Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Innate Differences and Individuality: A Book Review

Capital white letters spelling INNATE with a blue colored brain in the background
As someone who actively pursues both philosophy and psychology, the brain occupies a special place in my heart. In fact, any issue I look at or examine, will have at least some underpinnings within or ties and connections to the brain. This ranges from questions of free will and moral responsibility to the influence of the unconscious and our perspective of ourselves and of others. Since this incredibly complex organ is the tool, decoder, processor, and communicator of our internal and external world, it becomes relevant to have at least a rudimentary understanding of processes involved within one’s skull.

Modern philosophy took a significant historical and ideological turn since Descartes: The French philosopher and mathematician aimed to break up consciousness and to separate the mind from the body. The brain itself was said to seat the soul, which, nonetheless, would be – rather miraculously - flexible and independent enough from the general constraints exercised upon the rest of the body.

However, the Buddhist perspective of unity - that the brain and mind are one and contained and embedded within each other - seems to make more intuitive sense. This interconnectedness becomes apparent when we have an emotion. The emotion is caused and / or causes a reaction within the brain, which is transmitted to other parts of the body.

Alternatively, it may be the body that sends messages to the brain, which translates it into different emotions. A feeling, positive or negative, is more interconnected than we may think. Nothing operates on its own or in complete isolation, but it is (at least in its ideal state) a synchronized unit that acts in harmony and tandem with other segments of the body. To separate and isolate one specific item, such as the mind, a disease, a psychological disorder from all the other parts of the body would be a mistaken and a rather limiting and limited approach.

By contrast, this would also put limits and constraints on our free will. Our free will cannot be spontaneous and impulsive; it cannot appear out of the blue, but it has its own sets of physical and emotional restraints and restrictions. This is a thought I have been pondering and writing about for various years, but now I have scientific proof to support my views.

This support comes through Kevin J. Mitchell’s excellent book Innate: How the Wiring of our Brain shapes who we are, which examines not only how but also to what extent genetic information manages to influence the brain and our underlying psychological characteristics. 

Current genetic technology and research indicate that most of who we are, our core identity, would most likely be set and determined by our genes, whereas environmental factors may play less of a role than we had previously thought or assumed. It is not an ideal and balanced 50 / 50 split between nature and nurture, but the scale appears to be tipped and tilted in favour of nature.

This information may come as a surprise and may feel counterintuitive; it is also going against what we have been told for decades about human psychology. To illustrate this point, we would need to take a closer look at genetics and the development of the brain.

Our essential nature is encoded and contained by our DNA, which is a program or a code of development. The DNA is not exactly a blueprint but may be more akin to a program. However, it does not do anything on its own as it needs to be read and decoded by a cell. 

One of the in-built features of the genetic program is to be responsive to changes and fluctuations in the environment. In fact, the human genome contains the history of all of one’s ancestors and their respective environments they inhabited throughout human history; yet at the same time, the system needs to be flexible enough to adapt to new emerging circumstances.

Those who had a more successful cocktail of genes vis-à-vis their respective environments had a higher chance as well as rate of survival and would then be able to propagate their genes to their offspring. In contrast, ancestors who did not survive would not be able to pass on their genes and would disappear from the line of succession. 

The theory of evolution could be interpreted as an evolving and progressive experiment, a thermostat working on the fumes of trial and error by continuously trying to adjust itself (to self beta-test) to reach an ideal Goldilocks state of survival that could and to a certain extent would change with each successive life.

For this to occur, we need both stability and variation. The DNA is overall more on the conservative and robust side of things. Although it is amenable and occasionally welcoming to fluctuations, it also needs and demands structure. 

Some of our characteristics, such as hair and eye colour are generally set and determined; others can change or be modified with influential factors and environments, for example, height and intelligence. Put differently, some of our hardware cannot be changed, but other parts may depend upon us, on our environment, our actions as well as our circumstances.

This can be best exemplified by height. Our genotype, the seed if you like, gives us a predetermined range, but the phenotype, the outcome or more appropriately outgrowth, will be influenced by various factors and choices, such as nutrition and lifestyle habits. 

If you eat well and play basketball, your chances of reaching the maximum potential of your genes is at its highest and by extension it makes heritability not a fixed but a proportional measure. In either case, it is not a matter of free for all but there is a limit written and pre-wired in your genes, which may explain why we have some basketball players who are on the shorter side, despite it all.

Our genes can be expressed as a potential that is contained and lies dormant within it. This could be a positive issue, the potential to reach even greater heights or higher intelligence, or a negative issue, such as a higher probability or a genetic predisposition for certain diseases. Although some diseases and conditions may be completely out of our control, others come down to a matter of probability or luck, while others can be evaded or avoided with sufficient care and control on our part.

