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Mental Health: Genetics and Development

Mental Health and the Brain:
A Discussion
Fall, 2008


Genes and Development

Our sixth session and resulting on-line forum discussion completed the outlining some features of brain organization relevant to mental health, adding a third "loop" to its architecture, an interpersonal one. Beginning this week, we will move on to a series of discussions of more traditional topics in mental health, asking for each how useful the story of the bipartite brain is for finding new approaches.

Readings for this week

Where we've been ....

Observations to date are also consistent with the mind not being in the brain but needing a properly disposed material brain to express its powers ... This business of creating meaning still confuses me ... do we need to create a meaning of life in order to keep going?... MartinBayer

without meaning people have a really hard time. If they don't have bigger stories to help make sense of their lives they really do end up struggling, despairing or losing hope ... a person actively has to make meaning ... adiflesher

[Yalom] says that anxiety arises when we try to cope with the four “givens” of existence which are the inevitability of death for each of us and those we love; the freedom to make our lives as we will; our ultimate aloneness; and the absence of any obvious meaning or sense to life ... Paige Safyer

For all that we have been able to discuss ideas of mental health in the abstract we have not been able to put them into practice. Everyone of our suggested 'treatments' for each case is no different from what would happen to a lucky patient under the current mental health programme ... Have we really departed in any fundamental way from age old notions of what it means to be sick or healthy? ... I'm afraid that we are making the same mistake the mental health profession makes by separating the mind (higher abstract thought) from the body (real practical answers) ... akerle

One of the (many) questions I left class last night pondering was whether or not "social interaction" was actually different from any other kind of interaction between the unconscious and the outside world ... Why did they get their own class meeting to discuss while all the other inputs to the unconscious got grouped together into one? ... kmanning

When a critical number of monkeys learn a skill on one side of the lake (e.g. how to open a banana more effectively), the knowledge seems to jump to the other side of the the lake and those monkeys somehow know how to open the bananas in the more effective way ... ryan g

Often we do not make a choice about a story based on how much sense it makes but based on how much we trust and like the story teller ... adiflesher

our culture tends to define people based upon “self,” the individual, rather than relationships to other people. It seems that for people who may define themselves, or create stories in which “I” is, perhaps, not the primary worldly relationship, but rather “other” is (or community), this creates internal conflict ... Sophie F

It seems that many world cultures would define the individual much more in terms of relationship to community than in terms of individual or "self" properties ... mstokes

people have begun to place such a large importance on their relationships with others that they may be loosing the relationship with themselves ... llamprou

When we try to define or understand ourselves as a "self" we are trying to divorce how we find ourselves to be meaningful from the things - relationships - that create that meaning. We are trying to create objective, "un-related" meaning in the form of the "self" from inherently subjective, related meaning, and that definitely creates conflict! ... kmanning

I think the thing about our social relationships in the world is that we look to them to confirm the stories our I-function is telling us about ourselves (or about the cohesion between selves that is being created) ... ysilverman

There can be no conclusive "knowing" of anything or anyone, making conflict, internal and otherwise, "inevitable." It is only, perhaps, with the acceptance of such limitations that conflict can be eased, valuing rather than devaluing our shared lack of "knowing." ... Maybe this entails letting go of the sanctity of "self" and falling (easing?) into the uncertainty of connectedness, of narrative ... Sophie F

a potential therapist is a person who is interested in and talented at mucking around in others tacit knowledge or unconscious. This person would make observations about their patient’s unconscious’ activities, a task the patient is incapable of performing themselves ... jrlewis

Moving on: genes (Julia, Paul B.)

"It was as if my father had given me by way of temperament an impossibly wild dark and unbroken horse it was a horse without a name and a horse with no experience of a bit between its teeth." ... Kay Redfield Jamison, An Unquiet Mind

Moving on: development

Virtually all behavior is influenced by genes
Virtually no behavior is determined by genes

If mind is part of the brain then

  • Mind is influenced by genes
  • Mind is not determined by genes
Why? Williams syndrome - sociability genes?
Sex and gender genes? Genes code for macromolecules, not for behaviors or aspects of mind. During development/life genes interact with each other, with intracellular surroundings, with extracellular influences including hormones, with extraorganismal influences including other human beings. Mind reflects all this, as well as its own internally generated stories. Is the study of genes in relation to mind and mental health useful?


