Posts Tagged ‘Social Sciences’

Are there events in your past that you hide from your friends and colleagues?  Are there parts of your body that you keep covered at all times?  You may think to yourself, “If people see this side of me, they won’t want to associate with me”.

Are you afraid of losing your job?  Losing your spouse or partner?  Creditors who who leave threatening messages?  A physical ailment that could be serious?

If you are an American, you are (statistically) likely to be overweight, over indebted and under increasing threat of losing your job and health benefits.  You may have friends that have “dropped out” of the social loop while being overwhelmed with these many adversities.  They themselves may feel stigmatized or too ashamed to face their usual circle of friends, and might rather stay out of touch.  Its an awful irony how feelings of shame and fear can cause our social relations to deteriorate just when we need them most.

Even if you haven’t dropped out, you may eat, drink or otherwise seek to numb these feelings of fear or shame.  But, deep down inside you may already be aware that by numbing your feelings of fear and shame, you also suppressing other emotions such as affection and joy – and thus undermining the social-familial bonds you are so afraid of losing.  Again, its an awful irony how fear, shame and anxiety can lead us to self-inflicted ruin.

Nevertheless, the grim reality remains.  Our bodies are unsightly, unfit and falling apart as we age.  Our careers paths are no longer certain in the new global economy.  We owe a lot of money and have barely the means to pay it back.  We do not have the resources to pay for old age.  Holy crap!  This is a dire view of the world hunh?!

What to do?  How to avoid the downward spiral of fear and anxiety?  Is there an upside to a deteriorating body?  a loss of career?  a down-shift to a much lower standard of living?

Check out this lecture by Dr. Brene Brown, who has carried out a great deal of social science research on this topic.  You will be amazed.  You will be uplifted.  You will begin to see that THERE IS an upside, and a way to break out of the cycle (unlike corporations, we won’t be getting a bailout).

Yoga and meditation practitioners may enjoy the parts of her talk on “self-love” and “courage” – a word whose origins lie in “cor” the word for “heart” and an ability to look inwardly and face the truth – a common theme, especially in Anusara yoga.

Note to readers:  Lately I’ve been focused on various personal and introspective themes, rather than the usual molecular-cognitive science-ology.  These themes set a base for exploring the basic biology of our emotional and cognitive lives and I’ll be digging into the brain-biology of these themes in the year to come.

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3rd Dalai Lama,
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Just a few excerpts from a lecture by the renown social psychologist Paul Ekman who is known for his work on the biology of human emotion.  Here he relates conceptual bridges between the writings of Charles Darwin and HH The Dalai Lama.  Ekman notes that both Darwin and HH The Dalai Lama intuit the existence of an organic natural source of compassion wherein humans are compelled to relieve the suffering of others so that the discomfort we feel when seeing others in pain can be relieved.  HH The Dalai Lama further suggests that these emotions are spontaneous, but compassion can be enhanced through PRACTICE!

Seems that science and ancient traditions can have a fascinating way of re-informing each other.


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Church Steeple
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Humans are spiritual creatures – there’s no denyin’.  How & why we got this way is one of THE BIG questions of all time.  Since our genome shapes the development of our brain and its interaction with our culture, its not a surprise to see that, from time to time, folks will look for and find genetic links to various forms of spiritual and religious behavior.  Here’s a recent paper from Kenneth Kendler’s research team at the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics, Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine entitled, “A Developmental Twin Study of Church Attendance and Alcohol and Nicotine Consumption: A Model for Analyzing the Changing Impact of Genes and Environment” [link to abstract].  An analysis of more than 700 pairs of twins found that the correlation between alcohol and nicotine consumption and church attendance (more church predicts less smokin’ and drinkin’) is more than 50% influenced by genetic factors – in adults.  In children and teens, the genetic contribution to the correlation is much less and the strength of the correlation stems more from shared environmental factors (parents, school etc.).  Is there a gene for going to church? Nope.  Are there genes that shape a person’s inclination toward novelty or conscientiousness? More likely so.  Are they distributed across all races and cultures? Yep.  Lots to ponder next Sunday morning.

