Category: Evolutionary Psychology

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What Can A Lizard Tell Us About Mental Health?

00Animal Behavior, Child Development, Epigenetics, Evolutionary Psychology, Featured news, Genetics, Health, Parenting, Stress, Trauma December, 18

Source: Hayke Tjemmes at flickr, Creative Commons

A new study on lizards has found that, when exposed to stress, their responses can be passed down genetically. Scientists now believe there may be more to the process of heritability than once thought. This process is called “Transgenerational Stress Inheritance.”

As recently as 2011, most research did not examine the possibility that parental stress could affect sperm or egg cells. Since genes are transferred to offspring through these cells, anything that modifies them can have an impact on genetic expression in children. The idea that parents’ experiences prior to pregnancy can change gene expression and, therefore, affect offspring behaviour, is novel.

In the lizard study, researchers from Pennsylvania State University exposed young lizards to fire ants (a natural stressor) and compared stress levels to unexposed lizards. Interestingly, contact with the stressor did not affect the lizards’ behaviour later in life. But, their offspring had stronger stress reactions than offspring of lizards who had not been subjected to the ants.

Lead researcher Gail McCormick told PsyPost:

“Our work reveals that the stress experienced by an individual’s parents or ancestors may overshadow the stress that an individual faces within its lifetime. In this study, offspring of lizards from high-stress sites were more responsive to stress as adults, regardless of exposure to stress during their own lifetime.”

These findings suggest that, although early life stress may not manifest later in adulthood, the effects may be passed down to offspring, even if offspring are not directly exposed to the stressor.

A similar study involved researchers conditioning mice to associate the smell of cherries with a mild electric current. When the fragrance permeated the air, the mice were given a small electric shock. And so, the mice began to fear the scent even when the shock wasn’t administered. Even more fascinating was that offspring of these mice, as well as their offspring, experienced fear in the presence of the odor. The fear reaction occurred even though the later generations didn’t experience the conditioning process.

Of course, the question these studies pose is whether there is a similar effect in humans.

As recently reported in the Guardian newspaper, researchers from New York’s Mount Sinai School of Medicine compared the genes of direct descendants of Jews who were “interned in a Nazi concentration camp, witnessed or experienced torture or who had had to hide during the second world war” to the offspring of Jews living outside of Europe who were unharmed. The children of parents who experienced WWII trauma showed genetic changes and a greater risk of stress disorders. These were not present in the other children. The Guardian article stated:

“[The] new finding is [a] clear example in humans of the theory of epigenetic inheritance: the idea that environmental factors can affect the genes of your children.”

In other research, psychologist Margaret Keyes from the University of Minnesota and colleagues examined twins to determine if the behaviour of biological parents could affect offspring who were not raised by them. The study found that children of parents who smoked were more likely to be smokers, even if those children weren’t raised by the parents, and as such, did not have parental smoking behavior modeled to them. Scientists are still questioning, though, whether it’s parental behavior directly affecting these genes or a genetic predisposition to smoking being passed down for generations.

On the whole, these studies make the case that genetic changes can happen a lot faster than previously thought, within a few generations or even one generation. And, as reported in Science magazine, people can see evolution in real time:

“Now, thanks to the genomic revolution, researchers can actually track the population-level genetic shifts that mark evolution in action—and they’re doing this in humans. [Studies] show how our genomes have changed over centuries or decades…”

Research in this field is still new and is subject to several caveats. Perhaps the most important one is the complexity of human beings and their environments. Indeed, there may be too many variables that factor into the human experience for researchers to arrive at definitive conclusions.

But, these studies do suggest that individuals may be affected by the stress felt by ancestors in  before them. Further research is required to determine whether these findings are the result of transgenerational stress inheritance or an external factor that has yet to be considered.

– Andrei Nistor, Contributing Writer, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

– Chief Editor: Robert T. Muller, The Trauma and Mental Health Report.

-Copyright Robert T. Muller

This article was originally published on Psychology Today

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Wisdom From a Psychopath?