vpizzini's picture

Genes obviously guide our

Genes obviously guide our physical development, but they also have a profound impact on our cognitive and social development. Even if genes do not operate in a vacuum, they influence our personality in very different ways -  by determining the reactivity of neurotransmitters, etc-. I believe that any genetic influence will emerge only if certain environmental supports are in place. Therefore, any characteristic that is shaped by genes is also liked to be shaped by the environment. Mental illnesses  are described by modern theorists by using a diathesis-stress model. The diathesis  is the predisposition toward a mental disorder, while the stress is a trigger that turns the risk into an actual disorder.

llamprou's picture


I agree with Sophie that the only way we can piece apart ones behavior is by 'understanding the interaction of genes and their contribution to various mental states', however I feel it is also important to recognize that a wide variety of mental states are not at all gene related, and that a vast majority of mental states that are can be treated with a variety of different medications. Does this make nature less of a problem than nurture?

I believe that most mental states that are considered detrimental are caused by ones environment and not necessarily their genes. It is helpful to know for a statistical stand point whether or not an individual has a higher probability to develop a specific mental illness but I do not believe that genes alone can take the blame.

I was just thinking about how often individuals who have committed horrible and unspeakable crimes plead temporary insanity or mental instability. Is it fair to justify ones actions based on their unbalanced mental state – caused by their genes – something those individuals had no control over? Does the definition of insanity and mental instability differ?

After running this idea of ‘gene blame’ over and over in my head I have decided that I do not think enough is known about genetics and the genes responsible for specific mental illnesses to sustain such an argument.

Perhaps I always thought of genes affecting an individual more physiologically that mentally or emotionally. And perhaps I believe that nurture is more important than nature, and this is incredibly shocking to me because I am a die-hard biology major and am writing a genetics thesis. So I’ll just stop here and try to figure out more in class on Monday! My lord this post has confused me and what I think and believe entirely!

Sophie F's picture

I was not making an argument

I was not making an argument for the supremacy of genes in shaping behavior. I don’t think behavior is rooted in fatalism. I think it is varied and unpredictable precisely because the interaction between genes and the environment may well be difficult to disentangle because there are so many variables for which to account that lead to any single behavior. It is more “natural” for me to see the correlation between one’s environment and behavior rather than one’s genes and behavior, so I suppose I was clarifying for myself that the role of genes is something important to be taken into consideration. My story is also evolving, I suppose. Either way, I don’t see “blame” as a useful or constructive paradigm through which to understand behavior.
Paul Grobstein's picture

behavioral unpredictability: complexity and ... ?

Maybe behavior is "varied and unpredictable" not only "because there are so many variables" (in which case one might in principle figure it all out) but also because the nervous system itself is a source of unpredictability? And unpredictability is an important factor in all evolution, biological as well as story?
Paul Grobstein's picture

using old stories to find/create new ones

Perhaps even a "die-hard biology major ... writing a genetics thesis" can change her story? Not from one old story to a competing old story, but instead to one or another new story that acknowledges both the strengths and the limitations of existing ones?
mstokes's picture

Internal vs. External

I appreciate your outline of the issues at work here, Prof. Grobstein. It would seem there is a tendency to view genes as a sort of "lowest common denominator" for explaining choices and behavior, when if fact, genes serve to make the story more complex, and indeed, more interesting. Before genes entered the story, the view of naturalism (19th cent) eliminated free will on the basis of external forces at work in determining our stories; with the entrance of genes as sources of behavior, those external forces became internal--but still as far removed from our influence as a raging storm or an enemy army. These external and internal forces are both present--creating "the boundaries" of our stories--and between which our free will functions. Perhaps, too, our free will can press those boundaries a bit further--and as we can influence the boundaries of our external world, so too, may we influence our internal world. Thinking of mental health in this realm--as the functioning of our selves and our storytellers within the boundaries of external and internal forces--seems helpful. Knowing more about those forces can help us negotiate those choices better. Can we ever know all that we'll face or encounter? We don't externally, so I don't think we can expect to internally/genetically. Can too much knowledge at times hinder our choices--make us less willing to act or react? Someone with too much fear of outside forces or potential risks may never leave his or her house. Indeed, genes/environment/culture present both assets and problems in making choices and directing our lives. Can the internal forces clash with the external forces around and despite the influence of our free will, and is that the basis of illness--both mental and physical?
Paul Grobstein's picture

outside AND inside: constraints and/or opportunities?

