An excerpt from Behavioral Genes, by James D. Baird, PhD

We often wonder why we do the things we do. For a very long time, people have speculated, theorized, lectured, argued, and written books, poems, and plays about that very mystery. Ancient philosophers philosophized about it, and theologians gave us their opinions based on articles of faith. In those earlier days, with no reliable way to test theories and opinions, one notion might have been just as good as another.

Beginning in the 18th-century, scientists developed new methods to scientifically test biology, chemistry and physics. Using those same scientific methods, psychologists and social scientists were able to prove or disprove historic opinions on human behavior. Today, when our behaviors seem illogical—even self-destructive—research in genetics and psychology can provide insight into their causes.
Let’s take a close look at how we humans think and why we behave as we do in certain common situations. To set the back- ground I’ll focus on four broad themes that influence us: genetics, epigenetics, self-awareness, and culture.

Your genetic makeup includes about 25,000 genes that you inherited from your parents, and maybe you can see commonalities in your appearance and personality. But our genetic roots also go back to much earlier human beings. Although you might not be aware of it, your brain has not changed significantly since 60,000 years ago when your ancestors roamed the African savannas. And therein lies the crux of our behavioral problems.

Unfortunately, the genes that equipped our prehistoric ancestors to survive the hazards of their environment are not always beneficial in our environment. Frequently, they cause undesirable behaviors.

Epigenetics uses signals from our environment, such as life experiences, beliefs, and perceptions to modify our biology and behavior without affecting our DNA. Epigenetics proves that genes are not necessarily our destiny.

We humans have a capacity for introspection—that is, for checking out our own thoughts and feelings. We consciously recognize ourselves as individuals, separate from the environment and from other individuals. In other words, you can know that you are you. Self-awareness gives us the power to plan our own futures—what we’re going to have for dinner tonight, what we’ll do tomorrow, when we’re going to retire, and so on—and we build our lives around our plans. That ability sets us apart from other animals. The great apes can plan a short time ahead, for example when they select a rock to break open some nuts. But only we humans can plan for the days, weeks, and years to come.

People around us are likely to influence what we do. At some time or other, most of us have made an effort to earn a friend’s approval. Maybe you’ve worked hard at that, or at fitting into a larger group, or at feeling like a part of the society you live in. Those are culture-based behaviors, and they aren’t genetic. If they’re not good for you, they can be changed. Moving to a different culture might be what’s needed.

Our caveman-like brains

Sometimes we say hurtful things for no apparent reason. We make trouble for ourselves and others without knowing why. Too many people are stressed out most of the time and don’t know how to change that. To make matters worse, we feel guilty because we think that we’re totally responsible for our own bad behavior. In fact, that’s not the case.

Because some of our behaviors are motivated by genes that we inherited from our prehistoric ancestors, we are not totally responsible for our actions. Simply put, our ancestors’ genes don’t always suit our environment of today.

According to mainstream neuroscience, the architecture of our brains hasn’t changed much since the Stone Age, but our environment has changed tremendously. In other words, we are a little like the cartoons of cavemen or cave-women in modern dress.

Genetics and epigenetics

While our genetic heritage is instrumental in shaping our behaviors, it is not the whole story. As is commonly known, life experiences also modify our behaviors. For example, experiences that happen in childhood can affect us throughout our lives.

Our life experiences are called epigenetic factors. They are the mechanism that explains how events outside of our body can affect our biology. We might not be able to change our DNA, but we can affect the way genes express themselves. Epigenetic therapies such as such as meditation, mindfulness, and cognitive therapy can modify genetic expression. And when you change genetic expression, you can change undesirable behaviors that are driven by those genes. Epigenetic “marks” tell your genes to switch on or off, to speak loudly or whisper. It is through epigenetic marks that diet, stress, meditation, relaxation response, perceptions, beliefs, toxic environments, and drugs can change the expression of genes and their effect on behaviors. Epigenetic behavioral therapies can improve our lives.

These concepts are important for understanding to the mysteries of ordinary human behaviors. Understanding brings self-forgiveness and the wisdom to make beneficial behavioral changes.

The following two tabs change content below.

Healthy Staff

Healthy Magazine is staffed by a team of journalists and health experts who have a goal of presenting you with useful information that you actually want to read.