The first introduction to psychology usually comes in the form 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 function and, to a certain extent, how they act or what illnesses they might develop. But very few 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 altered.
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. Humans, 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 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 behaviour.
In terms of understanding what is happening genetically, we are still in the age of molecular biology. Within this frame, genes are simply packets of information carrying directions. This is how humans, plants and animals have been growing for centuries. However, 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 could see the relationships between behavior and genes.
The molecular basis for behaviors and human memory is actually quite simple – it’s all about the epigenome. The Epigenome is a mobile 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 behaviour exists in all of us, but in varying amounts. 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 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 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 such as autism.
Although 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. One reason for this is 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 people to use a single DNA sequence to determine mental illness. Finally, although the study on the Epigenome has been promising, more work needs to be done to determine the role that genetics play in complex diseases such as schizophrenia. If this finding holds true, it can be utilised as a foundation 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 even hear me speak on my epigenetics and autism blog. My research into Epigenetics is focused on understanding the environmental causes of disease, but I have also been involved in analyzing the relationship between Epigenetics and Autism. My future articles will also talk about diseases of the mind that can be impacted by Epigenetics.