Your Genes Didn’t Make You Do It
Your Genes Didn’t Make You Do It
By Deepak Chopra
It’s common with exciting breakthroughs in science that perception gets skewed and new facts lead to extreme interpretations. We seem to be in such a phase now with genes, which are being used to explain too many things in ways that are far too simple and mechanistic. It’s one thing to say that a child gets her blond hair genetically, but quite another to say that a child who is chronically shy received that trait exclusively by inheritance. Mechanists have staked out an extreme position, that all complex human behavior will one day be seen as genetically caused. At the opposite extreme, most psychologists have accepted for decades that behavior is created by early family influences, and especially by the style of parenting that a child is exposed to. (When you see a young child throwing a tantrum in the supermarket, do you automatically glare at the mother, or at the very least wonder why shoe doesn’t make him stop?)
This is the old controversy between nature and nurture. No one should feel that genetics will finally settle the argument — to believe that “biology is destiny” doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Your genes don’t make you do things. They are involved in a complex entanglement of nature and nurture that makes each of us entirely unique. This point was brought home to me by an old article in Newsweek from 2000 that covered an extremely important and influential discovery in how our genes get triggered.
Because this research has so many implications for every aspect of behavior, I will take several posts to discuss it. To begin with,researchers at McGill Univ. in Canada found that female rats aren’t the same at parenting. Some take more time and care to lick their infant pups while others don’t. As it happens, the pups that were almost obsessively licked and cared for grew up to be less stressed and more adventurous in temperament, while pups that were less cared for grew up to be stress sensitive, restless, and nervous.
Monkey researchers long ago showed that taking a baby away from its mother caused developmental problems of this kind. A widely circulated photo showed a baby monkey clinging to a wire-mesh surrogates of a mother monkey covered in soft padding. Even without a live mother, the infants were desperate for a simulacrum of being cared for. If deprived of any mother figure and placed in isolation, the babies showed disabilities that closely resembled autism and depression that persisted for life. This finding swung the pendulum toward the nurture camp, which insists that children must be given the proper environment if they are to grow up into psychologically healthy adults.
But the new research goes farther, because the rats’ behavior has to come from the brain, and in order for the brain to trigger any behavior, genes have to fire. Genes aren’t automatically triggered or
“light up.” They can express themselves a little or a lot or not at all. (The same holds true for cancer genes, which everyone possesses but which get triggered in unknown ways among patients who actually develop cancer.) In the case of the rats raised by good mothers, their brain genes expressed to a high degree for traits like self-confidence, sociability, and resistance to stress. The rats who were under-mothered have the same genes, but theirs didn’t “Light up.” They remained unexpressed.
What this means is that both nature and nurture are involved. A gene may exist for specific behaviors (this is no longer in doubt), but outside influences still have a great deal to say. It’s like being born with innate musical ability. You may possess the genes of a Mozart, but if you grow up on a desert island never hearing music, you won’t turn into a musician. We need to adapt ourselves to this tempered view of genetic predisposition, because far too often people casually assume that genes are deterministic, the modern equivalent of the biblical ” bad seed.”
The Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan did pioneering research forty years ago to show that babies are born with personalities. Every mother already knew this, but the field of psychology persisted in believing that a new born baby is a blank slate, which means that parents got blamed when their baby was cranky, irritable, angry, shy, unsociable, or showed any number of negative traits. And parents believed the psychologists (one only has to think back to the so-called “refrigerator moms” who supposedly caused schizophrenia in their children due to aloof, cold parenting).
Now it is emerging that genes are the physical imprint of behavior, but to what degree they dictate behavior remains a mystery. How much can you blame your genes, or thank them? How much can you blame or thank your parents? It’s a fascinating topic to dwell on.
Your Genes Didn’t Make You Do It: Part 2
In the past few years neurologists have dismantled, piece by piece, the entrenched view that the human brain is fixed and unchanging in adults. It was long believed that once we grow up our brains have a set number of neurons performing functions in a fixed way. After all, if the visual cortex enables a person to see, then that one specialized function has been permanently assigned to one local area of the brain. Yet nothing so definite is at work. Every brain cell contains the ability to perform any function, and it turns out that in blind people, the visual cortex can take on a new job, responding to touch or taste rather than sight.