Genetic defects and mutations are responsible for conditions like Down syndrome as well as dwarfism, and they can also lead to psychological conditions, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or epilepsy as well as medical conditions like diabetes and cancer. The heritability – the probability of being affected by those conditions – fluctuate: your chances of getting schizophrenia could be up to 50 %, whereas autism can have a risk factor of up to 80 %. 

Overall, neuropsychiatric disorders are highly heritable and, in fact, at a much higher rate than diabetes and heart disease. Nonetheless, people seem to feel more at ease at blaming someone for their mental health condition, while considering a person afflicted with a medical condition to be a helpless victim of circumstance.

What causes these variations within people? We inherit genes from our parents, both from our mother and father with each of them containing genes from their own line of ancestors. Yet there is another type of fluctuation that happens within the womb. During development, there is always a chance for variation.

This random variation is not brought about by the parents per se; they are de novo mutations, that is they occur spontaneously and randomly. In some cases, these variations may lead to miscarriages; in others, they could lead to conditions like Down Syndrome or autism. The latter are not caused by the parents, as neither of them would have had the condition, but they occur and develop on their own in the form of a mutation.

In the case of neurological and psychiatric conditions, such as intellectual disability, autism, epilepsy, and schizophrenia, it comes down to copy number variants (CNVs), which are deletions or duplications of segments of chromosomes. In most of these cases, it is a matter of Murphy’s Law, that anything that could go wrong will go wrong since evolution has a preferred fine-tuned manner of creating and designing a human being. Inversely, these occurring variations could potentially lead to somewhat better and improved conditions for their recipient, whether by direct or indirect means.

Mutations are more common that we may think: In fact, we all carry thousands of minor genetic variants and typically 100 – 200 major mutations. We tend to have about 70 new mutations that were not present in our parent’s genomes but most of them have no effects. In terms of de novo mutations that actually hit a gene, we have on average of 0 to 2, which then comes down to a matter of luck: If we are unlucky, they may affect brain development. Most of them - about 75 % - end up arising in the paternal germline, the father’s side, while the risk of mutations proportionally increases the older the father is at the time of conception.

Yet it is these variations straying from the given script or blueprint that partially lead to the emergence of a brand new and individual human being. I have always been fascinated by the uniqueness of each of us and how that is reflected in our DNA. There are even differences between identical twins who not only share the same sets of genes but are often brought up in the same environments. So what accounts for the (admittedly minor) differences between monozygotic twins in regards to their physical appearance and psychological characteristics?

Dr. Mitchell gives us a clear analogy: We cannot bake the same cake twice. The DNA is your recipe. You have chosen all the necessary ingredients, which are the same and of the same quantity. You bake them in the same oven. Yet the end effect is that each one is slightly different from the other. Your cake will be slightly different, no matter how hard you try to keep everything under control.

This is one of the factors that causes and gives us our individuality. They are fluctuations, if you like, individual experimentation, that try to find the best mix or cocktail for the times and environments we are living in. At the same time, some of those changes occur due to random events or are merely a by-product of noise. 

In other words, no matter how much you control the settings, it cannot lead to the same outcome. Even if you clone an individual, they will not be the same as differences will creep into the system and make them different from each other. The brain may come pre-wired, but it is not hardwired by a long shot, and essentially even the brain structures of twins are already different at birth.

Moreover, every time our DNA is copied, there is a chance for errors or misprints. Since our genome has three hundred billion letters of DNA that need to be replicated, it is understandable that there could be occasional typos or glitches within the system. 

Nonetheless, the cell has proofreading enzymes as well as DNA repair enzymes that detect and correct many and most of those errors. Yet despite having such a robust and well-designed editing system, some errors may still break through causing certain kinds of mutations within the individual.

But individuality is not solely created by our genes. It is rather the genes interacting with the environment that lead to certain types of experiences. Those experiences are filtered by and through our brain. A person who is naturally anxious or neurotic will have a different interpretation of an event than someone who scores less high on those dimensions. 

In turn, those experiences will have an affect on the brain chemistry and will affect our neuromodulators – they will cause variations in our neuro-modulatory signaling pathways - that will then control, modulate and tune our thoughts and behavior. Through experience and with time, our brain becomes refined, and we gradually become ourselves, or rather what we perceive to be our unique and different identity.

This is not always as clear cut as it may seem. As our brain is developing, it is quite malleable, and there is an infinite number of ways that development could proceed. The effects of neuroplasticity are at their strongest as the brain is in growth and development. 

