The first introduction to psychology usually comes in the form of biology classes. Many biology students already come into class with at least basic knowledge of psychology. They know that their genes determine how their bodies work, how they physically function and, to a certain extent, how they behave or what illnesses they may develop. But very few of these students have a clear comprehension of what exactly DNA is, where it is 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 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 specific 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.
In terms of understanding what is going on genetically, we are still in the era of molecular biology. Within this framework, genes are just packets of information carrying directions. This is the way humans, plants and animals have been evolving for thousands of years. However, in the past 50 years or so, a revolution in the field of psychology has occurred known as molecular biology or genomics. Genomics offers a new lens through which we can view the relationships between behaviour and genes.
The molecular basis for behaviors and human memory is actually quite simple – it’s all about the epigenome. The Epigenome is a cellular memory storage which 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 behavior exists in all of us, but in varying amounts. Most of the variations come from the variation in the copies of genes inside the cellular memory storage of the person. The copy of the gene which determines the behavior is known as the epigome. It’s this specific copy that we call the epigenome.
The importance of the epigenome in psychology and its relationship to individual differences has been revealed 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 connection to abnormal behavioral disorders such as autism.
Even though the significance of the Epigenome in psychology has been established, many in the emotional area are reluctant to accept its potential as a significant factor in mental illness. 1 reason for this is that it is difficult to define an actual genetic sequence or locus that leads to a behavioral disorder. Another issue is that there are just too many genetic differences between individuals to use a single DNA sequence to determine mental illness. Finally, although the research 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 utilised as a foundation for analyzing other complicated diseases that have complicated 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 now 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 centered on understanding the environmental causes of disease, but I have also been involved in analyzing the relationship between Epigenetics and Autism. My future posts will also discuss diseases of the mind which can be affected by Epigenetics.