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John Keats, by William Hilton (died 1839). See...
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If you slam your hand in the car door and experience physical pain, medical science can offer you a “pain killer!“.  Certainly morphine (via its activation of the mu opioid receptor (OPRM1)) will make you feel a whole lot better.  However, if your boyfriend or girlfriend breaks up with you and you experience emotional pain, its not so clear whether medical science has, or should offer, such a treatment.  Most parents and doctors would not offer a pain killer.  Rather, it’s off to sulk in private, perhaps finding relief in the writings of countless poets who’ve attested to the acute pain that ensues when emotional bonds are broken.

Love hurts! But why should this be? Why does the loss of love hurt so much?

From a purely biological point of view, it seems obvious that during certain periods of life – childhood for instance – social bonds are important for survival.  Perhaps anything that helped make the breaking of such bonds feel bad, might be selected for?  Its a very complex evolutionary genetic problem to be sure.  One way to begin to solve this question might be to study genes like OPRM1 and ask how and why they might be important for survival.

Such is the case for Christina Barr and colleagues, who, in their paper, “Variation at the mu-opioid receptor gene (OPRM1) influences attachment behavior in infant primates” [doi:10.1073/pnas.0710225105] examine relationships between emotional bonds and genetics in rhesus macaques.  The team examines an amino acid substitution polymorphism in the N-terminus of the OPRM1 protein (C77G which leads to an Arginine to Proline change at position 26).  This polymorphism is similar to the human polymorphism (covered here) A118G (which leads to an Asparagine to Aspartate change at position 40).  Binding studies showed that both the 77G and 118G alleles have a higher affinity for beta-endorphin peptides.

Interestingly, Barr and colleagues find that the classical “pain gene” OPRM1 G-allele carrier macaques display higher levels of attachment to their mothers during a critical developmental phase (18-24 months of age).  These G-allele carriers were also more prone to distress vocalizations when temporarily separated from their mothers and they also spent more time (than did CC controls) with their mothers when reunited.  Hence, there ?may be? some preliminary credence to the notion that a gene involved in feeling pleasant/unpleasant might have been used during evolution to reinforce social interactions between mother and child.  The authors place their results into a larger context of the work of John Bowlby who is known for developing a theory of attachment and the consequences of attachment style on later phases of emotional life.

Click here for a previous interview with Dr. Barr and a post on another related project of hers.

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*** PODCAST accompanies this post ***

Nowadays, it seems that genomics is spreading beyond the rarefied realm of science and academia into the general, consumer-based popular culture.  Quelle surprise!?  Yes, the era of the personal genome is close at hand, even as present technology  provides – directly to the general consumer public – a  genome-wide sampling of many hundreds of thousands of single nucleotide variants.   As curious early adopters begin to surf their personal genomic information, one might wonder how they, and  homo sapiens in general, will ultimately utilize their genome information.  Interestingly, some have already adapted the personal genome to facilitate what homo sapiens loves to do most – that is, to interact with one another.  They are at the vanguard of a new and hip form of social interaction known as “personal genome sharing”.  People connecting in cyberspace – via  haplotype or sequence alignment – initiating new social contacts with distant cousins (of which there may be many tens of thousands at 5th cousins and beyond).  Sharing genes that regulate the social interaction of sharing genes, as it were.

A broader view of social genes, within the context of our neo-Darwinian synthesis, however, shows that the relationship between the genome and social behavior can be rather complex.  When genes contribute directly to the fitness of an organism (eg. sharper tooth and claw), it is relatively straightforward to explain how novel fitness-conferring genetic variants increase in frequency from generation to generation.  Even when genetic variants are selfish, that is, when they subvert the recombination or gamete production machinery, in some cases to the detriment of their individual host, they can still readily spread through populations.  However, when a new genetic variant confers a fitness benefit to unrelated individuals by enhancing a cooperative or reciprocally-altruistic form of social interaction, it becomes more difficult to explain how such a novel genetic variant can take hold and spread in a large, randomly mating population.  Debates on the feasibility natural selection acting “above the level of the individual” seem settled against this proposition.  However, even in the face of such difficult population genetic conundrums, research on the psychology, biology and evolutionary genetics of social interactions continues unabated.  Like our primate and other mammalian cousins, with whom homo sapiens shares some 90-99% genetic identity, we are an intensely social species as our literature, poetry, music, cinema, not to mention the more recent twittering, myspacing, facebooking and genome-sharing demonstrate.