And I in turn think the additional historical perspective is valuable. Yes, the issue of free will was once a matter of an alternative to "outside" forces, and is now a matter of an alternative to "inside" forces as well (see discussion of those threads coming together in 1971). And one can think of them as "constraints," perhaps indeed "clashing" ones. But perhaps one can also think of them as providing opportunities? being the building blocks from which one creates new and distinctive ways of being human? Conflict as a good thing rather than a bad one? The task being to prevent it from become paralyzing?
Paul Grobstein's picture

Genes, environment, story telling, and behavior/mental health

Lots of intriguing conversation here. Thanks all for pushing my own thinking along. Clearly some biology us relevant here; let me see if I can make it both more comprehensive and more comprehensible.

"virtually no behavior is determined by genes and virtually every behavior is influenced by genes" is an important part of the biological story but not at all the entire story. Probably a more complete/more useful? statement would be

Genes do not code for behaviors; they code for macromolecules. Behaviors reflect elaborate assemblies of macromolecules at multiple levels of scale. A given behavior is influenced by lots of genes/macromolecules and a given gene/macromolecule influences lots of behaviors. Hence, virtually no behavior is determined by genes and virtually every behavior is influenced by genes. Similarly all behavior is influenced but not determined by the environment, including culture, and by the story teller, including personal choices, and both the environment and the story teller influence multiple behaviors rather than just one.

Its important to understand that this is a description of observations, not an attempt to "spin ... or bribe ... or sweet talk." And that it has important implications. Among them is the need to stop looking for simple cause/effect relationships in thinking in this realm. If I knock a glass off a table and it breaks on the floor, I may feel responsible for the broken glass and it may be useful for me and others to hold me responsible, to ignore the fact that the glass would not have been broken if someone else hadn't put it there in the first place and would not have been broken if there wasn't a gravitational field, and so forth. That approach isn't useful for thinking about behavior. Any particular behavior is an expression of genes and environment and story telling/personal choice. The interplay (the loops) are integral to the phenomenon and can't be ignored.

"if we start making excuses for people based on their genes that people will be able to get away with anything"

"I think most behavior *can* be blamed on chemistry" ... one sign that points to nurture, not nature"

Its not nature OR nurture but both, and story telling/personal choice as well. And that means we need to seriously rethink what we mean by causation, including both "blame" and "excuses." To say that something is influenced by genes can be neither "blame" nor excuse. There are always other things involved as well.

" My guess is, all of our bad behaviors are genetically influenced"

So too, of course, are all of our "good" behaviors. Furthermore, it is often the same genes that are involved in both. The point, of course, is, again, that genes don't code for behaviors and, even more, certainly don't code for "bad" and "good." The influence that a gene has on any given behavior depends on other genes, on experiences, and on story telling/personal choices. And whether than behavior is "bad" or "good" depends on who is doing the judging and what standards are used to make the judgement.

Can we perhaps find a more nuanced approach, one that will help people understand the gene story in a way that doesn’t ignore its power, while at the same time doesn’t promote false views of us as helpless automatons condemned to march haplessly along a pre-determined path?

Yes, but to do so we're going to have to get over trying to replace more complex biological/cultural stories ("bad" and "good") with simpler biological ones ("genes"). And that probably means recognizing that understanding why a particular behavior occurs is often a quite different question from deciding what to do about it. That there is a genetic influence (and an envrionmental one and a story teller/personal choice one) may give us some useful infornation about how to do something about it without giving us any insight at all into whether we want to or ought to.

Is there something special about genes in this regard? some reason the "gene story" has particular "power"? I think the answer is both yes and no. We have no control whatsoever over the genes we have and, until recently, most people have had very little awareness of genes as an influence on human behavor. It is indeed useful to know that there are influences on behavior that are not chosen by individuals and that we and others may not know about. On the flip side, though, few of us are entirely choosing our environments or fully aware of the impacts they are having on us. Yes, its helpful to know that genes influence behavior in ways we might not have expected. The same is true for the environment? "the more we understand about the human experience [in all its facets] the better equipped we will be to deal with the varieties of that experience we encounter"?

I don't think though that one should leave it at that. A more nuanced story would emphasize that genes, having things that we did not choose to have, relates not only to "bad" things but to "good" things as well. Our genomes provide each of us with the only free information we'll ever get in our lives, a wealth of information about what worked in the past, distinctive information that lays an early foundation for our individuality. Among the other things it gives us is our capacity to tell stories, make meaning, and hence to make personal choices, to be in fact an influence, to one degree or another, on our own behavior.

