The first introduction to psychology usually 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 a clear comprehension 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 evolution, the genes passed from one generation to the next just 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, grandparents, or other kin will determine such behavior.
In terms of understanding what is going on genetically, we’re still in the age of molecular biology. Within this framework, genes are simply packets of information carrying directions. This is the way humans, plants and animals have been evolving for thousands of years. Nevertheless, in the past 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 behaviors and human memory is in fact quite simple – it’s all about the epigenome. The Epigenome is a cellular memory storage that determines whether or not 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 quantities. Most of the variations come from the variation in the copies of genes within the cellular memory storage of the individual. The copy of the gene that determines the behavior is known as the epigome. It is this particular 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 found 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 link to abnormal behavioral disorders like autism.
Although the importance of the Epigenome in psychology was established, many in the psychological field are hesitant to accept its potential as a substantial factor in mental illness. 1 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 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 needs to be done to determine the role that genetics play in complex diseases like schizophrenia. If this finding holds true, it may be used as a basis for studying other complex diseases that have complex genetic elements.
If you’re interested in learning more about Epigenetics and how it applies to psychology, I highly recommend that you follow the links below. My site 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 focused 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 which can be impacted by Epigenetics.