Monday, August 27, 2007

The body you have today is metabolized experience in all its accumulated richness

This is the final post on how genes influence behavior. On one hand one can look at identical twins separated at birth who lead very similar lives and share many behaviors -- this seems to support the dominant role of genes. But you can also point to studies of psychiatric patients with conditions like depression or OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) who improve with talk therapy. That implies that a disorder associated with the brain's "hard wiring" is treatable through changes in "soft" things like behavior, emotions, and thinking.
It's a complex and mysterious field, so I've only offered a gloss. But we've covered enough ground to see that both sides of the debate between nature and nurture can claim part of the truth. Neither can claim to know how much the brain adapts to outside influences and how much is pre-set by genes. The future will no doubt surprise us. But on a practical basis any parent would want to know if a child who shows signs of negative behavior from infancy (for example, extreme shyness, anger, irritability, unsociability) can improve? And if so, what action to take?
Common sense would dictate, as it always has, that good parenting is supportive, loving, and warm. Close connections are important, with a special emphasis on touching and physically reassuring very young children. But all of that is hard to do with a child who displays extreme behavior. With a difficult child, the first rule is "Don't respond in kind." If you meet anger with anger or irritability with irritability, brain research seems to indicate that you will cause the child's developing brain to wire in the undesirable behavior. A second rule is to remain optimistic. No one knows how much genes contribute to behavior, but we do know that the brain can change. Anyone's ability to change may be much greater than is currently supposed. In any event, the very worst thing is physical or emotional abuse, which probably leads to deep-seated brain abnormalities and uncontrollable behavior later in life. Such is the prevailing consensus.
I'd like to go a step further, however, and point out that neurology still ignores the mind in favor of the brain. This seems to leave us with circular reasoning: a machine controlled by genes is locked into pre-determined behavior unless an equally mechanistic influence from the outside changes that behavior. In other words, determinism is used as an explanation both for nature and nurture. If we abandon materialism and allow for the existence of a mind, with its rich panoply of wishes, desires, dreams, and impulses, the picture changes. Genes become the starting point, but free will and environment play an unpredictable role. When genes and uncertainty meet, the mixture is far more creative than neurology presently allows.
A gene is basically an imprint from the past, an incarnation of memory. But memory obviously doesn't rule us completely. As the Shiva Sutras say, "I use memory, I do not allow memory to use me." This gives us one of the tenets of enlightenment, that the human mind can free itself from the past by going inward to the source of consciousness. In the Vedic view, the purpose of the past is to provide a vehicle for the present. You were born with a physical body, including the brain, outfitted with enough past memory (genes) to provide a direction for your life, a blueprint of your unique tendencies.
As you interact with your family and surroundings, new material for memories comes in. The brain constantly incarnates its past experience by turning intangible events, emotions, sensations, and drives into cells; there is no need to wait for new genetic mutations when every neuron is capable of expressing itself across a wide range of experience. In other words, the body you have today is metabolized experience in all its accumulated richness.
So the greatest challenge is to master the meeting point between past, present, and future. In the Indian spiritual tradition, the highest achievement was complete freedom from all three. The Self or Atman, being pure consciousness, has no predetermined qualities. It exists in the realm of pure potential. Modern society doesn't have a value system that equates freedom with enlightenment, but with new advances in brain research, we are at least seeing the fingerprints left by the mind on the brain, and we can observe how experience gets metabolized into various receptors and neural networks that are unique for each individual. Science cannot yet explain why two people with a similar genetic makeup and experiences can turn out so differently, or so closely, for that matter. but the potential for recognizing consciousness as the source for both nature and nurture may be the most exciting possibility looming ahead. Click:

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