"free will, not limitless human powers, but choice within the boundaries, different for each of us, of our mental faculties coupled with our environments, gives us another tool ..." 

Perhaps another way to define the goal of "mental health" is the maximization of each individual's free will, their ability to make their own choices?  And we should think of genes/environment/culture all has both assets and problems in that context?

akerle's picture

either/or? Neither nor.

I believe that nature IS nurture and vice versa. One does not exist in isolation with out the other.

A parent will nurture their child according to their 'nature' (personality/ it what you will). A child will receive the influences of this parent and learn from their experiences- but the care the child receives only affects the child as much as their nature will allow. Nature creates nurturing patterns.

For me, there is no either/ or situation here. Everyone has genes so everyone is predisposed in some way or another to something, be it bi-polar disorder or sports.

As for preventative steps that can be taken. I believe that knowledge is the greatest tool we have. Whether or not there will be a slippery slope, I don't know, but the more we understand about the human experience the better equipped we will be to deal with the varieties of that experience we encounter. 

ryan g's picture

I agree

I agree with you. One misconception that I have been fighting with myself is the notion of genes being a mold or something static that you are born with from which you then grow change and develop, never to look back besides to consider "where you  once came from."  The model you have proposed (the interaction between genes and environment being dynamic and interactive) seems to be much more useful and makes more sense.  The effect of nature/nurture on behavior seems like the perfect place to implement another "loop model."

Sophie F's picture


If behavior is the complex interplay between genes and the environment, it is no surprise that some mental states are best ameliorated by a combination of medication and therapy, as the study discussed in this article suggests.
Sophie F's picture

Initial thoughts

If “virtually no behavior is determined by genes and virtually every behavior is influenced by genes,” there is obviously great merit in understanding the interaction of genes and their contribution to various mental states. If we know how the genes interact, perhaps certain mental stresses can be ameliorated with medications or other interventions at some point.  I wonder about the idea of “blaming” genes for behavior once we have elucidated the relationship between the two. In my mind, part of the necessary paradigm shift in conceptualizing, talking about and, yes, even treating mental illness comes from dissipation of the over-arching theme of blame. The story of “blame” is not a constructive one from the perspective of blaming environmental factors or blaming genes. If certain behaviors have a genetic component and there are new ways to evaluate this, then perhaps we can work to prevent people from engaging in such behaviors. Understanding the genetic implications of mental states does not necessitate complete reliance on genetic explanations in evaluating behavior. The greater the depth of understanding that can be achieved, through genetic markers and through an evaluation of environmental factors, the greater the potential to understand others' behaviors. 

This site had some really interesting information and links to pertinent articles about behavioral genetics.

In appealing to the storyteller as a vehicle for reshaping meaning, is that not an act of free will? Is that not the very point of “creating meaning” that we have the capacity, the ability, the possibility, if not always the tools, to craft a new story? I found this article, one story, about the very nature of our conception of free will affecting our behavior. (this is a link to the original study cited in the previous article) Perhaps, believing in free will, not limitless human powers, but choice within the boundaries, different for each of us, of our mental faculties coupled with our environments, gives us another tool in which to refine meaning. The less we employ various tools in reshaping meaning, the more difficult, though not impossible, it becomes to wield the same tools and to do so effectively. Yes, to free will and yes to variability in perceptions that lead to outcomes that might not be predicted.

merry2e's picture


I have been very intrigued with the discussions about interacting brains and the storyteller. I saw a friend today and she looked at me with a strange look and I could not distinguish if she was upset with me, or what was going on so I asked. Her response, "that's your stuff, I am not upset with you. I am having a bad day." It is so easy for one to tell stories without even realizing we are telling these stories at times. This I believe for me is the heart of the therapeutic process and understanding of the self. Figuring out what these stories are that are in the unconscious, how they are helpful and what stories do no good (by telling them, figuring out they do not work? and either putting them aside or simply getting rid of them)... And moving on from there.
Paul B's picture

I totally agree with you,

I totally agree with you, Merry, that addressing the storyteller is the heart of the therapeutic process. I think that those who have depression or anxiety have terrible storytellers. For example, walking by a friend who gives you a strange look. While Merry simply asked her friend what was wrong, perhaps a anxious or depressed person would automatically create a story that her friend is mad at her. I imagine that exposing anxious and depressed people to other stories would be very beneficial.