Indeed, many of the most compelling examples of genetic research on social interactions are those that reveal the devastating impacts on psychological development and function when social interaction is restricted.  In cases of maternal and/or peer-group social separation stress, the effects on gene expression in the brain are dramatic and lead to long-lasting consequences on human emotional function.  Studies on loneliness by John Cacioppo and colleagues reveal that even the perception of loneliness is aversive enough to raise arousal levels which, may, have adaptive value.  A number of specific genes have been shown to interact with a history of neglect or maltreatment in childhood and, subsequently, increase the risk of depression or emotional lability in adulthood.  Clearly then, despite the difficulties in explaining how new “social genes” arise and take hold in populations, the human genome been shaped over evolutionary time to function optimally within the context of a social group.

From this perspective, a new paper, “Oxytocin receptor genetic variation relates to empathy and stress reactivity in humans” by Sarina Rodrigues and colleagues [doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0909579106] may be of broad interest as a recent addition to a long-standing, but now very rapidly growing, flow of genetic research on genes and social interactions.  The research team explored just a single genetic variant in the gene encoding the receptor for a small neuropeptide known as oxytocin, a protein with well-studied effects on human social interactions.  Intra-nasal administration of oxytocin, for example, has been reported to enhance eye-gaze, trust, generosity and the ability to infer the emotional state of others.  In the Rodrigues et al., study, a silent G to A change (rs53576) within exon 3 of the oxytocin receptor (OXTR) gene is used to subgroup an ethnically diverse population of 192 healthy college students who participated in assessments for pro-social traits such as the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” (RMET) test of empathetic accuracy as well as measures of dispositional empathy.  Although an appraisal of emotionality in others is not a cooperative behavior per se, it has been demonstrated to be essential for healthy social function.  The Rodrigues et al., team find that the subgroup of students who carried the GG genotype were more accurate and able to discern the emotional state of others than students who carried the A-allele.  Such molecular genetic results are an important branching point to further examine neural and cognitive mechanisms of empathy as well as long-standing population genetic concerns of how new genetic variants like the A-allele of rs53576 arose and managed to take-hold in human populations.

Regarding the latter, there are many avenues for inquiry, but oxytocin’s role in the regulation of the reproductive cycle and social behavior stands out as an ideal target for natural selection.  Reproductive and behavioral-genetic factors that influence the ritualized interactions between males and females have been demonstrated to be targets of natural selection during the process of speciation.  New variants can reduce the cross-mating of closely related species who might otherwise mate and produce sterile or inviable hybrid offspring.  So-called pre-mating speciation mechanisms are an efficient means, therefore, to ensure that reproduction leads to fit and fertile offspring.  In connection with this idea, reports of an eye-gaze assessment similar to the RMET test used by Rodrigues et al., revealed that women’s pupils dilate more widely to photos of men they were sexually attracted to during their period of the menstrual cycle of greatest fertility, thus demonstrating a viable link between social preference and reproductive biology.  However, in the Rodrigues et al., study, it was the G-allele that was associated with superior social appraisal and this allele is not the novel allele, but rather the ancestral allele that is carried by chimpanzees, macaques and orangutans.  Therefore, it does not seem that the novel A-allele would have been targeted by natural selection in this type of pre-mating social-interaction scenrio.  Might other aspects of OXTR function provide more insight then?  Rodrigues et al.,  explore the role of the gene beyond the social interaction dimension and note that OXTR is widely expressed in limbic circuitry and also plays a broader modulatory role in many emotional reactivity.  For this reason, they sought to assess the stress responsivity of the participants via changes in heart-rate that are elicited by the unpredictable onset of an acoustic startle.  The results show that the A-allele carriers showed greater stress reactivity and also greater scores on a 12-point scale of affective reactivity.  Might greater emotional vigilance in the face of adversity confer a fitness advantage for A-allele carriers? Perhaps this could be further explored.

