Genes- and the way we think

Robert Chang was a second generation American. He was born and brought up in the United States of America. His parents had migrated from China when they were young. Robert had an interest in Palaeontology, but his parents wanted him to become an electronics engineer. He was good in mathematics also. So he didn’t mind. Pleasing his parents was important for him. His two uncles and an aunt lived nearby. They also approved of his decision to join Electronics, and were proud of him. He could have gone to a more prestigious University far away, but chose to join the community college nearby to be with his relatives and family.

It was there that he met Jane, his present girlfriend. She was majoring in creative arts, her primary interest. Jane’s parents were not particular about what she studied. They were happy that she decided to go to college. She lived near her parents, but wanted to go to the west coast as soon as she finished her studies. “I want to experience other places,” She said. Secretly she wanted to be away from her parents for a while, “as they got on her nerves too often”. She was quite annoyed when Robert insisted that she meet his parents before sleeping with her. He wanted to meet her parents also.

“What for?” She exploded. “We haven’t decided on anything yet”.

Robert wanted to go with her to California. But the thought of leaving his family made him miserable. He became a nervous wreck.  Jane found him crying in his room one day.

“I really can’t see what the problem with you is,” She said. “I will stay here for one more year. Then we will see”

Mathew D Liebermann and Baldwin Way of the Psychology Department at UCLA, were reviewing research on the genes that control the brain’s serotonin system. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that enable electrical signals to pass across synaptic junctions between neurons. Variation in the level of serotonin has been linked to Depression in humans.

Way discovered that individuals of Eastern and Western descent show differentially distributed variations within the regulatory region of the serotonin transporter gene- 5-HTTLPR.  There are three variants of the gene- short-short, long-short, and long-long. Two-thirds of East Asians have the short-short variant, but only one-fifth of Americans and Western Europeans have it. This is a very significant difference, shown in multiple studies.

This short-short variant of the gene is related to depression and social sensitivity. Risk of depression is greater in people with this variant, who lack adequate social support. Their well-being depends upon the cohesion and support with their communities. These people are likely to be more sensitive to the social environment in general.

Mathew D Lieberman has elaborated upon these concepts in the chapter titled ‘What makes big ideas sticky?’ in the book ‘What’s Next’. He theorises that this may be one reason why Orientals are culturally likely to be taught that the society is important. That we are all connected. Needs of your people come first. Buddhism and Confucianism have this slant. People from North America and Western Europe are taught to believe in their own goals, feelings and achievements. Individualism rules here. I am master of my own destiny. Controlled by a single god who holds individuals responsible for their own eternal salvation.

In India? We are somewhere in the middle. Less than half of the population has the short-short variation of the gene in India. Buddhism originated here, and then migrated to China.

And we know that it is the only country where communism still thrives.

Meanwhile Robert and Jane took an apartment in their hometown and are living together. But their problems are not over. Jane likes novelty. She wants to travel to exotic places. She wants to meet new people every day. She gets a hit out of bungee jumping, rock climbing and paragliding. Once she joined a course that taught how to handle poisonous snakes. She gets bored easily. Robert loved his routine job at a local company. Going to a movie is the maximum he can handle by way of excitement. And he steered clear of thrillers and horror movies.  He loved to sit with a book near the fireplace in his spare time.

Robert wanted to get a cat as a pet. He was fond of them. Jane suggested a small pit viper. “They are so cute” She insisted.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is released in response to excitement. In optimum levels in the brain, release of this chemical cause small ‘hap’ hits. It is basically part of a reward system. It makes the person want the surge again. Cocaine and amphetamines release Dopamine. It is associated with attention, alert states and learning.  Excess of an effect of dopamine, is but unpleasant. Dean Hamer of the National Cancer Institute in Maryland, USA Studied a gene called D4DR. A variation of the gene, the long variant, he found was almost universally found in certain ‘novelty junkies’. They constantly seek new experiences and find happiness in taking risks. They are prone to addictions, and are impulsive. Routine just bores them to death. Their brains are less sensitive to the effects of Dopamine. So they seek out experiences that maximise its output. A group of people with the short variant are highly sensitive to this neurotransmitter. They quickly become overwhelmed with newness. They can take in very little excitement.

And I have to tell you, everything is not going well with our young couple. Jane now doesn’t want to go to California. She wants to go to Malawi. She heard that it is fun fishing in Lake Malawi. There is always the danger, people told her, of a crocodile coming and grabbing at your feet. She can’t wait to go. Robert is not very open to the idea. Jane has had many American lovers during her teens.  An African is an exciting possibility. Frankly, she finds Robert…well, boring.

Will Robert and Jane learn to get along? And start enjoying one another? They can. What is truly astonishing is how humans can overcome their biology and strive for betterment. An elusive concept called the effort of will is required. We need to rise above our biological imperatives, not only for ourselves and our loved ones, but also for the planet and our future. Their lies the real challenge of being human.

Dr Jimmy

I am a Doctor, Writer and Science Communicator. I am a member of Info- Clinic, and have written a few books. This site features my blog posts and stories. Thank you for visiting. ഞാൻ എഴുതാൻ ഇഷ്ടമുള്ള ഉള്ള ഒരു ഡോക്ടർ ആണ് . നിങ്ങളുടെ താത്പര്യത്തിന് നന്ദി .