epigenetics

Learning to become an Optimist

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glass_half_full_empty_1600_wht_5473Do you see the glass as half-empty or half-full? Are you a born optimist?

Or do you always see the down-side? And can you do anything about it if you do?

Michael Mosley is presenting a BBC2 Horizon programme this week, 10 July at 21.00: “the Truth about Personality” 

He was suffering from insomnia, and worrying all the time so he decided he would investigate the latest ideas on personality and see whether or not he could become more optimistic.

A psychologist and neuroscientist at Oxford University, Professor Elaine Fox, believes that our basic drives are reflected in our patterns of brain activity which determine how we see the world.

She tested Mosley’s brain activity levels and found that he had more activity on the right side of the frontal cortex than the left, which has been found in other studies to be associated with higher levels of pessimism, neuroticism, and anxiety. She then got him to take a test to show whether he had an unconscious bias towards happy or angry faces by responding to flashing dots behind the faces. The results confirmed his bias towards pessimism.

The question was could he do anything about it? Twin studies show that there is a degree of heritability in personality  of  up to 50%. The rest is down to random factors or the environment  including whether or not the genes are switched on in response to life events and the environment (what is called epigenetics). Serious life events can not only trigger depression and anxiety but can alter genes to make people more vulnerable later in life.

He did two things: first he practised mindfulness every day for 20 minutes; secondly he used Cognitive Bias Modification using a computer programme which presented 15 blank or angry faces with 1 happy face. He had to practise finding the happy face to train his body to look for positive images.

put_on_a_happy_face_500_wht_5883After several weeks he found his mood lifting and he was sleeping better. He also performed differently on the two tests he had undergone earlier – in a positive direction.

Previous research in America involving over 1,000 people showed that optimistic people lived on average 7.5 years longer than pessimists.

Mental attitude was more important than any other factor according to the researchers at Yale. So this is clearly something we should take seriously.

 

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Intelligence not all in the genes

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As I’ve said before intelligence is not that straightforward. We used to think IQ was about 50% inherited and then recognised the impact of upbringing which started the nature-nurture debate.

Geneticists discovered that your genes could also be influenced by environmental factors – epigenetics –  but also that people who were assumed to have inherited certain skills probably got them through hard work.

Other recent research show that high IQ scores are as a result of innate intelligence PLUS motivation (See posts on intelligence). That means you can improve your scores if you really want to.

It is clear now that there is no single gene for intelligence and the latest research at the University of Edinburgh shows that about 40% of the variation in knowledge (crystalline type intelligence) and about 50% of differences in problem-solving skills (fluid type intelligence) are due to genetic factors.

Scientists still can’t tell you exactly which genes have an effect on intelligence but have found broad patterns. Research like this could help to understand how people suffer cognitive decline in old age (See: Can you keep Alzheimer’s at Bay?).