Contrary to theories that were accepted as far back as the 1860s, the brain is quite malleable and never stops changing throughout our lifetime. Brain function changes constantly, and there is room for more change than we take advantage of. (Consider the stark contrast in old people between those who keep mentally active and those who passively allow for “normal” deterioration in memory and reasoning ability.) If the new view of the brain is correct, we all possess the power to change our behavior; traits and tendencies that have proven genetic links are by no means fixed (which is why therapy can help lifelong depressives or obsessive compulsives: receptors in the brain are being altered by a new way of thinking and a new perception of the self).
Change in the brain is caused by a wide array of things: stress, trauma, reward and punishment, encouragement or discouragement from parents, one’s own will and desire, and genes. When you plant a radish you get a radish, but things aren’t so simple with genes in the brain. They must play their part along with a myriad of other factors. In other words, genetic determinism isn’t a growing theory but a fading one. The public hasn’t caught on to this yet but continues to cling to an outmoded, scientifically false view. Sadly, popularized genetics backed by rigid materialism serves to hide the truth.
In the first post I referred to research with rats, now seven years old, that showed how good or bad mothering leads to lifelong behavior in infant rats. A badly mothered rat will develop fewer receptors for estrogen in the brain, and in time the infant will tend to become a bad mother herself, thus passing this negative trait on to her offspring. Suddenly we find ourselves in the thick of an old but still heated controversy. Darwinists have contended with almost religious certainty that traits couldn’t be passed on that were learned in a creature’s lifetime. Genes were coded seeds that created new traits only through random mutation. The opposite view, that a learned trait can be passed on to the next generation, was associated with the French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarcke, who wrote before Darwin in the early 1800s.
Lamarcke would have had no trouble believing that bad mothering could be passe on from one rat to another. The famous example of giraffes comes to mind. A Lamarckean would claim that giraffes grew longer necks by reaching higher for food; the higher they reached, the more they stretched their necks, and this adaptation was then passed on to their offspring. Darwinism refutes this, because the only way a longer neck can be passed on is through natural selection of favorable genes. In early giraffes a gene for a longer neck would have to appear accidentally, and once it appeared the favored animals could reach food higher up than other, unfavored giraffes. Therefore they had a better chance of surviving and passing on the new gene, until gradually all the shorter necked giraffes were bred out of existence.
Pure Darwinism has always had glaring holes in it, but these went unexamined because of the brilliant triumph of genetics. To this day there are strict constructionists who refuse to accept that change is possible within a creature’s lifetime. That will have to change, because the new research with mother rats proves that how an infant is treated creates alterations in genetic expression, and these in turn alter the receptors in the brain. In fact, the rats who had good mothering proved to be healthier adults in many ways, not just in their mothering skills. Male rats, too, turned out better adjusted if they had attentive mothers.
What we can envision is a far more complex interaction between nature and nurture. A learned trait like bad mothering can be passed on without needing a new gene at all. This ability to change genes, suppress or encourage them, turn them on and off, etc. was unknown until recent years. The implications for how you were raised and what you are doing to your children are provocative.
Your Genes Didn’t Make You Do It: Part 3
I’ve been writing about the fallacy that complex behavior is determined by genes, raising the question of whether it is determined at all. Genes should properly be seen as predispositions, the starting gun for a lifelong journey at the level of the brain, a journey with countless twists and turns. As we saw, the arguments for nature versus nurture both have something on their side. But it’s not enough simply to split the difference. In medicine we can’t stop with the knowledge that everyone has preoncogenes, the genes that trigger cancer, which sometimes get expressed as tumors and sometimes never get expressed at all. We must find out what causes a cancer gene to “light up,” and the answer may be as individual as each person. Or it may turn out that there are families or strains of cancer genes that need to be assigned to a person before the cause of any given cancer can be determined.
The same holds true for a behavior like shyness. It seems fairly definite that a specific gene is associated with infants who display shyness. That part is nature. But nurture comes in through how the parents react to an infant’s shyness. If they coddle the child and protect it from other infants, the trait of shyness will be encouraged, and through brain changes that adapt to this treatment, the genetic predisposition will get expressed strongly. On the other hand, if a shy infant is encouraged to be outgoing and put into situations with other babies, they can overcome the genetic predisposition, again by having the brain adapt to the environment. This much has been studied with hundreds of subjects in various modes of social adaptability as well as tendencies like anger or irritability. An angry baby has fewer receptors for adapting to stress, and if that goes unaltered, the person who grows up with such a brain will be sensitive to stress and possess a quick temper.
