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 function and, to a certain degree, how they behave or what illnesses they might develop. But hardly any of these students have an understandable understanding of what exactly DNA is, where it is 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 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 is survival oriented. The basis 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.
Concerning understanding what is going on genetically, we’re still in the age of molecular biology. Within this frame, genes are simply packets of information carrying instructions. This is the way humans, plants and animals have been evolving 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 offers a new lens through which we can see 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 that 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 behaviour 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 mobile 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 significance of the epigenome in psychology and its relationship to individual differences has been shown 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 which existed between people who had identical twins but whose traits were very 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.
Although the importance of the Epigenome in psychology was established, many in the psychological field are reluctant to accept its potential as a significant factor in mental illness. 1 reason for this is it is difficult to define an actual genetic sequence or locus that causes 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 study 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 complicated genetic components.
If you’re interested in knowing 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 centered on understanding the ecological causes of disease, but I also have been involved in studying the relationship between Epigenetics and Autism. My future posts will also discuss diseases of the mind which can be affected by Epigenetics.