This occurs when children start interacting with their environments and become more aware of themselves and their surroundings. At this point, the brain is ready to take in as much information as possible, which is why children tend to have such an optimal (and enviable) sponge-like capacity for learning, be it a new skill, an instrument, a sport, or any of the world languages.

At this stage, the brain can adjust in different manners, especially when there is any shortcoming or accident. This is also the reason why people who are born blind or become so at a young age will have other senses that will become more developed to compensate for this irreversible loss and lack of function. 

The plasticity will allow the system to adapt itself; for instance, the visual cortex then becomes responsive to auditory information making up for the gap or lack that the congenitally blind individual would experience otherwise.

Since the brain works at such heightened capacity, children are also more susceptible and prone to fear, anxiety, and other strong emotions than other age groups would be. Any emotional impact would more likely have a traumatic effect that could spill over into adult life many years later. 

In fact, any strong internal and external stressors at early stages of life could have cascading, prolonged and long-lasting effects on the circuitry and connectivity of the brain. This is another reason why childhood trauma leaves behind such deep and profound emotional scars within the afflicted person. 

As we learn from our experiences and develop habitual ways of acting and behaving in the world, such traumatic experiences would additionally shape and form an individual’s lens and interpretation of the world and could alter personality traits irrespective of genetic phenotypes or potential.

Although Dr. Mitchell gives self help and psychotherapy short shrift and claims that they are either not as influential or not as effective as they claim to be, as most of our ailments and shortcomings could be potentially traced to genetic make-up, I believe that he errs on that matter. 

Although I could understand that parental influence has less of an influence than we think, it is still, at least from a psychological point of view, more lasting and wide-ranging than he assumes. This is merely due to the fact that the developing brain of children with their budding perspective and identity is still in a fragile and vulnerable state, while any experience would have lasting effects on their future selves.

However, beginning after young adulthood, the brain loses some of its flexibility, and it becomes more set and crystallized in its functions. This is simply to protect the sense of one’s established identity. While there could be a revolution to one’s perception at any time, and age and trauma could be relieved and a blindfold could be taken off from one’s eyes at any stage of life, the brain tries to limit these types of chaotic changes, especially after a certain age, to preserve its continued and continuing sense of self. 

Consequently, we become less adept and less quick at learning new skills and tricks, but at the same we are deepening and consolidating our previous abilities and experiences. It can entail that we become more set in our ways, and we may become less flexible (and generally more traditional) in our views, politically or philosophically speaking.

My own views fall somewhere in the middle ground at this moment. In certain ways, I am quite set in my ways since I have seen and understood certain truths about life and human behaviour; in others, I always welcome and incorporate new incoming information, especially if it is backed up with solid reasons and supported by science. 

For the most part, Kevin J. Mitchell’s book falls into the latter category. I learned many details not only about the genetic process and development, but also about how they affect different parts of our psychological make-up ranging from predispositions for conditions and diseases as well as various issues related to intelligence as well as sex and gender.

There is so much information I would like to get into, but that would have to occur on a different post as this one keeps getting longer. As to the book itself, I highly recommend it and can easily accept more than 90 % of its findings and conclusions. 

Where we end up clashing is our respective fields and backgrounds. Although our brains come pre-wired and many of our traits are innate, I do not think that psychology is mostly determined by our genes. I think the software has the power to transform the hardware to a much higher degree than Dr. Mitchell gives it credit for.

For instance, he claims that psychotherapy is used more for coping with symptoms than actually curing the condition. A similar claim could easily be made about medicinal treatments. But when it comes to psychotherapy, I strongly believe in its curative and healing powers and that some but not all psychological conditions can be cured. 

Neurotics would fall into that category, and it is defeatist to think or believe that they cannot be helped or changed and that they must blindly embrace their genetic predisposition or misfortune. There is hope for them especially when equipped with the appropriate psychotherapeutic tools and, most importantly, when fitted with the right and most conducive attitude.

But in terms of evolution and progress, we would most likely agree that it is our individuality that gives us the edge in addition to a better chance for survival in the world, and that this has been the case at any point of human history. The different viewpoints and psychological characteristics that each of us brings to the genetic table is of immense value and should not be underappreciated. 

We can see how the world seems to push us in the direction of conformity, how everyone is beginning to act, look and dress the same, indistinguishable one from the other, but we need to resist this applied peer pressure; for the sake of humanity, we need to keep and preserve our individual flames aglow and, if possible, expand it and pass on the lit torch of diversity to our offspring.

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