The first introduction to psychology normally comes in the kind of biology classes. Many biology students already come into class with at least basic knowledge of psychology. They understand that their genes determine how their bodies work, how they physically function and, to a certain degree, how they behave or what illnesses they may 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 changed.
In the case of development, the genes passed from one generation to the next only have 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 participate in behavior that’s survival oriented. The basis for this programming is that 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 age of molecular biology. In this framework, genes are just packets of information carrying instructions. This is how humans, plants and animals have been growing 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 see the relationships between behavior and genes.
The molecular basis for human and behaviors memory is in fact quite simple – it is all about the epigenome. The Epigenome is a cellular 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 behavior exists in all of us, but in varying quantities. The majority of the variations come from the variation in the copies of genes within the cellular memory storage of the person. The copy of the gene that determines the behaviour 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 shown in a landmark study on twins. For years, autism research was based upon research on twins. However, it was discovered that there was substantial heritability (hitability) to behavior that existed between people who had identical twins but whose traits were quite 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.
Although the significance of this Epigenome in psychology was established, many in the emotional field are reluctant to accept its potential as a significant element in mental illness. One reason for this is it is hard to define a real 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 study 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 foundation for analyzing other complicated diseases that have complicated genetic components.
If you’re 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 also have been involved in analyzing the relationship between Epigenetics and Autism. My future posts will also discuss diseases of the mind that can be affected by Epigenetics.