Regarding the neural and cognitive mechanisms of empathy and other pro-social traits, the Rodrigues et al., strategy demonstrates that when human psychological research includes genetic information it can more readily be informed by a wealth of non-human animal models.  Comparisons of genotype-phenotype correlations at the behavioral, physiological, anatomical and cellular levels across different model systems is one general strategy for generating hypotheses about how a gene like OXTR mediates and moderates cognitive function and also why it (and human behavior) evolved.  For example, mice that lack the OXTR gene show higher levels of aggression and deficits in social recognition memory.  In humans, genetic associations of the A-allele with autism, and social loneliness form possible translational bridges.  In other areas of human psychology such as in the areas of attention and inhibition, several genetic variants correlate with specific  mental operations and areas of brain activation.  The psychological construct of inhibition, once debated purely from a behavioral psychological perspective, is now better understood to be carried out by a collection of neural networks that function in the lateral frontal cortex as well as basal ganglia and frontal midline.  Individual differences in the activation of these brain regions have been shown to relate to genetic differences in a number of dopaminergic genes, whose function in animal models is readily linked to the physiologic function of specific neural circuits and types of synapses.  In the area of social psychology, where such types of neuroimaging-genetic studies are just getting underway, the use of “hyper-scanning”, a method that involves the simultaneous neuroimaging of two or more individuals playing a social game (prisoners dilemma) reveals a co-activation of dopamine-rich brain areas when players are able to make sound predictions of other participant’s choices.  These types of social games can model specific aspects of reciprocal social interactions such as trust, punishment, policing, sanctions etc. that have been postulated to support the evolution of social behavior via reciprocal altruism.  Similar imaging work showed that intra-nasal administration of oxytocin potently reduced amygdala activation and decreased amygdala coupling to brainstem regions implicated in autonomic and behavioural manifestations of fear.  Such recent examples affirm the presence of a core neural circuitry involved in social interaction whose anatomical and physiological properties can be probed using genetic methods in human and non-human populations.

Although there will remain complexities in explaining how new “social genes” can arise and move through evolutionary space and time (let alone cyberspace!) the inter-flows of genetic data and social psychological function in homo sapiens will likely increase.  The rising tide should inevitably force both psychologists and evolutionary biologists to break out of long-standing academic silos and work together to construct coherent models that are consistent with cognitive-genetic findings as well as population- genetic and phylogenetic data.  Such efforts will heavily depend on a foundation of psychological research into “social genes” in a manner illustrated by Rodrigues et al.

*** PODCAST accompanies this post *** Thanks agian Dr. Rodrigues!!!

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Mi iPod con vídeo
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It was a great pleasure to speak with Professor Garet Lahvis from the Department of Behavioral Neuroscience at the Oregon Health and Science University, and learn more about how the biology of empathy and social behaviors in general can be approached with animal models that are suitable for genetic studies.  The podcast is HERE and the post on his lab’s recent paper, “Empathy Is Moderated by Genetic Background in Mice” is HEREThank you again Dr. Lahvis!

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Stuart Little
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** podcast interview accompanies this post ** Lab mice have it pretty good I suppose.  Chow, water and mating ad libitum, fresh bedding, no predators.  Back in grad school, I usually handled my little mouse subjects gently so as not to frighten them and always followed the guidelines for humane treatment.  At the end of the day, however, I must confess that I didn’t actually care or empathize much with them.  For the most part, my attitude was, “Hey, they’re just mice – its not like I have Stuart Little here!”   I wonder.

As genetics and psychology are increasingly used to jointly explore the mechanisms of human cognition, more and more papers – particularly in the area of social and emotional systems – will make me question the, “hey, they’re just mice” assumption.

The free and open PLoS ONE paper, “Empathy Is Moderated by Genetic Background in Mice” is one of interest in this regard.  The authors have devised an experimental paradigm to ask whether emotional distress (to a brief foot-shock) in one mouse can influence the emotional state of an observer.  According to the authors, one of the inbred mouse strains, “acquired a classical conditioning (Pavlovian) association, which engendered a freezing response that was dependent upon the previous experience of distress in nearby conspecifics.”

