The first introduction to psychology normally comes in the form of biology classes. Many biology students already come into class with at least basic understanding 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 might develop. But very few of these students have an understandable 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 development, the genes passed from one generation to the next just need to survive. Genes are nothing more than 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 behavior.
Concerning understanding what is happening genetically, we are still in the age of molecular biology. In this frame, genes are simply packets of information carrying instructions. This is the way humans, plants and animals have been growing for thousands of years. However, in the last 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 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 mobile memory storage which determines whether or not 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 quantities. Most 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 which determines the behaviour is called 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 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 significance of this Epigenome in psychology has been established, many in the psychological area are hesitant to accept its potential as a substantial element 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 problem is that there are simply too many genetic differences between individuals 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 find out the role that genetics play in complex diseases like schizophrenia. If this finding holds true, it can be utilised as a foundation for studying other complicated diseases that have complex genetic components.
If you are interested in learning more about Epigenetics and how it applies to psychology, I highly recommend 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 also have been involved in analyzing the relationship between Epigenetics and Autism. My future posts will also discuss diseases of the brain that can be affected by Epigenetics.