How, then, should parents react when they see a trait they don’t find desirable in a baby? Most react by punishment, discouragement, scolding, and sometimes violence. In other words, they mirror the very trait they see. In many cases, if the rat experiments are indicative, the parents’ own traits are being unconsciously passed on. This may explain why children from abusive homes grow up to become abusive parents themselves. Their brains adapted in childhood to this kind of behavior, and now they have little choice but to keep exhibiting it, even when the conscious mind fights to be non-abusive.
How much leeway is there in this tangle of nature and nurture? If the determinists are right, we are basically trapped both by genes and ingrained conditioning in the brain. Fortunately, the new research gives ample room for creative, positive change. In fact, it supports the human potential movement in many ways, a movement that aims to bring out the full potential of the mind and therefore the brain.
Your Genes Didn’t Make You Do It: Part 4
This is the final post on how genes influence behavior. On one hand one can look at identical twins separated at birth who lead very similar lives and share many behaviors–this seems to support the dominant role of genes. But you can also point to studies of psychiatric patients with conditions like depression or OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) who improve with talk therapy. that implies that a disorder associated with the brain’s “hard wiring” is treatable through changes in “soft” things like behavior, emotions, and thinking. It’s a complex and mysterious field, so I’ve only offered a gloss.
But we’ve covered enough ground to see that both sides of the debate between nature and nurture can claim part of the truth. Neither can claim to know how much the brain adapts to outside influences and how much is pre-set by genes. The future will no doubt surprise us. But on a practical basis any parent would want to know if a child who shows signs of negative behavior from infancy (for example, extreme shyness, anger, irritability, unsociability) can improve? And if so, what action to take?
Common sense would dictate, as it always has, that good parenting is supportive, loving, and warm. Close connections are important, with a special emphasis on touching and physically reassuring very young children. But all of that is hard to do with a child who displays extreme behavior. With a difficult child, the first rule is “Don’t respond in kind.” If you meet anger with anger or irritability with irritability, brain research seems to indicate that you will cause the child’s developing brain to wire in the undesirable behavior. A second rule is to remain optimistic. No one knows how much genes contribute to behavior, but we do know that the brain can change. Anyone’s ability to change may be much greater than is currently supposed. In any event, the very worst thing is physical or emotional abuse, which probably leads to deep-seated brain abnormalities and uncontrollable behavior later in life. Such is the prevailing consensus.
I’d like to go a step further, however, and point out that neurology still ignores the mind in favor of the brain. This seems to leave us with circular reasoning: a machine controlled by genes is locked into pre-determined behavior unless an equally mechanistic influence from the outside changes that behavior. In other words, determinism is used as an explanation both for nature and nurture. If we abandon materialism and allow for the existence of a mind, with its rich panoply of wishes, desires, dreams, and impulses, the picture changes. Genes become the starting point, but free will and environment play an unpredictable role. When genes and uncertainty meet, the mixture is far more creative than neurology presently allows.
A gene is basically an imprint from the past, an incarnation of memory. But memory obviously doesn’t rule us completely. As the Shiva Sutras say, “I use memory, I do not allow memory to use me.” This gives us one of the tenets of enlightenment, that the human mind can free itself from the past by going inward to the source of consciousness. In the Vedic view, the purpose of the past is to provide a vehicle for the present. You were born with a physical body, including the brain, outfitted with enough past memory (genes) to provide a direction for your life, a blueprint of your unique tendencies.
As you interact with your family and surroundings, new material for memories comes in. The brain constantly incarnates its past experience by turning intangible events, emotions, sensations, and drives into cells; there is no need to wait for new genetic mutations when every neuron is capable of expressing itself across a wide range of experience. In other words, the body you have today is metabolized experience in all its accumulated richness.
So the greatest challenge is to master the meeting point between past, present, and future. In the Indian spiritual tradition, the highest achievement was complete freedom from all three. The Self or Atman, being pure consciousness, has no predetermined qualities. It exists in the realm of pure potential. Modern society doesn’t have a value system that equates freedom with enlightenment, but with new advances in brain research, we are at least seeing the fingerprints left by the mind on the brain, and we can observe how experience gets metabolized into various receptors and neural networks that are unique for each individual. Science cannot yet explain why two people with a similar genetic makeup and experiences can turn out so differently, or so closely, for that matter. but the potential for recognizing consciousness as the source for both nature and nurture may be the most exciting possibility looming ahead.