Oct 27

“Unique” by David J. Linden

Neurobiologist David J. Linden‘s recently published book called Unique: The New Science of Human Individuality is itself unique in that, per my online research, this topic has seldom been addressed. What’s more likely to be found are articles on how to be unique—as though we aren’t already!

As Science Daily stated in 2018, “Like with fingerprints, no two people have the same brain anatomy, a study by researchers of the University of Zurich has shown. This uniqueness is the result of a combination of genetic factors and individual life experiences.”

Unique‘s publisher points out the fallacy of nature versus nurture: “Exploring everything from the roots of sexuality, gender, and intelligence to whether we like bitter beer, Linden shows how our individuality results not from a competition of nature versus nurture, but rather from a mélange of genes continually responding to our experiences in the world, beginning in the womb.”

More from Kirkus Reviews:

The author picks apart those aspects that are biologically regulated and those that are the product of social experience—attachment, social warmth, neglect, and bullying—and describes how they affect brain development. There are a variety of sex manifestations that don’t always sort easily into male and female, and gender is even more variable….Ultimately, the author concludes, ‘interacting forces of heredity, experience, plasticity, and development resonate to make us unique.’

Selected Quotes from Linden’s interview with Abigail Fagan, Psychology Today:

The phrase that everyone knows, “nature vs. nurture,” is so awful and so wrong. The “vs.” implies that what you inherit from your parents must be opposed to your experience in the world, which isn’t true.

The word “nurture” makes people think too much about family, how your parents took care of you or failed to take care of you. The experience that informs you as an individual is so much broader than that. It’s things like the food your mother ate when she was carrying you in utero. Or the time of year you were born. Or the ambient temperature in the first year of your life.

[Regarding the role of “pure, random luck”]: Even at birth, identical twins who have the same DNA don’t come out identical. They don’t look identical, they don’t have identical temperaments, and if you put them in medical scanners their organs aren’t identical. Why is that? It’s because the DNA doesn’t specify the way we develop in excruciating detail with every connection between every cell specified. It gives a vague set of instructions that randomness then acts upon. Randomness is the cherry on top of the hereditary-interacts-with-experience equation.

Your birth order is an important determinant of how you behave and interact within your own family, both as a child and an adult. But it’s not as if first children who tend to be the leaders in their family are the leaders on the playground at school or the leaders of corporations. It doesn’t transfer over that way.

The heritability of addiction varies across different populations, and it’s about 40 percent among middle-class people. However, BMI is more heritable than addiction. Yet if most people look at someone who is overweight, they don’t say, “You got dealt a rough genetic hand.” They say, “You eat too much and you don’t exercise enough. It’s your own damn fault.” Understanding the statistics of heritability can alter your compassion for people.

Aug 15

Nature AND Nurture and Mental Health

Although the intriguing new documentary Three Identical Strangers, about triplets separated at birth, is best seen without foreknowledge, I think it’s not a big spoiler to say that one of the many questions raised involves the effects of both nature and nurture on human development.

Director Tim Wardle has been quoted about his own conclusions: “Ultimately, this film suggests it’s a balance. You know you are born with certain biological predispositions, but then your environment shapes how those predispositions are expressed. Both nature and nurture, I realize, play a role in how we become the people we are.” (Globe and Mail)

How much of nature and nurture affect mental health conditions? As Erica Hayasaki, The Atlantic, states: “There was a time when scientists tended to think one or the other factor was more important to development, but they have since come to realize how limiting it is to confine our understanding of behavior, health, and identity to this either-or dichotomy.”

A few summaries of current thought follow.

GoodTherapy.org: “Nature, or genetics, has been proven to be an important factor in the development of some mental health conditions, such as schizophrenia, bipolar, and major depression: Bipolar, for example, is four to six times more likely to develop when there is a family history of the condition…”

Addictions is another area in which nature plays a role. “Studies show that alcohol addiction, for example, can recur in families and that certain genes may have an influence over the way alcohol tastes and the way it affects the body.”

And then there are conditions that seem to involve both nature and nurture: “Certain genetic factors may create a predisposition for a particular illness, but the probability that a person develops that illness depends in part on environment (nurture). When a genetic variant indicates the possibility of development of a mental illness, this information can be used to direct positive (nurturing) behavior in such a way that the condition may not develop or may develop with less severity…”

David Rettew, MD, psychiatrist (Psychology Today):

Today, most scientists who carefully examine the ever-expanding research base have come to appreciate that the nature and nurture domains are hopelessly interwoven with one another. Genes have an influence on the environments we experience. At the same time, a person’s environment and experience can directly change the level at which certain genes are expressed (a rapidly evolving area of research called epigenetics), which in turn alters both the physical structure and activity of the brain.

Given this modern understanding, the question of nature versus nurture ceases even to make sense in many ways…

In the end, when the families of children…ask me whether or not their child’s struggles are behavioral or psychological, the best answer I can give them these days is ‘yes.’

Kendra Cherry, VeryWellMind:

Increasingly, people are beginning to realize that asking how much heredity or environment influence a particular trait is not the right approach. The reality is that there is not a simple way to disentangle the multitude of forces that exist. These influences include genetic factors that interact with one another, environmental factors that interact such as social experiences and overall culture, as well as how both hereditary and environmental influences intermingle. Instead, many researchers today are interested in seeing how genes modulate environmental influences and vice versa.

