Biology of Behavior

 CHAPTER 2: The Biology of Behavior

In 2000, a Virginia teacher began collecting sex magazines, visiting child pornography websites, and then making subtle advances on his young stepdaughter. When his wife called the police, he was arrested and later convicted of child molestation. Though put into a sexual addiction rehabilitation program, he still felt overwhelmed by his sexual urges. The day before being sentenced to prison, he went to his local emergency room complaining of a headache and thoughts of suicide. He was also distraught over his uncontrollable impulses, which led him to proposition nurses.

A brain scan located the problem—in his mind’s biology. Behind his right temple there was an egg-sized brain tumor. After surgeons removed the tumor, his lewd impulses faded and he returned home to his wife and stepdaughter. Alas, a year later the tumor partially grew back, and with it the sexual urges. A second tumor removal again lessened the urges (Burns & Swerdlow, 2003).

This case illustrates what you likely believe: that you reside in your head. If surgeons transplanted all your organs below your neck, and even your skin and limbs, you would (Yes?) still be you. An acquaintance of mine received a new heart from a woman who, in a rare operation, had required a matched heart-lung transplant. When the two chanced to meet in their hospital ward, she introduced herself: “I think you have my heart.” But only her heart. Her self, she assumed, still resided inside her skull. We rightly presume that our brain enables our mind.

Indeed, no principle is more central to today’s psychology than this: Everything psychological is simultaneously biological.

Biology and Behavior

2-1: Why are psychologists concerned with human biology?

Your every idea, every mood, every urge is a biological happening. You love, laugh, and cry with your body. Without your body—your genes, your brain, your appearance—you would, indeed, be nobody. Although we find it convenient to talk separately of biological and psychological influences on behavior, we need to remember: To think, feel, or act without a body would be like running without legs.

Biological psychologists study the links between our biology and behavior. In this chapter we start small and build from the bottom up—from nerve cells to the brain. We then consider how our genetic histories predispose our shared human nature, and, in combination with our environments, our individual differences.

biological psychology the scientific study of the links between biological (genetic, neural, hormonal) and psychological processes. (Some biological psychologists call themselves behavioral neuroscientists, neuropsychologists, behavior geneticists, physiological psychologists, or biopsychologists.)

Neural Communication

For scientists, it is a happy fact of nature that the information systems of humans and other animals operate similarly—so similarly that you could not distinguish between small samples of brain tissue from a human and a monkey. This similarity allows researchers to study relatively simple animals to discover how our neural systems operate. Cars differ, but all have engines, accelerators, steering wheels, and brakes. A Martian could study any one of them and grasp the operating principles. Likewise, animals differ, yet their nervous systems operate similarly. Though the human brain is more complex than a rat’s, both follow the same principles.

Neurons

2-2: What are neurons, and how do they transmit information?

Our body’s neural information system is complexity built from simplicity. Its building blocks are neurons, or nerve cells. To fathom our thoughts and actions, memories and moods, we must first understand how neurons work and communicate.

neuron a nerve cell; the basic building block of the nervous system.

Neurons differ, but all are variations on the same theme. Each consists of a cell bodyand its branching fibers. The bushy  dendrite  fibers receive information and conduct it toward the cell body. From there, the cell’s lengthy  axon  fiber passes the message through its terminal branches to other neurons or to muscles or glands. Dendrites listen. Axons speak.

dendrites a neuron’s bushy, branching extensions that receive messages and conduct impulses toward the cell body.

axon the neuron extension that passes messages through its branches to other neurons or to muscles or glands.

Unlike the short dendrites, axons may be very long, projecting several feet through the body. A human neuron carrying orders to a leg muscle, for example, has a cell body and axon roughly on the scale of a basketball attached to a rope 4 miles long. Much as home electrical wire is insulated, some axons are encased in a myelin sheath, a layer of fatty tissue that insulates them and speeds their impulses. As myelin is laid down up to about age 25, neural efficiency, judgment, and self-control grows (Fields, 2008). If the myelin sheath degenerates, multiple sclerosis results: Communication to muscles slows, with eventual loss of muscle control.

myelin [MY-uh-lin] sheath a fatty tissue layer segmentally encasing the axons of some neurons; enables vastly greater transmission speed as neural impulses hop from one node to the next.

Neuron by sculptor Roxy Paine

Supporting our billions of nerve cells are nine times as many spidery glial cells (“glue cells”). Neurons are like queen bees; on their own they cannot feed or sheathe themselves. Glial cells are worker bees. They provide nutrients and insulating myelin, guide neural connections, and clean up after neurons send messages to one another. Glia may also play a role in learning and thinking. By “chatting” with neurons they may participate in information transmission and memory (Fields, 2009; Miller, 2005).

glial cells (glia) cells in the nervous system that support, nourish, and protect neurons; they may also play a role in learning and thinking.

In more complex animal brains, the proportion of glia to neurons increases. A postmortem analysis of Einstein’s brain did not find more or larger-than-usual neurons, but it did reveal a much greater concentration of glial cells than found in an average Albert’s head (Fields, 2004).

The Neural Impulse

Neurons transmit messages when stimulated by signals from our senses or when triggered by chemical signals from neighboring neurons. In response, a neuron fires an impulse, called the action potential—a brief electrical charge that travels down its axon.

action potential a neural impulse; a brief electrical charge that travels down an axon.

Depending on the type of fiber, a neural impulse travels at speeds ranging from a sluggish 2 miles per hour to a breakneck 180 miles per hour. But even this top speed is 3 million times slower than that of electricity through a wire. We measure brain activity in milliseconds (thousandths of a second) and computer activity in nanoseconds (billionths of a second). Thus, unlike the nearly instantaneous reactions of a computer, your reaction to a sudden event, such as a child darting in front of your car, may take a quarter-second or more. Your brain is vastly more complex than a computer but slower at executing simple responses. And if you were an elephant—whose round-trip message travel time from a yank on the tail to the brain and back to the tail is 100 times longer than that of a tiny shrew—your reflexes would be slower yet (More et al., 2010).

Like batteries, neurons generate electricity from chemical events. In the neuron’s chemistry-to-electricity process, ions (electrically charged atoms) are exchanged. The fluid outside an axon’s membrane has mostly positively charged ions; a resting axon’s fluid interior has mostly negatively charged ions. When a neuron fires, the first section of the axon opens its gates, rather like sewer covers flipping open, and positively charged sodium ions flood in through the cell membrane. This depolarizes that axon section, causing the next axon channel to open, and then the next, like a line of falling dominos, each tripping the next. During a resting pause, the neuron pumps the positively charged sodium ions back outside. Then it can fire again. The mind boggles when imagining this electrochemical process repeating up to 100 or even 1000 times a second. But this is just the first of many astonishments.

Each neuron is itself a miniature decision-making device performing complex calculations as it receives signals from hundreds, even thousands, of other neurons. Most signals are excitatory, somewhat like pushing a neuron’s accelerator. Some are inhibitory, more like pushing its brake. If excitatory signals minus inhibitory signals exceed a minimum intensity, or threshold, the combined signals trigger an action potential. (Think of it this way: If the excitatory party animals outvote the inhibitory party poopers, the party’s on.) The action potential then travels down the axon, which branches into junctions with hundreds or thousands of oth er neurons or with the body’s muscles and glands.

threshold the level of stimulation required to trigger a neural impulse.

“What one neuron tells another neuron is simply how much it is excited.”

Francis Crick, The Astonishing Hypothesis, 1994

Increasing the level of stimulation above the threshold will not increase the neural impulse’s intensity. The neuron’s reaction is an all-or-none response: Like guns, neurons either fire or they don’t. How, then, do we detect the intensity of a stimulus? How do we distinguish a gentle touch from a big hug? A strong stimulus can trigger more neurons to fire, and to fire more often. But it does not affect the action potential’s strength or speed. Squeezing a trigger harder won’t make a bullet go faster.

How Neurons Communicate

2-3: How do nerve cells communicate with other nerve cells?

Neurons interweave so intricately that even with a microscope you would have trouble seeing where one neuron ends and another begins. Scientists once believed that the axon of one cell fused with the dendrites of another in an uninterrupted fabric. Then British physiologist Sir Charles Sherrington (1857–1952) noticed that neural impulses were taking an unexpectedly long time to travel a neural pathway. Inferring that there must be a brief interruption in the transmission, Sherrington called the meeting point between neurons a synapse.

synapse [SIN-aps] the junction between the a xon tip of the sending neuron and the dendrite or cell body of the receiving neuron. The tiny gap at this junction is called the synaptic gap or synaptic cleft.

We now know that the axon terminal of one neuron is in fact separated from the receiving neuron by a synaptic gap (or synaptic cleft) less than a millionth of an inch wide. Spanish anatomist Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852–1934) marveled at these near-unions of neurons, calling them “protoplasmic kisses.” “Like elegant ladies air-kissing so as not to muss their makeup, dendrites and axons don’t quite touch,” noted poet Diane Ackerman (2004). How do the neurons execute this protoplasmic kiss, sending information across the tiny synaptic gap? The answer is one of the important scientific discoveries of our age.

“All information processing in the brain involves neurons ‘talking to’ each other at synapses.”

Neuroscientist Solomon H. Snyder (1984)

When an action potential reaches the knob-like terminals at an axon’s end, it triggers the release of chemical messengers, called neurotransmitters. Within 1/10,000th of a second, the neurotransmitter molecules cross the synaptic gap and bind to receptor sites on the receiving neuron—as precisely as a key fits a lock. For an instant, the neurotransmitter unlocks tiny channels at the receiving site, and electrically charged atoms flow in, exciting or inhibiting the receiving neuron’s readiness to fire. Then, in a process called reuptake, the sending neuron reabsorbs the excess neurotransmitters from the synapse.

neurotransmitters chemical messengers that cross the synaptic gaps between neurons. When released by the sending neuron, neurotransmitters travel across the synapse and bind to receptor sites on the receiving neuron, thereby influencing whether that neuron will generate a neural impulse.