Such a model – which to me, looks pretty humane, that is, in light of what they have learned about mice and empathy, and especially since human volunteers routinely participate in such mild wrist-shock paradigms – will likely be very useful for studies of specific genes where one can compare the “empathy” scores of inbred strains with and without the genetic modification.


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New Discoveries at Lascaux
Image by Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com via Flickr

pointer to: Amazing conference exploring Evolutionary Origins of Art and Aesthetics.

No genetics talks (this time ’round) but plenty of brain science pertaining to art and human nature.

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personality1With more and more genes being directly associated with personality or as moderators of correlations between personality and brain structure/function (here, here, here, here) it was fun to try out the latest online “big-5 personality profiler“.

10 mins of self-reflective fun.  My profile displayed at left.

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Printing press from 1811, photographed in Muni...
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“B-b-book”? you say – as in words printed – on paper?  Yes, its a book, “The Genetics of Cognitive Neuroscience” for which my colleagues and I contributed chapter 5. Despite the 15th century medium, the collection of ideas and expertise assembled by the editors makes the book a great intoduction to this evolving topic.

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A column of the cortex
Image by Ethan Hein via Flickr

Here’s a new addition to a rapidly growing list of findings for the valine-to-methionine substitution in the COMT gene (rs4680).  The paper, “Effects of the Val158Met catechol-O-methyltransferase polymorphism on cortical structure in children and adolescents” by Shaw and colleagues at the NIMH [doi:10.1038/mp.2008.121] finds that when genotype was used as a regressor for cortical thickness measures in children (8-14 years of age) significant associations were found in the right inferior frontal gyrus and the right superior/middle temporal gyrus (in both areas, the met/met group had thicker cortex).  The team notes that the findings in the frontal cortex were expected – as many others have found associations of COMT with this brain area using other imaging modalities.  However, the temporal lobe finds are something new.  No speculations on the mechanisms/implications are provided by the researchers on this new finding, but known interconnectivities of these two brain regions exist – perhaps supporting aspects of language, memory and/or other cognitive processes?

Perhaps the findings provide a clue to an important role that genes may play in the development of cognitive function.

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In 1802, in a letter to then Secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin, Thomas Jefferson warned that, “If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issue of their money, first by inflation and then by deflation, the banks and corporations that will grow up around them (around the banks), will deprive the people of their property until their children will wake up homeless on the continent their fathers conquered.” (source)  Although the US now does have a central government bank, Jefferson’s warning still chillingly echoes through our current crisis as we teeter on this very brink.

The reasons why the US financial system lies stricken now (not to mention many times before) are complex for sure, but for a neuroscience & genetics buff like myself, its fun to consider the underlying mechanisms of human biology and behavior within a macroeconomic framework.  What role for the brain and human nature? How does our understanding of human social and emotional behavior reconcile with the premise of so-called “rational” behavior of investors and consumers in a marketplace? Can we regulate and design a debacle-proof economic system that accounts for human social and emotional influences on otherwise rational behavior? Luckily, if you are interested in these questions, you need only to pick up a copy of “Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and Why It Matters for Global Capitalism” by George Akerlof and Robert Shiller, who cover this very topic in great detail and provide a broad framework for neuropsychological research to inform macroeconomic policy.  A lofty and distant goal indeed, but perhaps the only way forward from such spectacular wreckage of the current system.

One such aspect of so-called “animal  spirits” could be, for example – fear – which has been blamed many times for financial panics and is covered in great measure by Akerlof and Shiller.  During the depths of the great depression, FDR famously tried to shake people loose from their animal spirits by suggesting “Only Thing We Have to Fear Is Fear Itself” (listen to the audio).   As another example, consider the chart at the top of the post – a 5yr trace of the VIX an index of volatility in the price of stock options over time.  In a bull or a bear market, when there are clear economic signals that stock prices should rise or fall, the VIX is rather low – since people feel relatively certain about the overall direction of the market.  Note however, what happened in the fall of 2008, when the heady days of the housing boom ended and our current crisis began – the VIX rockets toward 100% volatility – indicating rather dramatic swings in future earnings estimates and hence, tremendous uncertainty about the future direction of the market.  Indeed, for high flying investors (who may reside in tall buildings with windows that open) the VIX is sometimes referred to as the fear index.