Feb 12

“Me, Myself, and Why”: Jennifer Ouellette Self-Searching

…(O)ur sense of self is a construct, which is not the same thing as saying that it’s illusionary, I think it’s very real, but it is certainly not your genetic code or simply your synapses or simply any one thing, it’s all those things integrated together that makes us who we are. Jennifer Ouellette, author of Me, Myself, and WhyPsychology Today

For various reasons science writer Jennifer Ouellette became intrigued with self-identity. She writes in Scientific American about this leading to her new book Me, Myself, and Why: Searching for the Science of Self:

I had my genotype sequenced, visited neuroscientist David Eagleman’s lab to participate in an fMRI study, took a couple of personality tests, and peered at drunken fruit flies, courtesy of behavioral geneticist Ulrike Heberlein. But the self is a complex entity. So the book also covers online identity and our relationship to our avatars, as well as the murky waters of sex and gender. The final third of the book gets all meta, delving into consciousness and how we construct our personal narratives from the cloth of autographical memory. And yes, I even sampled LSD, to great comical effect.

In an article in Slate, Ouellette shares 10 things she learned about herself (and some of what she learned about other selves). Excerpts of her explanations are presented with each below:

  1. Genes are deterministic but they are not destiny…It’s even more complicated for personality traits, health risk factors, and behaviors, where traits are influenced, to varying degrees, by parenting, peer pressure, cultural influences, unique life experiences, and even the hormones churning around us as we develop in the womb.
  2. It’s nature and nurture, not one or the other…
  3. My brain scan—courtesy of neuroscientist David Eagleman’s lab—told me nothing about who I am…
  4. Being shy and being introverted are not the same thing.
  5. When it comes to the central question—are alcoholics born or made?—science equivocates by answering truthfully, “Eh, it’s a bit of both, actually.”
  6. We bond psychologically with our avatars and those bonds are stronger the more similarities we share with our pixilated alter egos.We need to be able to look at our avatar and feel “This is me.” But our identities are always in flux.
  7. [Regarding gender identity]…(R)igid binary thinking needs to change. Such stereotypes arise from lazy thinking, and while they might make it easier to deal with the complexity in the world, they also make it far too easy to lose sight of people as individuals—and they can cause very real psychological harm to those children who don’t fit the stereotypes.
  8. I become “that person” at the party if I take LSD. You know the one. Did you see that episode of Mad Men where they all dropped acid and that one woman was crawling around on the carpet? Yeah, that was me. I bonded with an oriental rug on a deep, molecular level, and yet it never calls.
  9. When I die, and my brain shuts down for good, my self will cease to exist, because consciousness is emergent.
  10. We are the stories we tell…Our memories might not be as accurate as we think—we fabricate and embellish even when we believe ourselves to be truthful—but this so-called autobiographical self is key to how we construct a unified whole out of the many components that contribute to our sense of self…If you really want to know who I am, let me tell you a story.

In the following book trailer, Ouellette gives a similar recap but in person:

Nov 19

“Far from the Tree” By Andrew Solomon

Andrew Solomon‘s new book Far from the Tree feels particularly pertinent this week, as many adults who began their lives falling “far from the tree” will see their families for Thanksgiving, and most of these families will probably deal in one way or another with the kinds of issues Solomon describes.

Already known for his award-winning personal account of living with a mood disorder, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, Solomon’s latest and lengthy contribution represents over 10 years of interviews with over 300 extraordinary families with exceptional children.

From publisher Scribner: “Solomon’s startling proposition is that diversity is what unites us all. He writes about families coping with deafness, dwarfism, Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, multiple severe disabilities, with children who are prodigies, who are conceived in rape, who become criminals, who are transgender. While each of these characteristics is potentially isolating, the experience of difference within families is universal, as are the triumphs of love Solomon documents in every chapter.”

But that’s not all. Solomon’s own childhood differences and subsequent adult developmental process also inform this book. Because a parent disapproved of his homosexuality, for example, he tried reparative therapy. Fast forward, though, to him being an out and proud gay man—and a parent himself.

Dwight Garner, The New York Times: “Mr. Solomon’s first chapter, entitled ‘Son,’ is as masterly a piece of writing as I’ve come across all year. It combines his own story with a taut and elegant précis of this book’s arguments. It is required reading.”

Publishers Weekly further describes that Solomon “relies on anecdotes to convey the herculean tasks facing parents and caregivers of special-needs children because ‘stories acknowledge chaos,’ and he takes great pains to probe the dark side of parental despair and anger, as well as ennobling efforts of resilience and strength. Sifting through arguments about nature versus nurture, Solomon finds some startling moments of discovery…”

Book critic Kathryn Schulz, vulture.com, reaches the following ultimate conclusion:

I seldom cry at books, but I was moved to tears by Far From the Tree more times than I can count. What undid me, again and again, was the radical humanity of these parents, and their gratitude to and for children they never would have chosen. ‘If someone had said to me, Betty, how’d you like to give birth to a lesbian dwarf?, I wouldn’t have checked that box,’ one mother joked. Yet what once seemed alien and unwanted has become beloved beyond expression. A father of a child with Down syndrome says, ‘For ­David I’d cure it in an instant; but for us, I wouldn’t exchange these experiences for anything. They’ve made us who we are, and who we are is so much better than who we would have been.’ A mother of a deaf child says that she ‘can see no benefit whatsoever in Tom being deaf—for him. But the benefits for me were absolutely huge … I’d been brought up among very clever, high-pressure people. For the first time, through disability, I met people who were good.’ Solomon cites a poll in which parents of disabled children were asked to agree or disagree with a series of statements. One of them was ‘I have increased compassion for others due to my experience.’ One hundred percent of respondents agreed.