How Neurotransmitters Influence Us

2-4: How do neurotransmitters influence behavior?

In their quest to understand neural communication, researchers have discovered dozens of different neurotransmitters and almost as many new questions: Are certain neurotransmitters found only in specific places? How do they affect our moods, memories, and mental abilities? Can we boost or diminish these effects through drugs or diet?

“When it comes to the brain, if you want to see the action, follow the neurotransmitters.”

Neuroscientist Floyd Bloom (1993)

Later chapters explore neurotransmitter influences on hunger and thinking, depression and euphoria, addictions and therapy. For now, let’s glimpse how neurotransmitters influence our motions and emotions. A particular neurotransmitter may affect specific behaviors and emotions ( TABLE 2.1 ), and a particular brain pathway may use only one or two neurotransmitters.

Table 2.1: Some Neurotransmitters and Their Functions

Neurotransmitter Function Examples of Malfunctions
Acetylcholine (ACh) Enables muscle action, learning, and memory. With Alzheimer‘s disease, ACh-producing neurons deteriorate.
Dopamine Influences movement, learning, attention, and emotion. Oversupply linked to schizophrenia. Undersupply linked to tremors and decreased mobility in Parkinsons disease.
Serotonin Affects mood, hunger, sleep, and arousal. Undersupply linked to depression. Some antidepressant drugs raise serotonin levels.
Norepinephrine Helps control alertness and arousal. Undersupply can depress mood.
GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) A major inhibitory neurotransmitter. A major inhibitory neurotransmitter.
Glutamate A major excitatory neurotransmitter; involved in memory. Oversupply can overstimulate brain, producing migraines or seizures (which is why some people avoid MSG, monosodium glutamate, in food).

Physician Lewis Thomas, on the endorphins: “There it is, a biologically universal act of mercy. I cannot explain it, except to say that I would have put it in had I been around at the very beginning, sitting as a member of a planning committee.”

The Youngest Science, 1983

Acetylcholine (ACh), which plays a role in learning and memory, is one of the best-understood neurotransmitters. In addition, it is the messenger at every junction between motor neurons (which carry information from the brain and spinal cord to the body’s tissues) and skeletal muscles. When ACh is released to our muscle cell receptors, the muscle contracts. If ACh transmission is blocked, as happens during some kinds of anesthesia, the muscles cannot contract and we are paralyzed.

Candace Pert and Solomon Snyder (1973) made an exciting discovery about neurotransmitters when they attached a radioactive tracer to morphine, showing where it was taken up in an animal’s brain. The morphine, an opiate drug that elevates mood and eases pain, bound to receptors in areas linked with mood and pain sensations. But why would the brain have these “opiate receptors”? Why would it have a chemical lock, unless it also had a natural key to open it?

Researchers soon confirmed that the brain does indeed produce its own naturally occurring opiates. Our body releases several types of neurotransmitter molecules similar to morphine in response to pain and vigorous exercise. These endorphins (short for endogenous [produced within] morphine) help explain good feelings such as the “runner’s high,” the painkilling effects of acupuncture, and the indifference to pain in some severely injured people.

endorphins [en-DOR-fins] “morphine within”—natural, opiate-like neurotransmitters linked to pain control and to pleasure.

If indeed the endorphins lessen pain and boost mood, why not flood the brain with artificial opiates, thereby intensifying the brain’s own “feel-good” chemistry? One problem is that when flooded with opiate drugs such as heroin and morphine, the brain may stop producing its own natural opiates. When the drug is withdrawn, the brain may then be deprived of any form of opiate, causing intense discomfort. For suppressing the body’s own neurotransmitter production, nature charges a price.

The Nervous System

2-5: What are the functions of the nervous system’s main divisions, and what are the three main types of neurons?

To live is to take in information from the world and the body’s tissues, to make decisions, and to send back information and orders to the body’s tissues. All this happens thanks to our body’s nervous system. The brain and spinal cord form the central nervous system (CNS), the body’s decision maker. The peripheral nervous system (PNS) is responsible for gathering information and for transmitting CNS decisions to other body parts. Nerves, electrical cables formed of bundles of axons, link the CNS with the body’s sensory receptors, muscles, and glands. The optic nerve, for example, bundles a million axons into a single cable carrying the messages each eye sends to the brain (Mason & Kandel, 1991).

nervous system the body’s speedy, electrochemical communication network, consisting of all the nerve cells of the peripheral and central nervous systems.

central nervous system (CNS) the brain and spinal cord.

peripheral nervous system (PNS) the sensory and motor neurons that connect the central nervous system (CNS) to the rest of the body.

nerves bundled axons that form neural “cables” connecting the central nervous system with muscles, glands, and sense organs.

Information travels in the nervous system through three types of neurons. Sensory neurons carry messages from the body’s tissues and sensory receptors inward to the brain and spinal cord for processing. Motor neurons carry instructions from the central nervous system out to the body’s muscles. Between the sensory input and motor output, information is processed via the brain’s interneurons. Our complexity resides mostly in our interneuron systems. Our nervous system has a few million sensory neurons, a few million motor neurons, and billions and billions of interneurons.

sensory (afferent) neurons neurons that carry incoming information from the sensory receptors to the brain and spinal cord.

motor (efferent) neurons neurons that carry outgoing information from the brain and spinal cord to the muscles and glands.

interneurons neurons within the brain and spinal cord that communicate internally and intervene between the sensory inputs and motor outputs.

The Peripheral Nervous System

Our peripheral nervous system has two components—somatic and autonomic. Our somatic nervous system enables voluntary control of our skeletal muscles (and is also called the skeletal nervous system). As you reach the bottom of the next page, your somatic nervous system will report to your brain the current state of your skeletal muscles and carry instructions back, triggering your hand to turn the page.

somatic nervous system the division of the peripheral nervous system that controls the body’s skeletal muscles. Also called the skeletal nervous system.

Our autonomic nervous system (ANS) controls our glands and the muscles of our internal organs, influencing such functions as glandular activity, heartbeat, and digestion. (Autonomic means “self-regulating.”) Like an automatic pilot, this system may be consciously overridden, but usually it operates on its own (autonomously).

autonomic [aw-tuh-NAHM-ik] nervous system (ANS) the part of the peripheral nervous system that controls the glands and the muscles of the internal organs (such as the heart). Its sympathetic division arouses; its parasympathetic division calms.

The autonomic nervous system serves two important, basic functions. The sympathetic nervous system arouses and expends energy. If something alarms or challenges you (such as a longed-for job interview), your sympathetic nervous system will accelerate your heartbeat, raise your blood pressure, slow your digestion, raise your blood sugar, and cool you with perspiration, making you alert and ready for action. When the stress subsides (the interview is over), your parasympathetic nervous system will produce the opposite effects, conserving energy as it calms you by decreasing your heartbeat, lowering your blood sugar, and so forth. In everyday situations, the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems work together to keep you in a steady internal state called homeostasis (more on this in Chapter 10).

The autonomic nervous system controls the more autonomous (or self-regulating) internal functions. Its sympathetic division arouses and expends energy. Its parasympathetic division calms and conserves energy, allowing routine maintenance activity. For example, sympathetic stimulation accelerates heartbeat, whereas parasympathetic stimulation slows it.

sympathetic nervous system the division of the autonomic nervous system that arouses the body, mobilizing its energy in stressful situations.

parasympathetic nervous system the division of the autonomic nervous system that calms the body, conserving its energy.

I recently experienced my ANS in action. Before sending me into an MRI machine for a routine shoulder scan, the technician asked if I had issues with claustrophobia. “No, I’m fine,” I assured her, with perhaps a hint of macho swagger. Moments later, as I found myself on my back, stuck deep inside a coffin-sized box and unable to move, my sympathetic nervous system had a different idea. As claustrophobia overtook me, my heart began pounding and I felt a desperate urge to escape. Just as I was about to cry out for release, I felt my calming parasympathetic nervous system kick in. My heart rate slowed and my body relaxed, though my arousal surged again before the 20-minute confinement ended. “You did well!” the technician said, unaware of my ANS roller-coaster ride.

The Central Nervous System

From the simplicity of neurons “talking” to other neurons arises the complexity of the central nervous system’s brain and spinal cord.

It is the brain that enables our humanity—our thinking, feeling, and acting. Tens of billions of neurons, each communicating with thousands of other neurons, yield an ever-changing wiring diagram. With some 40 billion neurons, each connecting with roughly 10,000 other neurons, we end up with perhaps 400 trillion synapses—places where neurons meet and greet their neighbors (de Courten-Myers, 2005). 1

The brain’s neurons cluster into work groups called neural networks. To understand why, Stephen Kosslyn and Olivier Koenig (1992, p. 12) have invited us to “think about why cities exist; why don’t people distribute themselves more evenly across the countryside?” Like people networking with people, neurons network with nearby neurons with which they can have short, fast connections.

The other part of the CNS, the spinal cord, is a two-way information highway connecting the peripheral nervous system and the brain. Ascending neural fibers send up sensory information, and descending fibers send back motor-control information. The neural pathways governing our reflexes, our automatic responses to stimuli, illustrate the spinal cord’s work. A simple spinal reflex pathway is composed of a single sensory neuron and a single motor neuron. These often communicate through an interneuron. The knee-jerk response, for example, involves one such simple pathway. A headless warm body could do it.

reflex a simple, automatic response to a sensory stimulus, such as the knee-jerk response.

Another neural circuit enables the pain reflex. When your finger touches a flame, neural activity (excited by the heat) travels via sensory neurons to interneurons in your spinal cord. These interneurons respond by activating motor neurons leading to the muscles in your arm. Because the simple pain-reflex circuit runs through the spinal cord and right back out, your hand jerks away from the candle’s flame before your brain receives and responds to the information that causes you to feel pain. That’s why it feels as if your hand jerks away not by your choice, but on its own.

