The Physics of Behavior and Identity

Francis Crick in his office. Behind him is a m...

Francis Crick

In April of 1953 a scientific paper was published by James Watson and Francis Crick that outlined the structure of DNA. For the next half century a DNA centered view was the cornerstone of our scientific understanding of biology. In 1958, Crick established what was known as the “central dogma of molecular biology”. The basic idea was that DNA is the source of biological information – that it could be copied, made into other things like messenger RNA (mRNA) and proteins, but information from proteins and mRNA couldn’t influence DNA. As it turns out, this is not as strict a rule as we once thought.

We have come to find out that things outside DNA can influence which segments of DNA are produced. This has a number of important implications to understanding ourselves. DNA is much like a library of songs which can get “played” based on communication from outside sources. In other words; what happens to you is very important in determining what DNA songs get played. External influences have been shown to travel through a lifetime and multiple generations.[1]

An example of this external influence can be seen in research which shows that children subjected to trauma early on in their development are at a higher risk of such things as anxiety and mood disorders throughout life.[2] Traumatic experiences can induce lasting changes to our gene expression and therefore our experience of life in general. If we take this fact a bit further we begin to see that much of what we perceive and experience on a day to day basis is influenced by the distant past. When we look closer at this aspect of our biology it makes self-destructive behaviors and high octane personalities more understandable. Conversely it makes the origins of laid back personalities more understandable as well. It also explains why we sometimes react in ways that are disproportionate to what is actually going on in reality even though we know better. Our rational lens is sometimes out of alignment with what we are geared to express through our biology. Our biology may be structured to produce the chemicals we experience out of emotion in ways that cripple our capacity for function in fulfilling and satisfying ways.

Another important aspect of these widely scattered experiential factors that shape what we know as personality and identity is that who we are is powerfully influenced by experiences over which we have made no choice. As we develop a greater understanding of the factors that go into shaping who we are it becomes increasingly clearer that destructive behaviors are more accurately viewed through a lens of the effects of experiential wounds and starvation rather than free will choices of crimes deserving of punishment. Our traditional models of choice, free agency and personal accountability may not be something we must abandon, but they are something that belongs in the context of the factors that really do contribute to shaping our behavior. Physics plays a central role in who we are. While this has a down side it also tells us that intentionally shaping nourishing experiences for each other has lasting effects.

[1] For more information read “Transgenerational epigenetic imprints on mate preference” by David Crews, Andrea C. Gore, Timothy S. Hsu, Nygerma L. Dangleben, Michael Spinetta, Timothy Schallert, Matthew D. Anway, and Michael K. Skinner

[2] For more information read “Allele–specific FKBP5 DNA demethylation: a molecular mediator of gene–childhood trauma interactions “ by Torsten Klengel, Divya Mehta, Christoph Anacker, Monika Rex–Haffner, Jens C. Pruessner, Carmine M. Pariante, Thaddeus W.W. Pace, Kristina B. Mercer, Helen S. Mayberg, Bekh Bradley, Charles B. Nemeroff, Florian Holsboer, Christine M. Heim, Kerry J. Ressler, Theo Rein & Elisabeth B. Binder This paper was published in “Nature Neuroscience 2012”

5 responses to “The Physics of Behavior and Identity

  1. “If we take this fact a bit further we begin to see that much of what we perceive and experience on a day to day basis is influenced by the distant past.” This and the sentence before resonate with me. An example hubby and I use about how our early experiences/learning affect our development later is how if a child was taught that the sky was green all their life, they would grow up to believe it even if they were taught something different. This can be illustrated in religious teachings, history….basically everything!

    • Agreed. When it comes to developing a world view I think it so often rests on inflated certainty because we falsely treat our personal experience as if it is a reliable measure of acceptable and unacceptable – when we know each of us has a distinct local environment.

  2. WordsFallFromMyEyes

    This is a fascinating read. I’m awed especially that “External influences have been shown to travel through a lifetime and multiple generations.” Like, wow. So my mother, a Polish refugee, who was traumatised in her trek through Siberia, her days in Africa before meeting Australia… let alone meeting my abusive and alcoholic father – that can in essence; essence being DNA, affect me? True, I turned out bipolar, and suicidal, self-destructive (alcoholic) and self-sabotaging – true, true. My circumstances and “chemical makeup” though, I thought was the reason. Yet, you say the reason is deeper??

    This is just a great read – really what I get into (aching to understand origins, and presence, as I do).

    Thanks for this engaging post.

    • You are very welcome.

      From what you said, it sounds like what your parental lines experienced is echoing (or has echoed) through your life. The difficult first step is understanding what is going on, then comes even more difficult step of doing things to intentionally shape our experience in more fulfilling directions.

      The reason we are shaped the way we are in large part is due to what is called epigenetics. That means all the little things that are swimming around your genes. These get “tuned” so to speak to a certain frequency depending on what happens within your life, but also what happened in the lives of your ancestors. As far as our understanding goes thus far, there are critical periods have a dramatic effect on the lives of descendents. What happens to grandmothers when they are pregnant with mothers has a lot to do with what a child’s physiology will be like. While such things like this have been proven, the suspicion is that there is a lot more to discover. The field of epigenetics is new. It’s like having just discovered a telescope but not yet realizing all the things we will discover when we point it at the sky.

      What happens within your life time is important too, and certain periods are more important than others. The point is there are a lot of factors that blend to form the tapestry of things we experience as life: genetics, epigenetics, environment, experience, timing and so on. I will try to put additional things up that are focused on shedding more light on what’s going on and what we can do about it. Thanks for the comment.

      • WordsFallFromMyEyes

        Wow, thank you for all that – almost another whole article!

        I didn’t know the field is new. It really does make sense. Sort of genetic reincarnation….

        I appreciate your full comment. I suffered MASSIVELY for DECADES in my heart & mind & only just now am realising I do have some power in my life.

        Thanks… N.

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