The first introduction to psychology normally comes in the kind 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 may develop. But very few of these students have an understandable comprehension 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 development, the genes passed from one generation to the next just need to survive. Genes are merely instructions for doing things. Humans, as all living things, are programmed through thousands of years of natural selection to engage in behavior that is survival oriented. The basis 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, siblings, or other kin will determine such behaviour.
Concerning understanding what is going on genetically, we are still in the era of molecular biology. In this framework, genes are just packets of information carrying instructions. This is the way humans, plants and animals have been growing for centuries. 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 can see the relationships between behaviour 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 mobile memory storage which determines whether a behavior will 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 amounts. Most of the variations come from the variation in the copies of genes inside the mobile memory storage of the individual. The copy of the gene that determines the behavior is known as the epigome. It is this specific copy that we call the epigenome.
The importance of the epigenome in psychology and its relationship to individual differences was revealed in a landmark study on twins. For many years, autism research was based upon research on twins. However, it was discovered that there was substantial heritability (hitability) to behavior that existed between individuals who had identical twins but whose traits were quite different. This study provided the first evidence of the importance of the epigenome in human behaviour and its connection to abnormal behavioral disorders like autism.
Even though the importance of this Epigenome in psychology has been established, many in the emotional field are reluctant to accept its potential as a substantial factor in mental illness. 1 reason for this is it is difficult to define a real genetic sequence or locus that causes a behavioral disorder. Another problem is that there are just too many genetic differences between people to use a single DNA sequence to determine mental illness. Finally, although the study on the Epigenome has been promising, more work has to be done to find out 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 are interested in learning 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 today to better understand how Epigenetics affects behavior and the susceptibility to disease. You can also hear me speak on my epigenetics and autism blog. My research into Epigenetics is focused on understanding the environmental causes of disease, but I have also been involved in studying the relationship between Epigenetics and Autism. My future posts will also discuss diseases of the brain that can be impacted by Epigenetics.