I think that genes predispose people to these bad storytellers. I think the materials that comprise the storyteller are proteins (and therefore linked to genes). However, I believe that people can overcome this disposition and realize that other stories exist besides the ones that also place blame on them with the help of therapy.

merry2e's picture

Genes and environment

The first thought that is coming to mind when I read Prof. Paul’s post on intelligence and genes is a child can be born extremely intelligent and not have a warm, attentive, loving, caregiver to fill its needs, ie., love, comfort, etc, and eventually without these needs being met, as the child grows he/she cannot give full attention to his/her genetic  learning abilities because the environment (he/she has to look for their own needs to be met, therefore speding energy on other things than the so-called normative “intelligence” standards). So, really, what good are genes if you do not have an environment to enhance the genetic material?

(I have not read any other post yet, so sorry if repeating myself!)


adiflesher's picture

David Brooks must be listening

David Brooks appears to have jumped aboard the meaning-making model of the world. In his analysis of the market collapse he talks about how the collective perception (meaning-making) that happened in wall-street failed to recognize what in retrospect might have seemed like a set of very obvious conclusions about risks in the financial market. It was not according to Brooks a problem of analsysis, it was a problem of perception.


Paul Grobstein's picture

the bipartite brain and the world

Thanks for this. Yes, it was a rich week for indications that brains are on peoples' minds in lots of contexts. See also

Martin's picture

Immaterial Mental Life

Genes code for the macromolecules that make up our brains and the functioning of those molecules in our brains proceeds just like a domino chain. If the gene codes properly the molecule will have the right shape and interact in the right way hitting the next domino in the chain. So far we have been working under the assumption that our mental life is simply the result of  the complex interrelationships of these macromolecules and we have comforted ourselves with the thought that since there are so many dominos/macromolecules and there are so many different ways for each domino to connect/hit another domino  that we will have an infinite amount of variety in behaviors and mental lives which makes each person unique. This is an attempt to dispel the notion that our lives are not merely the predetermined unfolding of our chemical structure. I think it is right that we try to dispel that notion because we certainly don't experience ourselves to be completely determined, we do experience choice. But, if our mental life is solely the result of our physical brains and the interactions between the neurons/dominoes inside of them then I don't see how we can continue to believe that we have "free-will." 

    This is the start of a story which allows for an immaterial aspect of our mental life. I certainly don't think this story is conclusive but I do think that it explains our experience better than a story which says that all of our mental life is the result of neurons interacting in different ways. Experiencing an infinite number of possible arrangements of neurons is not the same as experiencing a choice in how those neurons are arranged. 

ryan g's picture

I don't think I really have

I don't think I really have my head wrapped around this issue of free will just yet, but I do have one comment I want to make on the presence of free will being support for an immaterial self.  I was thinking this last week during discussion, but conversation got redirected and it never came up again.

As I try to review the observations and decide what is least wrong, I find myself faced with two stories.  The first story attempts to explain all of our human intricacies, tendencies and abilities in terms of the intimidating complexity of the nervous system.  The other story attempts to explain all our human intricacies, tendencies and abilities in terms of the intimidating complexity of the nervous system PLUS add on an immaterial self to the top of that which no one can really observe or say anything about.  All other things being equal, why would I choose to believe that I have this immaterial self that is also interacting with my already bogglingly complex nervous system.  If the nervous system can explain everything well enough, why not go with the least complex of the two?  If I remember correctly from my two philosophy classes in undergrad, this logical principle is called Ockham's Razor.   

Martin's picture


I agree with you about the Ockham's Razor point, as Dr. Mallory says Keep it Simple Stupid... But, what I was suggesting was not simply that there are two stories that explain things equally well but rather we have two stories which attempt to explain the same thing to different degrees of success. Chemicals react in a specific way, they don't get to pick how they react. They respond to other chemicals in a determined way, and that is quite simply the whole story of a material brain. That does NOT explain our experience of free-will. So, I agree with you the immaterial self is a "posit" that we can't prove by pointing to some material thingy but it is a necessary one to explain our experience. 
ryan g's picture


I don't know much about computers, but recently I have been tinkering around, trying to learn some basic computer programming.  Computers have the ability to distinguish between two conditions yes/no, on/off, binary language 100110.  From only that ability, they are able to complete uber-complex tasks based on if-then statements.   

Our neurons work with electrical signals as well.  If I don't know anything about computers, then I sure as heck don't know anything about neurons, so I can't speak with any authority as to mechnisms here... but my point is that one could imagine that a neurological "computer" that communicates using electrical signals and is constantly receiving new inputs and reforming new connections based on this input could give the illusion of what we call free will.  Maybe our brains are just acting on complex algorithms that are not only set up already, but changing all the time based on new inputs.  