What – in terms of brain mechanisms – might underlie such fear – which seems to stem from the uncertainty of whether things will get better or worse?  What do we know about how humans react to uncertainty and how humans process uncertainty?  What brain systems and mechanisms are at play here? One recent report that uses genetic variation as a tool to peer into such brain mechanisms suggests that dopamine signaling modulates different brain areas and our propensity to respond in conditions of low and high uncertainty.

In their article, “Prefrontal and striatal dopaminergic genes predict individual differences in exploration and exploitation“, [doi:10.1038/nn.2342] Michael Frank and colleagues examine individual differences in a so-called exploration/exploitation dilemma.  In their ‘‘temporal utility integration task’’, individuals could maximize their rewards by pressing “stop” on a rotating dial which can offer greater rewards when individuals press faster, or when individuals learn to withold and wait longer, and, in a third condition when rewards are uncertain.  The authors liken the paradigm to a common life dilemma when there are clear rewards to exploiting something you know well (like the restaurant around the corner), but, however, there may be more rewards obtained by exploring the unknown (restaurants on the other side of town).  In the case of the VIX and its massive rise on the eve of our nations financial calamity, investors were forced to switch from an exploitation strategy (buy housing-related securities!!!) to an exploration strategy (oh shit, what to do?!!).

The neurobiological model hypothesized by Frank and colleagues predicts that the striatum will be important for exploitation strategies and find supporting data in gene associations with the striatally-enriched DARPP-32 gene (a marker for dopamine D1-dependent signalling) and DRD2 for the propensity to respond faster and slower, respectively, in the exploitative conditions (rs907094 & rs1800496).  For the exploratory conditions, the team found an association with the COMT gene which is well-known to modulate neural function in the prefrontal cortex (rs4680). Thus, in my (admittedly loose) analogy, I can imagine investors relying on their striata during the housing boom years and then having to rely more on their prefrontal cortices suddenly in the fall of 2008 when it was no longer clear how to maximize investment rewards.  Egregious bailouts were not yet an option!

Click here and here to read more breakthrough neuroeconomics & genetic research from Michael Frank and colleagues.  Here and here for more on Shiller and Keynes.

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Flash circuit

Image by cibomahto via Flickr

A recent paper from Andreas Heinz and colleagues (doi: 10.1038/nn2222) provides more neuroimaging evidence in humans for a a circuit that regulates our responsivity to stimuli that evoke emotional responses.  The basic circuitry involves the amygdala (a place in the brain where emotional memories are registered), the prefrontal cortex (a part of the brain that is involved in making decisions and assessing threats) and the cingulate cortex (a place in the brain where expectations are compared to sensory inputs & outgoing responses).  These 3 brain regions are interconnected in a loop through various synaptic contacts and the responsivity of these synapses can be modulated by neuomodulators such as dopamine, serotonin and noradrenaline.  It turns out, that several neuroimaging studies have begun to demonstrate that this (relatively) simple circuitry underlies human personality and temperament. In the Heinz study, the level of dopamine that was released into the amygdala was correlated with levels of functional activation to emotional stimuli as well as a dimension of temperament known as negative affect.

I recall once having taken the Meyers-Briggs assessment in graduate school and had a blast comparing my results with my wife – who was almost my polar opposite. Now, the latest neuroimaging and imaging-genetic research has begun to explain the complexities of human personality in basic neural circuitry where genes such as 5HTT and MAOA ‘turn up’ or turn down’ the gain on various synaptic contacts in this circuit – leading to the immense, yet systematic variation in personality and temperament that makes our social lives so interesting.  As I navigate my way through marriage and parenthood, I’m often glad I took the personality test with my wife many years ago.  It always helps to see things from the other person’s perspective.  Now, as she obtains her 23andMe profile, perhaps we will begin to compare our genomes together – the ultimate form of marriage counseling !!  Click here for more personality tests.

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