Information travels to and from the brain by way of the spinal cord. Were the top of your spinal cord severed, you would not feel pain from your body below. Nor would you feel pleasure. With your brain literally out of touch with your body, you would lose all sensation and voluntary movement in body regions with sensory and motor connections to the spinal cord below its point of injury. You would exhibit the knee jerk without feeling the tap. When the brain center keeping the brakes on erections is severed, men paralyzed below the waist may be capable of an erection (a simple reflex) if their genitals are stimulated (Goldstein, 2000). Women similarly paralyzed may respond with vaginal lubrication. But, depending on where and how completely the spinal cord is severed, they may be genitally unresponsive to erotic images and have no genital feeling (Kennedy & Over, 1990; Sipski & Alexander, 1999). To produce bodily pain or pleasure, the sensory information must reach the brain.

“If the nervous system be cut off between the brain and other parts, the experiences of those other parts are nonexistent for the mind. The eye is blind, the ear deaf, the hand insensible and motionless.”

William James, Principles of Psychology, 1890

The Endocrine System

2-6: How does the endocrine system transmit information and interact with the nervous system?

So far, we have focused on the body’s speedy electrochemical information system. Interconnected with your nervous system is a second communication system, the endocrine system. The endocrine system’s glands secrete another form of chemical messengers, hormones, which travel through the bloodstream and affect other tissues, including the brain. When hormones act on the brain, they influence our interest in sex, food, and aggression.

endocrine [EN-duh-krin] system the body’s “slow” chemical communication system; a set of glands that secrete hormones into the bloodstream.

hormones chemical messengers that are manufactured by the endocrine glands, travel through the bloodstream, and affect other tissues.

Some hormones are chemically identical to neurotransmitters (the chemical messengers that diffuse across a synapse and excite or inhibit an adjacent neuron). The endocrine system and nervous system are therefore close relatives: Both produce molecules that act on receptors elsewhere. Like many relatives, they also differ. The speedy nervous system zips messages from eyes to brain to hand in a fraction of a second. Endocrine messages trudge along in the bloodstream, taking several seconds or more to travel from the gland to the target tissue. If the nervous system delivers information to a specific receptor site with the speed of a text message, the endocrine system is more like a snail-mail bulk mailing.

Endocrine messages tend to outlast the effects of neural messages. That helps explain why upset feelings may linger beyond our awareness of what upset us. When this happens, it takes time for us to “simmer down.” In a moment of danger, for example, the ANS orders the adrenal glands on top of the kidneys to release epinephrine and norepinephrine (also called adrenaline and noradrenaline). These hormones increase heart rate, blood pressure, and blood sugar, providing a surge of energy. When the emergency passes, the hormones—and the feelings of excitement—linger a while.

adrenal [ah-DREEN-el] glands a pair of endocrine glands that sit just above the kidneys and secrete hormones (epinephrine and norepinephrine) that help arouse the body in times of stress.

The most influential endocrine gland is the pituitary gland, a pea-sized structure located in the core of the brain, where it is controlled by an adjacent brain area, the hypothalamus (more on that shortly). Among the hormones released by the pituitary is a growth hormone that stimulates physical development. Another is oxytocin, which enables contractions associated with birthing, milk flow during nursing, and orgasm. Oxytocin also promotes pair bonding, group cohesion, and social trust (De Dreu et al., 2010). During a laboratory game, those given a nasal squirt of oxytocin rather than a placebo were more likely to trust strangers with their money (Kosfeld et al., 2005).

pituitary gland the endocrine system’s most influential gland. Under the influence of the hypothalamus, the pituitary regulates growth and controls other endocrine glands.

Pituitary secretions also influence the release of hormones by other endocrine glands. The pituitary, then, is a master gland (whose own master is the hypothalamus). For example, under the brain’s influence, the pituitary triggers your sex glands to release sex hormones. These in turn influence your brain and behavior.

This feedback system (brain → pituitary → other glands → hormones → body and brain) reveals the intimate connection of the nervous and endocrine systems. The nervous system directs endocrine secretions, which then affect the nervous system. Conducting and coordinating this whole electrochemical orchestra is that maestro we call the brain.

The Brain

2-7: How do neuroscientists study the brain’s connections to behavior and mind?

The mind seeking to understand the brain—that is indeed among the ultimate scientific challenges. And so it will always be. To paraphrase cosmologist John Barrow, a brain simple enough to be understood is too simple to produce a mind able to understand it.

“I am a brain, Watson. The rest of me is a mere appendix.”

Sherlock Holmes, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone”

When you think about your brain, you’re thinking with your brain—sending billions of neurotransmitter molecules across countless millions of synapses. Indeed, say neuroscientists, “the mind is what the brain does” (Minsky, 1986).

A century ago, scientists had no tools high powered yet gentle enough to reveal a living brain’s activity. Clinical observations had unveiled some brain-mind connections. Physicians had noted that damage to one side of the brain often caused numbness or paralysis on the opposite side, suggesting that the body’s right side is wired to the brain’s left side, and vice versa. Others noticed that damage to the back of the brain disrupted vision, and that damage to the left-front part of the brain produced speech difficulties. Gradually, these early explorers were mapping the brain.

Now, within a lifetime, the whole brain-mapping process has changed. The known universe’s most amazing organ is being probed and mapped by a new generation of neural mapmakers. Whether in the interests of science or medicine, they can selectively  lesion  (destroy) tiny clusters of normal or defective brain cells, leaving the surrounding tissue unharmed. Today’s scientists can snoop on the messages of individual neurons, using modern microelectrodes with tips small enough to detect the electrical pulse in a single neuron. For example, they can now detect exactly where the information goes in a cat’s brain when someone strokes its whisker. They can also stimulate various brain parts—electrically, chemically, or magnetically—and note the effects; eavesdrop on the chatter of billions of neurons; and see color representations of the brain’s energy-consuming activity.

lesion [LEE-zhuhn] tissue destruction. A brain lesion is a naturally or experimentally caused destruction of brain tissue.

These techniques for peering into the thinking, feeling brain are doing for psychology what the microscope did for biology and the telescope did for astronomy. Close-Up: The Tools of Discovery on the next page looks at some techniques that enable neuroscientists to study the working brain.

Older Brain Structures

2-8: What structures make up the brainstem, and what are the functions of the brainstem, thalamus, and cerebellum?

An animal’s capacities come from its brain structures. In primitive animals, such as sharks, a not-so-complex brain primarily regulates basic survival functions: breathing, resting, and feeding. In lower mammals, such as rodents, a more complex brain enables emotion and greater memory. In advanced mammals, such as humans, a brain that processes more information enables increased foresight as well.

This increasing complexity arises from new brain systems built on top of the old, much as the Earth’s landscape covers the old with the new. Digging down, one discovers the fossil remnants of the past—brainstem components performing for us much as they did for our distant ancestors. Let’s start with the brain’s basement and work up to the newer systems.

The Brainstem

The brain’s oldest and innermost region is the brainstem. It begins where the spinal cord swells slightly after entering the skull. This slight swelling is the medulla. Here lie the controls for your heartbeat and breathing. As brain-damaged patients in a vegetative state illustrate, we need no higher brain or conscious mind to orchestrate our heart’s pumping and lungs’ breathing. The brainstem handles those tasks. Just above the medulla sits the pons, which helps coordinate movements.

brainstem the oldest part and central core of the brain, beginning where the spinal cord swells as it enters the skull; the brainstem is responsible for automatic survival functions.

medulla [muh-DUL-uh] the base of the brainstem; controls heartbeat and breathing.

If a cat’s brainstem is severed from the rest of the brain above it, the animal will still breathe and live—and even run, climb, and groom (Klemm, 1990). But cut off from the brain’s higher regions, it won’t purposefully run or climb to get food.

The brainstem is a crossover point, where most nerves to and from each side of the brain connect with the body’s opposite side. This peculiar cross-wiring is but one of the brain’s many surprises.

CLOSE UP: The Tools of Discovery—Having Our Head Examined

Right now, your mental activity is emitting telltale electrical, metabolic, and magnetic signals that would enable neuroscientists to observe your brain at work. Electrical activity in your brain’s billions of neurons sweeps in regular waves across its surface. An electroencephalogram (EEG) is an amplified read out of such waves. Researchers record the brain waves through a shower-cap-like hat that is filled with electrodes covered with a conductive gel.

electroencephalogram (EEG) an amplified recording of the waves of electrical activity sweeping across the brain’s surface. These waves are measured by electrodes placed on the scalp.

“You must look into people, as well as at them,” advised Lord Chesterfield in a 1746 letter to his son. Unlike EEGs, newer neuroimaging techniques give us that Superman-like ability to see inside the living brain. One such tool, the PET (positron emission tomography) scan, depicts brain activity by showing each brain area’s consumption of its chemical fuel, the sugar glucose. Active neurons are glucose hogs, and after a person receives temporarily radioactive glucose, the PET scan can track the gamma rays released by this “food for thought” as the person performs a given task. Rather like weather radar showing rain activity, PET-scan “hot spots” show which brain areas are most active as the person does mathematical calculations, looks at images of faces, or daydreams.

PET (positron emission tomography) scan a visual display of brain activity that detects where a radioactive form of glucose goes while the brain performs a given task.

In MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) brain scans, the person’s head is put in a strong magnetic field, which aligns the spinning atoms of brain molecules. Then, a radio-wave pulse momentarily disorients the atoms. When the atoms return to their normal spin, they emit signals that provide a detailed picture of soft tissues, including the brain. MRI scans have revealed a larger-than-average neural area in the left hemisphere of musicians who display perfect pitch (Schlaug et al., 1995). They have also revealed enlarged ventricles—fluid-filled brain areas in some patients who have schizophrenia, a disabling psychological disorder.

MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) a technique that uses magnetic fields and radio waves to produce computer-generated images of soft tissue. MRI scans show brain anatomy.

A special application of MRI—fMRI (functional MRI)—can reveal the brain’s functioning as well as its structure. Where the brain is especially active, blood goes. By comparing MRI scans taken less than a second apart, researchers can watch the brain activate (with increased oxygen-laden bloodflow) as a person performs different mental functions. As the person looks at a scene, for example, the fMRI machine detects blood rushing to the back of the brain, which processes visual information.

fMRI (functional MRI) a technique for revealing bloodflow and, therefore, brain activity by comparing successive MRI scans. fMRI scans show brain function.