Based on this definition of free will, the two previously mentioned stories may take on a different degree of usefulness.  I fully acknowledge that this is only one definition of free will, and not a particularly solid presentation of it at that, but I accept no responsibility.  My genes made me do it...

Paul Grobstein's picture

computers, brains, and free will

"Maybe our brains are just acting on complex algorithms that are not only set up already, but changing all the time based on new inputs"

Yes "changing all the time based on new inputs." But that's not all. "Algorithms" are deterministic processes, ie processes whose output is fully determined by the inputs. The brain is "stochastic"/"noisy" and for this reason (among others) is capable of doing things that algorithms can't do. Among them is to conceive new alternatives ("stories") and chose among them. Ergo, there is more to "free will" than an illusion.

Paul Grobstein's picture

selves, material and immaterial, and the brain

"Chemicals ... respond to other chemicals in a determined way, and that is quite simply the whole story of a material brain"

Yes, chemicals "don't get to pick how they react". But they act and respond in a stochastic way, not a "determined" one (see From random motion to order: diffusion and some of its implications). And the brain is not "just" chemicals, but rather an ordered assembly of them, with an organization that in turn can make use of randomness to yield ... personal choice/free will? Perhaps the brain itself is the source of the unpredictability that we expect of the immaterial?

"the immaterial self is a "posit" that we can't prove by pointing to some material thingy but it is a necessary one to explain our experience"

Yep, the immaterial self is a "posit." So too is its absence. And there are a variety of reasons to prefer, at any given time, one "posit" over another. Its not clear to me though that there is anything about "free will" in particular that makes "necessary" the posit of an "immaterial self".

Martin's picture

If I understand the word

If I understand the word "Stochasitc" correctly, then it seems that you agree with Ryan, right Dr. Grobstein? What we call free will is in fact only an appearance of pre-programed randomness, and not in any way free at all. So there is not one single way the "algorithim" can be rewritten, but the randomness is an attribute of the neurons that is pre-programed. This explains something that looks like free will but it does not explain what I experience when I choose to go left rather than right. 
Paul Grobstein's picture

free will as illusion?

Nope, I don't agree with Ryan that what we know about the brain suggests that free will is an illusion. Not only do I think what we know about the brain can make sense of what "I experience when I choose to go left rather than right" but it can make sense of that being in fact a causal influence on your behavior.
Paul Grobstein's picture

the free will problem

"if our mental life is solely the result of our physical brains and the interactions between the neurons/dominoes inside of them then I don't see how we can continue to believe that we have "free-will."

Yep, there is indeed a problem here. Glad to have it out on the table. And certainly one way to deal with it is to appeal to the immaterial. But there are other ways also worth exploring ...

"Like the narrator of Dostoyevsky's Notes from the Underground, I'm not happy as a "piano key", insist on some measure of "free will", and believe it can be found through a more subtle understanding of the mind/brain relation, one that involves a "physicalism" that embraces indeterminacy." ... Irreducibility without dualism: chaos or indeterminacy?

The key here is that the activity of neurons has a non-deterministic character to it (Variability in Brain Function and Behavior) and that the bipartite architecture of our brains provides us with a way to use that indeterminacy to be causal agents in the universe in our own right (by telling and revising stories). For more along these lines, see

Yep, "observations to date are ... consistent" with either a material or an immaterial basis for free will (and, as well, with free will being nothing more than an appealing story, cf Daniel Dennett's Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting). What appeals to me about the material basis is that it provides me with some clear approaches to questions like how much free will does any given person/organism have, how can one enhance it, and why would one want (or not want) to?
adiflesher's picture

Genie, Genie on the wall - why did my genes not make me bald?

Some thoughts on genetics:

I have to say that I am still very weak on the hard science behindgenetic studies and would love to understand more about it.

I tried to do a little reading to bone up and found a coupleof interesting articles related to genes and behavior. 

The first one is a look at genes and marital infidelity,focusing on a gene controlling vasopressin which is is related to pair-bonding.According to the article "men who had  2copies of the variant allele are twice as likely to experience maritalproblems, including divorce, separation, and infidelity, compared to men withone or no copies of the allele"

Hereis the full article

Next I read an article on the search for the intelligencegene.  It seems that intelligence is morestrongly correlated among identical twins, than among twins and among twinsthan among siblings and among siblings than among non-related children.  This would seem to indicate some sort ofgenetic relationship to intelligence, but the search has proven to beremarkably futile.  Despite years oftrying researchers have not been able to isolate genes or sets o genes that haveany meaningful correlation to intelligence.