00Behavioral Economics, Ethics and Morality, Evolutionary Psychology, Featured news, Narcissism, Psychopathy, Wisdom April, 15

Source: Ross/Flickr

The word psychopath conjures images of skulking figures and dark alleys.  The media equate psychopaths with infamous serial killers like Ted Bundy and Robert Picton.

But psychopaths and psychopathy are much more complex. In 1980, Robert Hare, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia, published the most widely used measure of psychopathy to date, the Psychopathy Check List (PCL), including symptoms like callousness, parasitic existence, and criminal versatility. With later studies finding the prevalence of psychopathy to range between 1 and 2 percent in the general population, it is hard not to feel a twinge of fear.

Are psychopaths really the hollow killers the media make them out to be? Kevin Dutton, a research psychologist at the University of Oxford and author of the controversial book, The Wisdom of Psychopaths, doesn’t think so.  Dutton argues that not only are the majority of psychopaths far from monsters, but that psychopathy itself is a potentially useful trait that we can benefit from.

Evolutionary psychologists have conducted studies that suggest the existence of psychopathy as a fundamental part of human development, predating homo sapiens.

Dutton claims that when it comes to getting ahead, from a financial or social perspective, psychopaths often come out on top.  He points out that the majority of psychopaths are, in fact, affluent members of the community.  The all-important distinction, in his view, lies in how high their “psychopathy dial” is turned.

Dutton’s research has yielded eight aspects of psychopathy, seven of which are seen as potentially beneficial for everyday life, and one that is harmful.

The harmful characteristic consists of symptoms typically associated with Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD), like difficulties with impulse control and irresponsibility.  In Dutton’s view, when these traits are present, psychopaths often turn their minds to crime and violence, seeking immediate gratification of lust, greed, and vanity. Since psychopaths lack morality, the only check on their disregard for rules is conscientiousness and the ability to plan long-term. This ability helps them predict negative consequences like getting caught and being punished, and reins in their wilder, more criminal tendencies.

While the impulsivity of psychopaths is unlikely to benefit most people, Dutton argues that the other seven traits may. These characteristics vary in intensity among individuals.

The first two of the seven traits are persuasiveness and a self-serving attitude. These traits make up the core image of the smooth-talking, egocentric individual who has no trouble lying to get ahead. For most, the wish to lie is thwarted by conscience, but psychopaths have developed two complementary traits to aid their machinations:  emotional detachment and alienation from others.  These two traits ensure that psychopaths are unable to feel pity or empathy for victims, contributing to their reputation as cold-hearted manipulators that walk over others without remorse. But it is also these traits that contribute to success in business and some professions.

Apart from morality, another characteristic that stops most of us from trying to fly under the legal or moral radar is fear. But two traits that psychopaths exhibit are rebelliousness and fearlessness, making them not only unafraid of getting caught, but actually excited by the prospect of subverting authority.

Even the greatest manipulators are sometimes found out, but even here psychopaths have a trait they benefit from, calmness under pressure, which ensures that if they do get caught, they are able to talk their way out of an otherwise career-ending situation.

So why aren’t these traits seen more widely?

Dutton explains that while certain levels of psychopathy are likely to net gains for an individual, they do nothing for a community.  As humans are largely dependent on social structure for survival, psychopaths essentially pit themselves against the world.  Too many of them in the group, and they outwit themselves into extinction.

And perhaps this is where the real lesson lies.  In a world where unbridled self-interest rules, Dutton’s psychopath may be viewed as effective…at most.  But wise?  This seems like a stretch.

This seems like a stretch.

On a small scale, radical self interest may be enticing.  Imagine being wholly unencumbered by morality, conscience, or altruism. You certainly could go far.

In aggregate though, not only does this prospect seem rather unwise, but it represents a world far more terrifying than that of Ted Bundy or Robert Picton.

– Contributing Writer: Nick Zabara, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

– Chief Editor: Robert T. Muller, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

Copyright Robert T. Muller

This article was originally published on Psychology Today