Such snapshots of the brain’s changing activity are providing new insights into how the brain divides its labor. A mountain of recent fMRI studies suggests which brain areas are most active when people feel pain or rejection, listen to angry voices, think about scary things, feel happy, or become sexually excited. The technology enables a very crude sort of mind reading. After scanning 129 people’s brains as they did eight different mental tasks (such as reading, gambling, or rhyming), neuroscientists were able, with 80 percent accuracy, to predict which of these mental activities people were doing (Poldrack et al., 2009).

To be learning about the neurosciences now is like studying world geography while Magellan was exploring the seas. This truly is the golden age of brain science.

The Thalamus

Sitting atop the brainstem is the thalamus, a pair of egg-shaped structures that act as the brain’s sensory router. The thalamus receives information from all the senses except smell, and it routes that information to higher brain regions that deal with seeing, hearing, tasting, and touching. The thalamus also receives some of the higher brain’s replies, which it then directs to the medulla and to the cerebellum. Think of the thalamus as being to sensory information what London is to England’s trains: a hub through which traffic passes en route to various destinations.

thalamus [THAL-uh-muss] the brain’s sensory router, located on top of the brainstem; it directs messages to the sensory receiving areas in the cortex and transmits replies to the cerebellum and medulla.

The Reticular Formation

Inside the brainstem, between your ears, lies the reticular (“net-like”) formation, a finger-shaped network of neurons extending from the spinal cord right up through the thalamus. As the spinal cord’s sensory input flows up to the thalamus, some of it travels through the reticular formation, which filters incoming stimuli, relays important information to other brain areas, and controls arousal.

reticular formation a nerve network that travels through the brainstem and plays an important role in controlling arousal.

In 1949, Giuseppe Moruzzi and Horace Magoun discovered that electrically stimulating a sleeping cat’s reticular formation almost instantly produced an awake, alert animal. When Magoun severeda cat’s reticular formation without damaging nearby sensory pathways, the effect was equally dramatic: The cat lapsed into a coma from which it never awakened.

The Cerebellum

Extending from the rear of the brainstem is the baseball-sized cerebellum, meaning “little brain,” which is what its two wrinkled halves resemble. As you will see in Chapter 8, the cerebellum enables nonverbal learning and memory. It also helps us judge time, modulate our emotions, and discriminate sounds and textures (Bower & Parsons, 2003). And it coordinates voluntary movement. When a soccer player executes a perfect bicycle kick, give his cerebellum some credit. Under alcohol’s influence on the cerebellum, coordination suffers. And if you injured your cerebellum, you would have difficulty walking, keeping your balance, or shaking hands. Your movements would be jerky and exaggerated. Gone would be any dreams of being a dancer or guitarist.

cerebellum [sehr-uh-BELL-um] the “little brain” at the rear of the brainstem; functions include processing sensory input, coordinating movement output and balance, and enabling nonverbal learning and memory.

Note: These older brain functions all occur without any conscious effort. This illustrates another of our recurring themes: Our brain processes most information outside of our awareness. We are aware of the results of our brain’s labor (say, our current visual experience) but not of how we construct the visual image. Likewise, whether we are asleep or awake, our brainstem manages its life-sustaining functions, freeing our newer brain regions to think, talk, dream, or savor a memory.

The Limbic System

2-9: What are the limbic system’s structures and functions?

We’ve considered the brain’s oldest parts, but we’ve not yet reached its newest and highest regions, the cerebral hemispheres (the two halves of the brain). Between the oldest and newest brain areas lies the limbic system (limbus means “border”). This system contains the amygdala, the hypothalamus, and the hippocampus. The hippocampus processes conscious memories. Animals or humans who lose their hippocampus to surgery or injury also lose their ability to form new memories of facts and events. Chapter 8 explains how our two-track mind processes our memories. For now, let’s look at the limbic system’s links to emotions such as fear and anger, and to basic motives such as those for food and sex.

limbic system neural system (including the hippocampus, amygdala, and hypothalamus) located below the cerebral hemispheres; associated with emotions and drives.

The Amygdala

Research has linked the amygdala, two lima-bean-sized neural clusters, to aggression and fear. In 1939, psychologist Heinrich Klüver and neurosurgeon Paul Bucy surgically removed a rhesus monkeys amygdala, turning the normally ill-tempered animal into the most mellow of creatures.

amygdala [uh-MIG-duh-la] two lima-beansized neural clusters in the limbic system; linked to emotion.

What then might happen if we electrically stimulated the amygdala of a normally placid domestic animal, such as a cat? Do so in one spot and the cat prepares to attack, hissing with its back arched, its pupils dilated, its hair on end. Move the electrode only slightly within the amygdala, cage the cat with a small mouse, and now it cowers in terror.

These and other experiments have confirmed the amygdala’s role in rage and fear, including the perception of these emotions and the processing of emotional memories (Anderson & Phelps, 2000; Poremba & Gabriel, 2001). But we must be careful. The brain is not neatly organized into structures that correspond to our behavior categories. When we feel or act in aggressive or fearful ways, there is neural activity in many areas of our brain. Even within the limbic system, stimulating structures other than the amygdala can evoke aggression or fear. If you charge a car’s dead battery, you can activate the engine. Yet the battery is merely one link in an integrated system.

The Hypothalamus

Just below (hypo) the thalamus is the hypothalamus, an important link in the command chain governing bodily maintenance. Some neural clusters in the hypothalamus influence hunger; others regulate thirst, body temperature, and sexual behavior. Together, they help maintain a steady (homeostatic) internal state.

hypothalamus [hi-po-THAL-uh-muss] a neural structure lying below (hypo) the thalamus; it directs several maintenance activities (eating, drinking, body temperature), helps govern the endocrine system via the pituitary gland, and is linked to emotion and reward.

As the hypothalamus monitors the state of your body, it tunes into your blood chemistry and any incoming orders from other brain parts. For example, picking up signals from your brain’s cerebral cortex that you are thinking about sex, your hypothalamus will secrete hormones. These hormones will in turn trigger the adjacent “master gland,” your pituitary, to influence your sex glands to release their hormones. These will intensify the thoughts of sex in your cerebral cortex. (Once again, we see the interplay between the nervous and endocrine systems: The brain influences the endocrine system, which in turn influences the brain.)

A remarkable discovery about the hypothalamus illustrates how progress in science often occurs—when curious, open-minded investigators make an unexpected observation. Two young McGill University neuropsychologists, James Olds and Peter Milner (1954), were trying to implant an electrode in a rat’s reticular formation when they made a magnificent mistake: They placed the electrode incorrectly (Olds, 1975). Curiously, as if seeking more stimulation, the rat kept returning to the location where it had been stimulated by this misplaced electrode. On discovering that they had actually placed the device in a region of the hypothalamus, Olds and Milner realized they had stumbled upon a brain center that provides pleasurable rewards (Olds, 1975).

In a meticulous series of experiments, Olds (1958) went on to locate other “pleasure centers,” as he called them. (What the rats actually experience only they know, and they aren’t telling. Rather than attribute human feelings to rats, today’s scientists refer to reward centers, not “pleasure centers.”) When allowed to press pedals to trigger their own stimulation in these areas, rats would sometimes do so at a feverish pace—up to 7000 times per hour—until they dropped from exhaustion. Moreover, to get this stimulation, they would even cross an electrified floor that a starving rat would not cross to reach food.

Researchers later discovered other limbic system reward centers, such as the nucleus accumbens in front of the hypothalamus, in many other species, including dolphins and monkeys. In fact, animal research has revealed both a general dopamine-related reward system and specific centers associated with the pleasures of eating, drinking, and sex. Animals, it seems, come equipped with built-in systems that reward activities essential to survival.

“If you were designing a robot vehicle to walk into the future and survive,… you’d wire it up so that behavior that ensured the survival of the self or the species—like sex and eating—would be naturally reinforcing.”

Candace Pert (1986)

Do humans have limbic centers for pleasure? Indeed we do. To calm violent patients, one neurosurgeon implanted electrodes in such areas. Stimulated patients reported mild pleasure; unlike Olds’ rats, however, they were not driven to a frenzy (Deutsch, 1972; Hooper & Teresi, 1986).

Some researchers believe that addictive disorders, such as substance use disorders and binge eating, may stem from malfunctions in natural brain systems for pleasure and well-being. People genetically predisposed to this reward deficiency syndrome may crave whatever provides that missing pleasure or relieves negative feelings (Blum et al., 1996).

The Cerebral Cortex

2-10: What are the functions of the various cerebral cortex regions?

Older brain networks sustain basic life functions and enable memory, emotions, and basic drives. Newer neural networks within the cerebrum—the two cerebral hemispheres contributing 85 percent of the brain’s weight—form specialized work teams that enable our perceiving, thinking, and speaking. Like other structures above the brainstem (including the thalamus, hippocampus, and amygdala), the cerebral hemispheres come as a pair. Covering those hemispheres, like bark on a tree, is the cerebral cortex, a thin surface layer of interconnected neural cells. It is your brain’s thinking crown, your body’s ultimate control and information-processing center.

cerebral [seh-REE-bruhl] cortex the intricate fabric of interconnected neural cells covering the cerebral hemispheres; the body’s ultimate control and information-processing center.

The people who first dissected and labeled the brain used the language of scholars—Latin and Greek. Their words are actually attempts at graphic description: For example, cortex means “bark,” cerebellum is “little brain,” and thalamus is “inner chamber.”

As we move up the ladder of animal life, the cerebral cortex expands, tight genetic controls relax, and the organism’s adaptability increases. Frogs and other small-cortex amphibians operate extensively on preprogrammed genetic instructions. The larger cortex of mammals offers increased capacities for learning and thinking, enabling them to be more adaptable. What makes us distinctively human mostly arises from the complex functions of our cerebral cortex.