They have however uncovered two things which were veryinteresting to me.

First it seems that the correlation between intelligence andgenetics is much harder to find among poor kids than among kids from comfortableeconomic backgrounds. 

Second the correlation between genes and intelligence grewmuch more profound over age.

This raises some interesting questions along thenature/nurture continuum.  It seems (onthe basis of this limited evidence) almost as if genes need certain ideal conditionsand sufficient time in order to fully express themselves.  But this might be just my limitedunderstanding of the evidence. Curious to hear everybody's thoughts.

In any case the article was very skeptical about any type ofgenetic determinism: "Intelligence is kind of an emergent property of thebrain," Shaw says. "The idea that you're born with 15 genes, and they set instone how intelligent you're going to be and how your brain is going todevelop, is almost certainly wrong."

Hereis the link to the full article:

Finally, a shortvideo by John Cleese (yes the guy from Monty Python) having a little funwith the idea that Genes might fully explain certain human behavior: 

ysilverman's picture

Just a thought ... The fact

Just a thought ... The fact the there is more of a correlation for intelligence among (non-identical) twins than among siblings is one sign that points to nurture, not nature (or at least the experiential over the genetic).
Paul Grobstein's picture

Genes, phenotypes, intelligence, and "mind"

"It seems ... almost as if genes need certain ideal conditions and sufficient time in order to fully express themselves."

Actually the situation, re intelligence as well as other things, is more subtle still. The presumption inherent in "fully express themselves" is that genes code for phenotypic characteristics (such as level of "intelligence") and hence one may only see their "full" effects under some particular set of optimal envrionmental conditions. In practice, genes don't "code for" phenotypic characteristics at all; they "influence" phenotypic characteristics.

Let's imagine two groups of plants with different sets of genes. If we grow the two kinds of plants under identical conditions one grows on the average taller than the other. Hence, genes influence plant height. If we grow either kind of plant under two conditions, one with little light, the other with lots of light, we find that both kinds of plants grow taller with lots of light than they do with little light. Hence, the environment also influences plants height.

Clearly there is no genes versus environment opposition here; both contribute to the height of any given plant under any given condition. More importantly, there is no single way to characterize the relative contribution of genes and environment. Under constant environmental conditions, the variation in plant height is mostly due to genes. But when genes are held constant, the variation in plant height is mostly due to environmental factors. Its not that "genes need "ideal conditions ... to fully express themselves" but rather that the height is always influenced by both genes and environment, with the relative contributions of each being a function of the circumstances in which one makes the observations.

In the case of phenotypic characteristics like intelligence (or other aspects of "mind"), there is a further important subtlety. The naming and measuring of many human characteristics (the creation of stories about them) can itself impact on peoples' stories of themselves and, in turn, influence the expression of those characteristics. For more along these lines in the case of "intelligence," see The Bell Curve: Issues of Individuality and Education. The bottom line, of course, is that there is not only no "optimal" environment for gene expression but also no "optimal" phenotype independent of the environment.


adiflesher's picture

Wise approach to Genetics


It seems to me clear that both nature and nurture play asignificant and inter-meshed role.

I do however take seriously the idea that genetics might pre-dispose us to certain patterns of behavior. If we believe the statistics in the article on fidelity, it raises somevery interesting moral questions.

If the case indeed holds that some men have a significantly higherchance of being promiscuous, in what ways should society approach this issue?  I think our collective gut instinct is to say, ignore it, even if they have a higher chance it doesn’t mean that they are destined to be promiscuous. Although this is true, I wonder if hiding our heads under the cover and pretending we don’t know something is the wisest response.

Can we perhaps find a more nuanced approach, one that willhelp people understand the gene story in a way that doesn’t ignore its power,while at the same time doesn’t promote false views of us as helpless automonscondemned to march haplessly along a pre-determined path?

I think we would find it difficult to defend the idea thatwe should ignore the genetic risk for heart disease.  If 5 people in your family have died of aheart attack under the age of 50 and you are chugging through life eating steak– wouldn’t it be compassionate of someone who loves you to say something? Wouldn’t it be just helpful for people to know that they have a higher risk based on their genetic make-up?  

I am not sure what the corollary is for genetic risk forpromiscuity or alcoholism or depression etc. – but

I think its worth exploring, so I would love to hear everyone’s thoughts. 



