genes within the mobile memory storage of the person. The copy of the gene that determines the behaviour is called the epigome. It is this specific copy that we call the epigenome.
The significance of the epigenome in psychology and its relationship to individual differences was shown in a landmark study on twins. For many years, autism research was based upon research on twins. However, it was found that there was substantial heritability (hitability) to behavior which existed between individuals who had identical twins but whose traits were very different. This study provided the first evidence of the significance of the epigenome in human behavior and its link to abnormal behavioral disorders like autism.
Even though the importance of the Epigenome in psychology has been established, many in the psychological field are reluctant to accept its potential as a significant factor in mental illness. One reason for this is it is hard to define an actual genetic sequence or locus that leads to a behavioral disorder. Another issue is that there are simply too many genetic differences between people to use a single DNA sequence to determine mental illness. Finally, even though the research on the Epigenome has been promising, more work has to be done to determine the role that genetics play in complex diseases such as schizophrenia. If this finding holds true, it can be used as a basis for analyzing other complicated diseases that have complex genetic components.
If you’re interested in knowing more about Epigenetics and how it applies to psychology, I strongly advise that you follow the links below. My website discusses the exciting new technologies that are available now to better understand how Epigenetics affects behavior and the susceptibility to disease. You can even hear me speak on my epigenetics and autism blog. My research into Epigenetics is centered on understanding the ecological causes of disease, but I have also been involved in studying the relationship between Epigenetics and Autism. My future articles will also discuss diseases of the brain that can be affected by Epigenetics.