Structure of the Cortex

If you opened a human skull, exposing the brain, you would see a wrinkled organ, shaped somewhat like the meat of an oversized walnut. Without these wrinkles, a flattened cerebral cortex would require triple the area—roughly that of a large pizza. The brain’s ballooning left and right hemispheres are filled mainly with axons connecting the cortex to the brain’s other regions. The cerebral cortex—that thin surface layer—contains some 20 to 23 billion nerve cells and 300 trillion synaptic connections (de Courten-Myers, 2005). Being human takes a lot of nerve.

Each hemisphere’s cortex is subdivided into four lobes, separated by prominent fissures, or folds. Starting at the front of your brain and moving over the top, there are the frontal lobes (behind your forehead), the parietal lobes (at the top and to the rear), and the occipital lobes(at the back of your head). Reversing direction and moving forward, just above your ears, you find the temporal lobes. Each of the four lobes carries out many functions, and many functions require the interplay of several lobes.

frontal lobes portion of the cerebral cortex lying just behind the forehead; in volved in speaking and muscle movements and in making plans and judgments.

parietal [puh-RYE-uh-tuhl] lobes portion of the cerebral cortex lying at the top of the head and toward the rear; receives sensory input for touch and body position.

occipital [ahk-SIP-uh-tuhl] lobes portion of the cerebral cortex lying at the back of the head; includes areas that receive information from the visual fields.

temporal lobes portion of the cerebral cortex lying roughly above the ears; includes the auditory areas, each receiving information primarily from the opposite ear.

Functions of the Cortex

More than a century ago, surgeons found damaged cortical areas during autopsies of people who had been partially paralyzed or speechless. This rather crude evidence did not prove that specific parts of the cortex control complex functions like movement or speech. After all, if the entire cortex controlled speech and movement, damage to almost any area might produce the same effect. A TV with its power cord cut would go dead, but we would be fooling ourselves if we thought we had “localized” the picture in the cord.

Motor Functions

Scientists had better luck in localizing simpler brain functions. For example, in 1870, German physicians Gustav Fritsch and Eduard Hitzig made an important discovery: Mild electrical stimulation to parts of an animal’s cortex made parts of its body move. The effects were selective: Stimulation caused movement only when applied to an arch-shaped region at the back of the frontal lobe, running roughly ear-to-ear across the top of the brain. Moreover, stimulating parts of this region in the left or right hemisphere caused movements of specific body parts on the oppositeside of the body. Fritsch and Hitzig had discovered what is now called the motor cortex.

motor cortex an area at the rear of the frontal lobes that controls voluntary movements.

MAPPING THE MOTOR CORTEX Lucky for brain surgeons and their patients, the brain has no sensory receptors. Knowing this, Otfrid Foerster and Wilder Penfield were able to map the motor cortex in hundreds of wide-awake patients by stimulating different cortical areas and observing the body’s responses. They discovered that body areas requiring precise control, such as the fingers and mouth, occupy the greatest amount of cortical space.

In one of his many demonstrations of motor behavior mechanics, Spanish neuroscientist José Delgado stimulated a spot on a patient’s left motor cortex, triggering the right hand to make a fist. Asked to keep the fingers open during the next stimulation, the patient, whose fingers closed despite his best efforts, remarked, “I guess, Doctor, that your electricity is stronger than my will” (Delgado, 1969, p. 114).

More recently, scientists were able to predict a monkey’s arm motion a tenth of a second before it moved—by repeatedly measuring motor cortex activity preceding specific arm movements (Gibbs, 1996). Such findings have opened the door to research on braincontrolled computers.

What might happen, some researchers are asking, if we implanted a device to detect motor cortex activity? Could such devices help severely paralyzed people learn to command a cursor to write e-mail or work online? Clinical trials are now under way with people who have suffered paralysis or amputation (Andersen et al., 2010; Nurmikko et al., 2010). The first patient, a paralyzed 25-year-old man, was able to mentally control a TV, draw shapes on a computer screen, and play video games—all thanks to an aspirin-sized chip with 100 microelectrodes recording activity in his motor cortex (Hochberg et al., 2006).

Sensory Functions

If the motor cortex sends messages out to the body, where does the cortex receive incoming messages? Penfield identified a cortical area—at the front of the parietal lobes, parallel to and just behind the motor cortex—that specializes in receiving information from the skin senses and from the movement of body parts. We now call this area the sensory cortex. Stimulate a point on the top of this band of tissue and a person may report being touched on the shoulder; stimulate some point on the side and the person may feel something on the face.

sensory cortex area at the front of the parietal lobes that registers and processes body touch and movement sensations.

The more sensitive the body region, the larger the sensory cortex area devoted to it. Your supersensitive lips project to a larger brain area than do your toes, which is one reason we kiss with our lips rather than touch toes. Rats have a large area of the brain devoted to their whisker sensations, and owls to their hearing sensations.

Scientists have identified additional areas where the cortex receives input from senses other than touch. At this moment, you are receiving visual information in the visual cortex in your occipital lobes, at the back of your brain. Stimulated in the occipital lobes, you might see flashes of light or dashes of color. (In a sense, we do have eyes in the back of our head!) A friend of mine, having lost much of his right occipital lobe to a tumor removal, is now blind to the left half of his field of vision. Visual information travels from the occipital lobes to other areas that specialize in tasks such as identifying words, detecting emotions, and recognizing faces.

Any sound you now hear is processed by your auditory cortex in your temporal lobes. Most of this auditory information travels a circuitous route from one ear to the auditory receiving area above your opposite ear. If stimulated in your auditory cortex, you might hear a sound. MRI scans of people with schizophrenia have revealed active auditory areas in the temporal lobes during auditory hallucinations (Lennox et al., 1999). Even the phantom ringing sound experienced by people with hearing loss is—if heard in one ear—associated with activity in the temporal lobe on the brain’s opposite side (Muhlnickel, 1998).

Association Areas

So far, we have pointed out small cortical areas that either receive sensory input or direct muscular output. Together, these occupy about one-fourth of the human brain’s thin, wrinkled cover. What, then, goes on in the remaining vast regions of the cortex? In these association areas, neurons are busy with higher mental functions—many of the tasks that make us human.

association areas areas of the cerebral cortex that are not involved in primary motor or sensory functions; rather, they are involved in higher mental functions such as learning, remembering, thinking, and speaking.

Electrically probing an association area won’t trigger any observable response. So, unlike the sensory and motor areas, association area functions cannot be neatly mapped. Their silence has led to what Donald McBurney (1996, p. 44) called “one of the hardiest weeds in the garden of psychology”: the claim that we ordinarily use only 10 percent of our brain. (If true, wouldn’t this imply a 90 percent chance that a bullet to your brain would land in an unused area?) Surgically lesioned animals and brain-damaged humans bear witness that association areas are not dormant. Rather, these areas interpret, integrate, and act on sensory information and link it with stored memories—a very important part of thinking.

Association areas are found in all four lobes. In the frontal lobes, they enable judgment, planning, and processing of new memories. People with damaged frontal lobes may have intact memories, high scores on intelligence tests, and great cake-baking skills. Yet they would not be able to plan ahead to begin baking a cake for a birthday party (Huey et al., 2006).

Frontal lobe damage also can alter personality and remove a person’s inhibitions. Consider the classic case of railroad worker Phineas Gage. One afternoon in 1848, Gage, then 25 years old, was using a tamping iron to pack gunpowder into a rock. A spark ignited the gunpowder, shooting the rod up through his left cheek and out the top of his skull, leaving his frontal lobes massively damaged. To everyone’s amazement, he was immediately able to sit up and speak, and after the wound healed he returned to work. But the affable, soft-spoken man was now irritable, profane, and dishonest. This person, said his friends, was “no longer Gage.” His mental abilities and memories were intact, but his personality was not. (Although Gage lost his railroad job, he did, over time, adapt to his injury and find work as a stage coach driver [Macmillan & Lena, 2010].)

More recent studies of people with damaged frontal lobes have revealed similar impairments. Not only may they become less inhibited (without the frontal lobe brakes on their impulses), but their moral judgments seem unrestrained by normal emotions. Would you advocate pushing one person in front of a runaway boxcar to save five others? Most people do not, but those with damage to a brain area behind the eyes often do (Koenigs et al., 2007). With their frontal lobes ruptured, people’s moral compass seems to disconnect from their behavior.

Association areas also perform other mental functions. The parietal lobes, parts of which were large and unusually shaped in Einstein’s normal-weight brain, enable mathematical and spatial reasoning (Witelson et al., 1999).

On the underside of the right temporal lobe, another association area enables us to recognize faces. If a stroke or head injury destroyed this area of your brain, you would still be able to describe facial features and to recognize someone’s gender and approximate age, yet be strangely unable to identify the person as, say, Lady Gaga, or even your grandmother.

Nevertheless, complex mental functions don’t reside in any one place. There is no one spot in a rat’s small association cortex that, when damaged, will obliterate its ability to learn or remember a maze. And as we’ll see in Chapter 9, distinct neural networks in the human brain coordinate to enable language. Memory, language, and attention result from the synchronized activity among distinct brain areas (Knight, 2007). Ditto for religious experience. More than 40 distinct brain regions become active in different religious states, such as prayer and meditation, indicating that there is no simple “God spot” (Fingelkurts & Fingelkurts, 2009). The point to remember: Our mental experiences arise from coordinated brain activity.

The Brain’s Plasticity

2-11: To what extent can a damaged brain reorganize itself, and what is neurogenesis?

Our brains are sculpted not only by our genes but also by our experiences. In Chapter 4, we’ll focus more on how experience molds the brain. For now, let’s turn to another aspect of the brain’s plasticity: its ability to modify itself after damage.

plasticity the brain’s ability to change, especially during childhood, by reorganizing after damage or by building new pathways based on experience.