Ljones's picture

Slippery Slope

I'm worried that if we start making excuses for people based on their genes that people will be able to get away with anything. Obviously if someone has a propensity for heart disease, it might be good to guide them toward healthy eating and excersize, but what if they have a propensity for violence? Can we get to a point where murderers can say "Look at this structure in my brain! It's smaller than yours so I'm not responsible for my actions"? How does a wife whose husband has been unfaithful respond with the knowledge that "his genes made him more likely to do it?" 

I don't know, I'm fuzzy on the issue, because knowing that someone has a higher liklihood of depression might get them help sooner... but knowing someone has a propensity to cheat just makes me feel like we've given them an excuse to do so.

adiflesher's picture

Valid worries

I think that there is a lot of validity to your worries that people will try to use genetics as an excuse for bad-behavior. 

I think people will always try to blame bad behavior on powers outside themselves. (The devil made me do it!)   

 My interest is in how we help people understand genetics (and the brain) so they can actually have a better chance to avoid hurting themselves and others. As I said in my post I am not sure that I have a clear model for how we do this, but I do think that for the most part - more knowledge - properly understood - helps people make better decisions and arrive at new ways of seeing the world. 

We already have a lot of people cheating on their spouses, addicted to drugs, addicted to bad food etc.  Perhpas as we become more clear on the many things that lead people into these types of destructive and harmful realtionships to themselves and others - we can help them avoid these things, or help them make better stories that will allow them to escape these traps. 

In that sense I think that some of the stories that people have (I am a bad person, I am lazy, I am going to hell) don't actually work all that well for many people in avoiding or stopping destructive behavior.

If people have a chance to understand that parts of their brain are leading them to this behavior (genes, unconscious mind) while other parts of their brain (concern for others, morality) are showing them a more useful way of behaving than it might really help them find more appropriate solutions.


Paul B's picture

Reasons for Genetic Studies....

To iterate what Adi said....

it's definitely a valid concern.

However, if we look into these genetic predispositions, we may be able to develop effective ways to help people who are susceptable to cheating, drugs, etc. And if there is available and effective help, then there is no "genetic excuse" for detrimental behavior (though, there may be environmental excuses...)

In fact, in all the studies that attempt to associate a disorder with a gene justify their study by explaining how elucidating genetic effects on disorder will lead to the development of more effective therapy.

While virtually no behavior is determined by genes, virtually all behavior is influenced by them. By targeting genes that influence detrimental behavior, we can at least give a genetically predisposed individual a small advantage in avoiding detrimental behavior.

ysilverman's picture

I agree, on this, with both

I agree, on this, with both Paul and Adi ... though, at the same time, I see another sort of slippery slope (kind of akin to what Sophie was talking about last class).

My guess is, all of our bad behaviors are genetically influenced (and if not genertically, than enviromentally -- basically, regardless of origin, most are biologically, or subconciously, based). I think that most people who end up murdering others are somehow predisposed to do so. Is their behavior controllable? Well, perhaps. But, as we know from so many other biologically influenced behaviors (predisposition to addictions of all sorts, predisposition to depression, to anxiety, to mania) it isn't easy. What if, at the end of the day, we can explain most agressive acts biologically, and treat them? I don't think we're talking about a slippery slope -- I hope we're talking about finding ways to help people feel better in their skin (and less prone to hurt themselves and others).

But, more slippery, is where does this sort of thing stop? What sorts of behaviors amount to things that make us unique and different, and what are pathologies?  (This is what Sophie was saying in class, I think, and something I particularly agree with.) What is the fabric that makes an individual an individual, and what characteristics can and should be treated? Is it ever good to feel sad, or is all sadness something that should be explored? When does sadness (a feeling that most people would want to avoid, I think, at least in the throes of it) benefit us? If we can all become kind, athletic, bookish, happy, achievers, should we? If someone goes on depression medication and ends up with a dull affect -- no longer sad/suicidal, but really basically emotionless -- have things improved? And, if not, why not?

It's possible none of the above scenarios will be achievable, maybe even probable. (Well, except for the dulling effect of some anti-depressants, which is already here.) Still, that's the slippery slope I feel more worried about. (Because I think most behavior *can* be blamed on chemistry, at least to the extent that I don't think consciously dictated self control is actually what divides an angry person who murders from an angry person who doesn't, or a person who drinks a glass of wine three or four times a week from an alcoholic.)

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