The biological basis of good and evil: our potential is written in our genes and dictated by our experiences
A long history of research in developmental psychobiology has shown that early life experiences, particularly those that involve affective and social behavior have profound effects upon adult phenotypes. Moreover, many phenotypes resulting from “adverse” early life experiences have been characterized as pathologic. An alternative perspective would be that these experiences prepare individuals for the circumstances of their lives – even if the resulting phenotypes appear to be abnormal within a normal social or behavioral context. Recognition of epigenetic mechanisms as regulators of gene expression has provided a means to identify the fundamental mechanisms that underlie developmental and experiential regulation of behavioral and physiological phenotypes – many of which have long been understood. What has been missing in much of the epigenetic literature is a broader consideration of the long history of studies in developmental psychobiology demonstrating that social and emotional experiences early in life, in particular, are situated to regulate development of adult behavioral and neural phenotypes – it is not just the detrimental experience that produces the regulation, but more often the normal experience. Long before the discovery of epigenetic mechanisms, we realized that these developmental influences are rather specific, both with respect to the nature of the experiences and the period of life in which they occur: particular types of experience occur within defined critical periods, and consequently regulate specific aspects of behavioral and neural function. This talk will consider this long history of studies in developmental psychobiology in the context of epigenetic regulation, suggesting that our potentials, for good or bad, are literally written into our genes by the potential for epigenetic regulation in response to critical early-life experiences.
Oxytocin and human social behaviour: a clinical and neurobiological perspective
Oxytocin is a brain hormone or neuropeptide traditionally known for its effects in uterine contractions, lactation, mating behaviours, and mother-infant bonding that has famously lead to it being labelled the “cuddle hormone”. However, there is substantial evidence to suggest a key role for oxytocin in complex social cognitive behaviour including trust, affiliation, social communication, and emotion processing in both sexes. For example, the administration of oxytocin via nasal spray can improve eye gazing to the eye region of human faces and enhance interpersonal trust and the ability to infer the mental states and emotions of others from facial cues. Yet, such modulatory effects seem to show a more complicated picture, as oxytocin’s effects on social behaviours are highly contextual in its influence and even shows opposing effects in men compared to women. Given this, there is a need for more neuroscience research to fully understanding the mechanisms of action of oxytocin in modulating human social behaviours. A better understanding of the neurobiology of human social cognition and behaviour has important implications for the current development of novel clinical approaches for mental disorders that are associated with social deficits such as autism spectrum disorder and social anxiety disorder. But more needs to be done before this molecule enters the clinic. In this talk, I will present an overview of oxytocin’s history from being a pregnancy hormone to a potential pharmacotherapeutic target for treating mental illness. I will present evidence of oxytocin’s ‘restoring’ effects on neural mechanisms in clinical populations with social cognitive deficits such as social anxiety disorder, Huntington’s disease and body dysmorphic disorder from pharmacological fMRI studies. Following a clinical perspective, I will present new perspectives including a neurodevelopmental and intergenerational view of oxytocin, with evidence from our recent work on social cognitive declines in healthy ageing. I will discuss the triumphs, pitfalls and challenges in the field, and highlight the significance of continuing to study oxytocin’s actions in human social behaviours as it is likely to have significant implications for mental health.
Reading Emotional Expressions in Context
Early emotion perception research defined specific combinations of facial movements that signalled specific emotional expressions. It was assumed that these combinations of facial actions would be effortlessly read by observers as the intended expression regardless of who was expressing the emotion, and where and when the expression was encountered. I will present a body of work demonstrating that emotional expressions are recognised in their context. Many aspects of a person and the context they are encountered in can be incorporated into our judgements of others emotional states. These include facial and contextual cues that signal social group memberships (e.g., race, sex, age) as well as other socially significant person attributes (e.g., attractiveness, facial hair, and character information). I will also present work demonstrating that these influences are relative, flexible, and dependent on the social information that is most salient in a given context.