Some brain-damage effects described earlier can be traced to two hard facts: (1) Severed brain and spinal cord neurons, unlike cut skin, usually do not regenerate. (If your spinal cord were severed, you would probably be permanently paralyzed.) And (2) some brain functions seem preassigned to specific areas. One newborn who suffered damage to temporal lobe facial recognition areas later remained unable to recognize faces (Farah et al., 2000). But there is good news: Some neural tissue can reorganize in response to damage. Under the surface of our awareness, the brain is constantly changing, building new pathways as it adjusts to little mishaps and new experiences.

Plasticity may also occur after serious damage, especially in young childrem. The brain’s plasticity is good news for those blind or deaf. Blindness or deafness makes unused brain areas available for other uses (Amedi et al., 2005). If a blind person uses one finger to read Braille, the brain area dedicated to that finger expands as the sense of touch invades the visual cortex that normally helps people see (Barinaga, 1992a; Sadato et al., 1996). If magnetic stimulation temporarily “knocks out” the visual cortex, lifelong-blind people make more errors on a language task (Amedi et al., 2004). Plasticity also helps explain why some studies have found that deaf people have enhanced peripheral vision (Bosworth & Dobkins, 1999). In deaf people whose native language is sign, the temporal lobe area normally dedicated to hearing waits in vain for stimulation. Finally, it looks for other signals to process, such as those from the visual system.

Similar reassignment may occur when disease or damage frees up other brain areas normally dedicated to specific functions. If a slow-growing left hemisphere tumor disrupts language (which resides mostly in the left hemisphere), the right hemisphere may compensate (Thiel et al., 2006). If a finger is amputated, the sensory cortex that received its input will begin to receive input from the adjacent fingers, which then become more sensitive (Fox, 1984). So what do you suppose was the sexual intercourse experience of one patient whose lower leg had been amputated? “I actually experience my orgasm in my foot. And there it’s much bigger than it used to be because it’s no longer just confined to my genitals” (Ramachandran & Blakeslee, 1998, p. 36).

Although the brain often attempts self-repair by reorganizing existing tissue, it sometimes attempts to mend itself by producing new brain cells. This process, known as neurogenesis, has been found in adult mice, birds, monkeys, and humans (Jessberger et al., 2008). These baby neurons originate deep in the brain and may then migrate elsewhere and form connections with neighboring neurons (Aimone et al., 2010; Gould, 2007).

neurogenesis the formation of new neurons.

Master stem cells that can develop into any type of brain cell have also been discovered in the human embryo. If mass-produced in a lab and injected into a damaged brain, might neural stem cells turn themselves into replacements for lost brain cells? Might surgeons someday be able to rebuild damaged brains, much as landscapers reseed damaged lawns? Might new drugs spur the production of new nerve cells? Stay tuned. Today’s biotech companies are hard at work on such possibilities. In the meantime, we can all benefit from other natural promoters of neurogenesis, such as exercise, sleep, and nonstressful but stimulating environments (Iso et al., 2007; Pereira et al., 2007; Stranahan et al., 2006).

Our Divided Brain

2-12: What do split brains reveal about the functions of our two brain hemispheres?

We have seen that our brain’s look-alike left and right hemispheres serve differing functions. This lateralization is apparent after brain damage. Research spanning more than a century has shown that left hemisphere accidents, strokes, and tumors can impair reading, writing, speaking, arithmetic reasoning, and understanding. Similar right hemisphere lesions seldom have such dramatic effects.

Does this mean that the right hemisphere is just along for the ride—a silent, “subordinate” or “minor” hemisphere? Many believed this was the case until 1960, when a fascinating chapter in psychology’s history began to unfold: Researchers found that the “minor” right hemisphere was not so limited after all.

Splitting the Brain

In 1961, two Los Angeles neurosurgeons, Philip Vogel and Joseph Bogen, speculated that major epileptic seizures were caused by an amplification of abnormal brain activity bouncing back and forth between the two cerebral hemispheres. If so, they wondered, could they put an end to this biological tennis game by severing the corpus callosum, the wide band of axon fibers connecting the two hemispheres and carrying messages between them? Vogel and Bogen knew that psychologists Roger Sperry, Ronald Myers, and Michael Gazzaniga had divided cats’ and monkeys’ brains in this manner, with no serious ill effects.

corpus callosum [KOR-pus kah-LOW-sum] the large band of neural fibers connecting the two brain hemispheres and carrying messages between them.

So the surgeons operated. The result? The seizures all but disappeared. The patients with these split brains were surprisingly normal, their personality and intellect hardly affected. Waking from surgery, one even joked that he had a “splitting headache” (Gazzaniga, 1967). By sharing their experiences, these patients have greatly expanded our understanding of interactions between the intact brain’s two hemispheres.

split brain a condition resulting from surgery that isolates the brain’s two hemispheres by cutting the fibers (mainly those of the corpus callosum) connecting them.

Note that each eye receives sensory information from both the right and left visual fields. In each eye, information from the left half of your field of vision goes to your right hemisphere, and information from the right half of your visual field goes to your left hemisphere, which usually controls speech. Data received by either hemisphere are quickly transmitted to the other across the corpus callosum. In a person with a severed corpus callosum, this information sharing does not take place.

Knowing these facts, Sperry and Gazzaniga could send information to a patient’s left or right hemisphere. As the person stared at a spot, they flashed a stimulus to its right or left. They could do this with you, too, but in your intact brain, the hemisphere receiving the information would instantly pass the news to the other side. Because the split-brain surgery had cut the communication lines between the hemispheres, the researchers could, with these patients, quiz each hemisphere separately.

In an early experiment, Gazzaniga (1967) asked these people to stare at a dot as he flashed HE·ART on a screen, Thus, HE appeared in their left visual field (which transmits to the right hemisphere) and ART in the right field (which transmits to the left hemisphere). When he then asked them to say what they had seen, the patients reported that they had seen ART. But when asked to point to the word they had seen, they were startled when their left hand (controlled by the right hemisphere) pointed to HE. Given an opportunity to express itself, each hemisphere indicated what it had seen. The right hemisphere (controlling the left hand) intuitively knew what it could not verbally report.

“Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.”

Matthew 6:3

When a picture of a spoon was flashed to their right hemisphere, the patients could not say what they had viewed. But when asked to identify what they had viewed by feeling an assortment of hidden objects with their left hand, they readily selected the spoon. If the experimenter said, “Correct!” the patient might reply, “What? Correct? How could I possibly pick out the correct object when I don’t know what I saw?” It is, of course, the left hemisphere doing the talking here, bewildered by what the nonverbal right hemisphere knows.

A few people who have had split-brain surgery have been for a time bothered by the unruly independence of their left hand, which might unbutton a shirt while the right hand buttoned it, or put grocery store items back on the shelf after the right hand put them in the cart. It was as if each hemisphere was thinking “I’ve half a mind to wear my green (blue) shirt today.” Indeed, said Sperry (1964), split-brain surgery leaves people “with two separate minds.” With a split brain, both hemispheres can comprehend and follow an instruction to copy—simultaneously—different figures with the left and right hands. (Reading these reports, I fantasize a patient enjoying a solitary game of “rock, paper, scissors”—left versus right hand.)

People who have had split-brain surgery, can simultaneously draw two different shapes.

When the “two minds” are at odds, the left hemisphere does mental gymnastics to rationalize reactions it does not understand. If a patient follows an order (“Walk”) sent to the right hemisphere, a strange thing happens. The left hemisphere, unaware of the order, doesn’t know why the patient begins walking. If asked why, the patient doesn’t reply, “I don’t know.” Instead, the left hemisphere improvises—“I’m going into the house to get a Coke.” Gazzaniga (1988), who considers these patients “the most fascinating people on earth,” concluded that the conscious left hemisphere is an “interpreter” or press agent that instantly constructs theories to explain our behavior.

Right-Left Differences in the Intact Brain

So, what about the 99.99+ percent of us with undivided brains? Does each of our hemispheres also perform distinct functions? Several different types of studies indicate they do. When a person performs a perceptual task, for example, brain waves, bloodflow, and glucose consumption reveal increased activity in the right hemisphere. When the person speaks or calculates, activity increases in the left hemisphere.

A dramatic demonstration of hemispheric specialization happens before some types of brain surgery. To locate the patient’s language centers, the surgeon injects a sedative into the neck artery feeding blood to the left hemisphere, which usually controls speech. Before the injection, the patient is lying down, arms in the air, chatting with the doctor. Can you predict what probably happens when the drug puts the left hemisphere to sleep? Within seconds, the person’s right arm falls limp. If the left hemisphere is controlling language, the patient will be speechless until the drug wears off. If the drug is injected into the artery to the right hemisphere, the left arm will fall limp, but the person will still be able to speak.

Pop psychology’s idea of hemispheric specialization

To the brain, language is language, whether spoken or signed. Just as hearing people usually use the left hemisphere to process spoken language, deaf people use the left hemisphere to process sign language (Corina et al., 1992; Hickok et al., 2001). Thus, a left hemisphere stroke disrupts a deaf person’s signing, much as it would disrupt a hearing person’s speaking. The same brain area is involved in both (Corina, 1998).

Although the left hemisphere is adept at making quick, literal interpretations of language, the right hemisphere helps us modulate our speech to make meaning clear—as when we ask “What’s that in the road ahead?” instead of “What’s that in the road, a head?” (Heller, 1990). The right hemisphere also helps orchestrate our self-awareness. People who suffer partial paralysis will sometimes obstinately deny their impairment—strangely claiming they can move a paralyzed limb—if the damage is to the right hemisphere (Berti et al., 2005).

Simply looking at the two hemispheres, so alike to the naked eye, who would suppose they contribute uniquely to the harmony of the whole? Yet a variety of observations—of people with split brains, of people with normal brains, and even of other species’ brains—converge beautifully, leaving little doubt that we have unified brains with specialized parts (Hopkins & Cantalupo 2008; MacNeilage et al., 2009).

How does the brain’s intricate networking emerge? How does our heredity—the legacy of our ancestral history—conspire with our experiences to organize and “wire” the brain? To that we turn next.

Behavior Genetics: Predicting Individual Differences

2-13: What are genes, and how do behavior geneticists explain our individual differences?

Our shared brain architecture predisposes some common behavioral tendencies. Whether we live in the Arctic or the tropics, we sense the world, develop language, and feel hunger through identical mechanisms. We prefer sweet tastes to sour. We divide the color spectrum into similar colors. And we feel drawn to behaviors that produce and protect offspring.

The nurture of nature

Our human family shares not only a common biological heritage—cut us and we bleed—but also common social behaviors. Whether named Wong, Nkomo, Smith, or Gonzales, we start fearing strangers at about eight months, and as adults we prefer the company of those with attitudes and attributes similar to our own. As members of one species, we affiliate, conform, return favors, punish offenses, organize hierarchies of status, and grieve a child’s death. A visitor from outer space could drop in anywhere and find humans dancing and feasting, singing and worshiping, playing sports and games, laughing and crying, living in families and forming groups. We are the leaves of one tree.

But in important ways, we also are each unique. We look different. We sound different. We have varying personalities, interests, and cultural and family backgrounds. What causes our striking diversity? How much of it is shaped by our differing genes, and how much by our environment—by every external influence, from maternal nutrition while in the womb to social support while nearing the tomb? How does our heredity interact with our experiences to create both our universal human nature and our individual and social diversity? Such questions intrigue behavior geneticists.

environment every nongenetic influence, from prenatal nutrition to the people and things around us.

behavior genetics the study of the relative power and limits of genetic and environmental influences on behavior.

Genes: Our Codes for Life

Barely more than a century ago, few would have guessed that every cell nucleus in your body contains the genetic master code for your entire body. It’s as if every room in Dubai’s Burj Khalifa (the world’s tallest building) contained a book detailing the architect’s plans for the entire structure. The plans for your own book of life run to 46 chapters—23 donated by your mother’s egg and 23 by your father’s sperm. Each of these 46 chapters, called a chromosome, is composed of a coiled chain of the molecule DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid)Genes, small segments of the giant DNA molecules, form the words of those chapters . All told, you have 20,000 to 25,000 gene words, which can be either active (expressed) or inactive. Environmental events “turn on” genes, rather like hot water enabling a tea bag to express its flavor. When turned on, genes provide the code for creating protein molecules, our body’s building blocks.

chromosomes threadlike structures made of DNA molecules that contain the genes.

DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid)  a complex molecule containing the genetic information that makes up the chromosomes.

genes the biochemical units of heredity that make up the chromosomes; segments of DNA capable of synthesizing proteins.

“Your DNA and mine are 99.9 percent the same…. At the DNA level, we are clearly all part of one big worldwide family.”

Francis Collins, Human Genome Project director, 2007

“We share half our genes with the banana.”

Evolutionary biologist Robert May, president of Britain’s Royal Society, 2001

Geneticists and psychologists are interested in the occasional variations found at particular gene sites in human DNA. Slight person-to-person variations from the common pattern give clues to our uniqueness—why one person has a disease that another does not, why one person is short and another tall, why one is outgoing and another shy.

Most of our traits are influenced by many genes. How tall you are, for example, reflects the size of your face, vertebrae, leg bones, and so forth—each of which may be influenced by different genes interacting with your specific environment. Complex traits such as intelligence, happiness, and aggressiveness are similarly influenced by groups of genes. Thus our genetic predispositions—our genetically influenced traits—help explain both our shared human nature and our human diversity.

Twin and Adoption Studies

To scientifically tease apart the influences of environment and heredity, behavior geneticists would need to design two types of experiments. The first would control the home environment while varying heredity. The second would control heredity while varying the home environment. Such experiments with human infants would be unethical, but happily for our purposes, nature has done this work for us.

Identical Versus Fraternal Twins

Identical twins develop from a single (monozygotic) fertilized egg that splits in two. Thus they are genetically identical—nature’s own human clones. Indeed, they are clones who share not only the same genes but the same conception and uterus, and usually the same birth date and cultural history.

identical twins twins who develop from a single (monozygotic) fertilized egg that splits in two, creating two genetically identical organisms.

fraternal twins twins who develop from separate (dizygotic) fertilized eggs. They are genetically no closer than ordinary brothers and sisters, but they share a fetal environment.

Shared genes can translate into shared experiences. A person whose identical twin has Alzheimer’s disease, for example, has a 60 percent risk of getting the disease; if the affected twin is fraternal, the risk is 30 percent (Plomin et al., 1997). To study the effects of genes and environments, hundreds of researchers have studied some 800,000 identical and fraternal twin pairs (Johnson et al., 2009).

Are identical twins, being genetic clones of each other, also behaviorally more similar than fraternal twins? Studies of thousands of twin pairs in Sweden, Finland, and Australia have found that on the personality traits of extraversion (outgoingness) and neuroticism (emotional instability), identical twins are much more similar than fraternal twins.

Identical twins, more than fraternal twins, also report being treated alike. So, do their experiences rather than their genes account for their similarity? No. Studies have shown that identical twins whose parents treated them alike were not psychologically more alike than identical twins who were treated less similarly (Loehlin & Nichols, 1976). In explaining individual differences, genes matter.

Twins

Separated Twins

Imagine the following science fiction experiment: A mad scientist decides to separate identical twins at birth, then rear them in differing environments. Better yet, consider a true story:

Sweden has the world’s largest national twin registry—140,000 living and dead twin pairs—which forms part of a massive registry of 600,000 twins currently being sampled in the world’s largest twin study (Wheelwright, 2004; www.genomeutwin.org).

On a chilly February morning in 1979, sometime after divorcing his first wife, Linda, Jim Lewis awoke in his modest home next to his second wife, Betty. Determined that this marriage would work, Jim made a habit of leaving love notes to Betty around the house. As he lay in bed he thought about others he had loved, including his son, James Alan, and his faithful dog, Toy.

Jim was looking forward to spending part of the day in his basement woodworking shop, where he had put in many happy hours building furniture, picture frames, and other items, including a white bench now circling a tree in his front yard. Jim also liked to spend free time driving his Chevy, watching stock-car racing, and drinking Miller Lite beer.

Jim was basically healthy, except for occasional half-day migraine headaches and blood pressure that was a little high, perhaps related to his chain-smoking habit. He had become overweight a while back but had shed some of the pounds. Having undergone a vasectomy, he was done having children.

Twins Lorraine and Levinia Christmas, driving to deliver Christmas presents to each other near Flitcham, England, collided (Shepherd, 1997).

What was extraordinary about Jim Lewis, however, was that at that same moment (I am not making this up) there existed another man—also named Jim—for whom all these things (right down to the dog’s name) were also true. 2  This other Jim—Jim Springer—just happened, 38 years earlier, to have been his fetal partner. Thirty-seven days after their birth, these genetically identical twins were separated, adopted by blue-collar families, and reared with no contact or knowledge of each other’s whereabouts until the day Jim Lewis received a call from his genetic clone (who, having been told he had a twin, set out to find him).

One month later, the brothers became the first twin pair tested by University of Minnesota psychologist Thomas Bouchard and his colleagues, beginning a study of separated twins that extends to the present (Holden, 1980a,b; Wright, 1998). Their voice intonations and inflections were so similar that, hearing a playback of an earlier interview, Jim Springer guessed “That’s me.” Wrong—it was his brother. Given tests measuring their personality, intelligence, heart rate, and brain waves, the Jim twins—despite 38 years of separation—were virtually as alike as the same person tested twice. Both married women named Dorothy Jane Scheckelburger. Okay, the last item is a joke. But as Judith Rich Harris (2006) has noted, it would hardly be weirder than some other reported similarities.

Identical twins are people two

Aided by publicity in magazine and newspaper stories, Bouchard (2009) and his colleagues located and studied 74 pairs of identical twins reared apart. They continued to find similarities not only of tastes and physical attributes but also of personality (characteristic patterns of thinking, feeling, and acting), abilities, attitudes, interests, and even fears.

In Sweden, Nancy Pedersen and her co-workers (1988) identified 99 separated identical twin pairs and more than 200 separated fraternal twin pairs. Compared with equivalent samples of identical twins reared together, the separated identical twins had somewhat less identical personalities. Still, separated twins were more alike if genetically identical than if fraternal. And separation shortly after birth (rather than, say, at age 8) did not amplify their personality differences.

“In some domains it looks as though our identical twins reared apart are… just as similar as identical twins reared together. Now that’s an amazing finding and I can assure you none of us would have expected that degree of similarity.”

Thomas Bouchard (1981)

Stories of startling twin similarities have not impressed Bouchard’s critics. “The plural of anecdoteis not data,” they have pointed out, noting that if any two strangers were to spend hours comparing their behaviors and life histories, they would probably discover many coincidental similarities. If researchers created a control group of biologically unrelated pairs of the same age, sex, and ethnicity, who had not grown up together but who were as similar to one another in economic and cultural background as are many of the separated twin pairs, wouldn’t these pairs also exhibit striking similarities (Joseph, 2001)? Bouchard has replied that separated fraternal twins do not exhibit similarities comparable to those of separated identical twins.

Even the impressive data from personality assessments are clouded by the reunion of many of the separated twins some years before they were tested. Moreover, identical twins share an appearance, and the responses it evokes. Adoption agencies also tend to place separated twins in similar homes. Despite these criticisms, the striking twin-study results helped shift scientific thinking toward a greater appreciation of genetic influences.

Bouchard’s famous twin research was, appropriately enough, conducted in Minneapolis, the “Twin City” (with St. Paul) and home to the Minnesota Twins baseball team.

If genetic influences help explain individual differences, do they also help explain group differences between men and women, or between people of different races? Not necessarily. Individual differences in height and weight, for example, are highly heritable; yet nutrition (an environmental factor) rather than genetic influences explains why, as a group, today’s adults are taller and heavier than those of a century ago. The two groups differ, but not because human genes have changed in a mere century’s eyeblink of time. Ditto aggressiveness, a genetically influenced trait. Today’s peaceful Scandinavians differ from their more aggressive Viking ancestors, despite carrying many of the same genes.

Coincidences are not unique to twins. Patricia Kern of Colorado was born March 13, 1941, and named Patricia Ann Campbell. Patricia DiBiasi of Oregon also was born March 13, 1941, and named Patricia Ann Campbell. Both had fathers named Robert, worked as bookkeepers, and at the time of this comparison had children ages 21 and 19. Both studied cosmetology, enjoyed oil painting as a hobby, and married military men, within 11 days of each other. They are not genetically related. (From an AP report, May 2, 1983.)

Biological Versus Adoptive Relatives

For behavior geneticists, nature’s second real-life experiment—adoption—creates two groups: genetic relatives (biological parents and siblings) and environmental relatives (adoptive parents and siblings). For personality or any other given trait, we can therefore ask whether adopted children are more like their biological parents, who contributed their genes, or their adoptive parents, who contribute a home environment. While sharing that home environment, do adopted siblings also come to share traits?

The stunning finding from studies of hundreds of adoptive families is that people who grow up together, whether biologically related or not, do not much resemble one another in personality (McGue & Bouchard, 1998; Plomin, 2011; Rowe, 1990). In personality traits such as extraversion and agreeableness, adoptees are more similar to their biological parents than to their caregiving adoptive parents.

“We carry to our graves the essence of the zygote that was first us.”

Mary Pipher, Seeking Peace: Chronicles of the Worst Buddhist in the World, 2009

The finding is important enough to bear repeating: The environment shared by a family’s children has virtually no discernible impact on their personalities. Two adopted children reared in the same home are no more likely to share personality traits with each other than with the child down the block. Heredity shapes other primates’ personalities, too. Macaque monkeys raised by foster mothers exhibit social behaviors that resemble their biological, rather than foster, mothers (Maestripieri, 2003). Add all this to the similarity of identical twins, whether they grow up together or apart, and the effect of a shared rearing environment seems shockingly modest.

The genetic leash may limit the family environment’s influence on personality, but this does not mean that adoptive parenting is a fruitless venture. Parents do influence their children’s attitudes, values, manners, faith, and politics (Reifman & Cleveland, 2007). A pair of adopted children or identical twins will, especially during adolescence, have more similar religious beliefs if reared together (Koenig et al., 2005). Parenting matters!

Moreover, in adoptive homes, child neglect and abuse and even parental divorce are rare. (Adoptive parents are carefully screened; natural parents are not.) So it is not surprising that, despite a somewhat greater risk of psychological disorder, most adopted children thrive, especially when adopted as infants (Loehlin et al., 2007; van IJzendoorn & Juffer, 2006; Wierzbicki, 1993). Seven in eight report feeling strongly attached to one or both adoptive parents. As children of self-giving parents, they grow up to be more self-giving and altruistic than average (Sharma et al., 1998). Many score higher than their biological parents on intelligence tests, and most grow into happier and more stable adults. In one Swedish study, children adopted as infants grew up with fewer problems than were experienced by children whose biological mothers initially registered them for adoption but then decided to raise the children themselves (Bohman & Sigvardsson, 1990). Regardless of personality differences between adoptive family members, children benefit from adoption.

The greater uniformity of adoptive homes—mostly healthy, nurturing homes—helps explain the lack of striking differences when comparing child outcomes of different adoptive homes (Stoolmiller, 1999).

Nature or nurture or both?

Gene-Environment Interaction

2-14: How do heredity and environment work together?

“Men’s natures are alike; it is their habits that carry them far apart.”

Confucius, Analects, 500 B.C.E.

Among our similarities, the most important—the behavioral hallmark of our species—is our enormous adaptive capacity. Some human traits, such as having two eyes, develop the same in virtually every environment. But other traits are expressed only in particular environments. Go barefoot for a summer and you will develop toughened, callused feet—a biological adaptation to friction. Meanwhile, your shod neighbor will remain a tenderfoot. The difference between the two of you is, of course, an effect of environment. But it is also the product of a biological mechanism—adaptation.

Genes and environment—nature and nurture—work together, like two hands clapping. Genes are self-regulating. Rather than acting as blueprints that lead to the same result no matter the context, genes react. An African butterfly that is green in summer turns brown in fall, thanks to a temperature-controlled genetic switch. The genes that produce brown in one situation produce green in another.

To say that genes and experience are both important is true. But more precisely, they interact. Imagine two babies, one genetically predisposed to be attractive, sociable, and easygoing, the other less so. Assume further that the first baby attracts more affectionate and stimulating care and so develops into a warmer and more outgoing person. As the two children grow older, the more naturally outgoing child more often seeks activities and friends that encourage further social confidence.

interaction the interplay that occurs when the effect of one factor (such as environment) depends on another factor (such as heredity).

“Heredity deals the cards; environment plays the hand.”

Psychologist Charles L. Brewer (1990)

What has caused their resulting personality differences? Neither heredity nor experience acts alone. Environments trigger gene activity. And our genetically influenced traits evoke significant responses in others. Thus, a child’s impulsivity and aggression may evoke an angry response from a parent or teacher who reacts warmly to model children in the family or classroom. In such cases, the child’s nature and the adult’s nurture interact. Gene and scene dance together.

Evocative interactions may help explain why identical twins reared in different families recall their parents’ warmth as remarkably similar—almost as similar as if they had had the same parents (Plomin et al., 1988, 1991, 1994). Fraternal twins have more differing recollections of their early family life—even if reared in the same family! “Children experience us as different parents, depending on their own qualities,” noted Sandra Scarr (1990).

Recall that genes can be either active (expressed, as the hot water activates the tea bag) or inactive. A new field, epigenetics (meaning “in addition to” or “above and beyond” genetics), is studying the molecular mechanisms by which environments trigger genetic expression. Although genes have the potential to influence development, environmental triggers can switch them on or off, much as your computer’s software switches your printer on and off. One such epigenetic mark is an organic methyl molecule attached to part of a DNA strand. It instructs the cell to ignore any gene present in that DNA stretch, thereby preventing the DNA from producing the proteins coded by that gene.

epigenetics the study of environmental influences on gene expression that occur without a DNA change.

Gene-environment interaction

Environmental factors such as diet, drugs, toxins, and stress can affect the epigenetic molecules that regulate gene expression. In one experiment, infant rats deprived of their mothers’ normal licking had more molecules that blocked access to the “on” switch for developing the brain’s stress-hormone receptors. When stressed, the animals had above-average levels of free-floating stress hormones and were more stressed out (Champagne et al., 2003; Champagne & Mashoodh, 2009). Child abuse may similarly affect its victims. Suicide victims with a history of child abuse exhibit the epigenetic effect (McGowan et al., 2009). Researchers now wonder if epigenetics might help solve some scientific mysteries, such as why only one member of an identical twin pair may develop a genetically influenced mental disorder, and how experience leaves its finger-prints in our brains.

So, if Jaden Agassi, son of tennis stars Andre Agassi and Stefanie Graf, grows up to be a tennis star, should we attribute his superior talent to his Grand Slam genes? To his growing up in a tennis-rich environment? To high expectations? The best answer seems to be “All of the above.” From conception onward, we are the product of a cascade of interactions between our genetic predispositions and our surrounding environments (McGue, 2010). Our genes affect how people react to and influence us. Forget nature versus nurture; think nature via nurture.

Evolutionary Psychology: Understanding Human Nature

2-15: How do evolutionary psychologists use natural selection to explain behavior tendencies?

Behavior geneticists explore the genetic and environmental roots of human differences. Evolutionary psychologists instead focus mostly on what makes us so much alike as humans. They use Charles Darwin’s principle of natural selection to understand the roots of behavior and mental processes. Richard Dawkins (2007) calls natural selection “arguably the most momentous idea ever to occur to a human mind.” The idea, simplified, is this:

·  Organisms’ varied offspring compete for survival.

·  Certain biological and behavioral variations increase organisms’ reproductive and survival chances in their particular environment.

·  Offspring that survive are more likely to pass their genes to ensuing generations.

·  Thus, over time, population characteristics may change.

evolutionary psychology the study of the evolution of behavior and the mind, using principles of natural selection.

natural selection the principle that, among the range of inherited trait variations, those contributing to reproduction and survival will most likely be passed on to succeeding generations.

To see these principles at work, let’s consider a straightforward example in foxes.

Natural Selection and Adaptation

A fox is a wild and wary animal. If you capture a fox and try to befriend it, be careful. Stick your hand in the cage and, if the timid fox cannot flee, it may snack on your fingers. Russian scientist Dmitry Belyaev wondered how our human ancestors had domesticated dogs from their equally wild wolf forebears. Might he, within a comparatively short stretch of time, accomplish a similar feat by transforming the fearful fox into a friendly fox?

To find out, Belyaev set to work with 30 male and 100 female foxes. From their offspring he selected and mated the tamest 5 percent of males and 20 percent of females. (He measured tameness by the foxes’ responses to attempts to feed, handle, and stroke them.) Over more than 30 generations of foxes, Belyaev and his successor, Lyudmila Trut, repeated that simple procedure. Forty years and 45,000 foxes later, they had a new breed of foxes that, in Trut’s (1999) words, are “docile, eager to please, and unmistakably domesticated…. Before our eyes, ‘the Beast’ has turned into ‘beauty,’ as the aggressive behavior of our herd’s wild [ancestors] entirely disappeared.” So friendly and eager for human contact are they, so inclined to whimper to attract attention and to lick people like affectionate dogs, that the cash-strapped institute seized on a way to raise funds—marketing its foxes to people as house pets.

Over time, traits that confer a reproductive advantage on an individual or a species are selectedand will prevail. Animal breeding experiments exploit genetic selection. Dog breeders have given us sheepdogs that herd, retrievers that retrieve, trackers that track, and pointers that point (Plomin et al., 1997). Psychologists, too, have bred animals to be serene or reactive, quick learners or slow ones.

Does the same process work with naturally occurring selection? Does natural selection explain our human tendencies? Nature has indeed selected advantageous variations from the new gene combinations produced at each human conception and

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