Teaching, learning, and your favorite genes

I’ve treated myself to a copy of Foundations of Cognitive Psychology (edited by Daniel Levitin, who also wrote This is Your Brain on Music). He makes a point in the preface that I want to keep in mind for myself:

When I took cognition at MIT [in 1975]…Professors Carey and Garrett supplemented [the only two texts at the time about cognition as a field] with a thick book of hand-picked readings from Scientific American and mainstream psychology journals. Reading journal articles prepared the students for the debates that characterize science…

Cognition is full of opposing theories and controversies. It is an empirical science, but in many cases the same data are used to support different arguments, and the reader must draw his or her own conclusions.

Levitin goes on to say that textbooks (then and now) select and organize material and cover the essentials of a topic. The books do not reflect how psychologists learn about new research. The sources for that learning (e.g., journal articles) reveal “some of the inherent ambiguity of research.”

As Whitehead said, “There are no whole truths; all truths are half-truths. It is trying to treat them as whole truths that plays the devil.

As we strive to figure out how people learn, and how they can learn better, it’s good to remember that we don’t necessarily know all that well the things we think we know.

Sharon Begley makes a related point on her blog, Lab Notes. In Good Gene, Bad Gene: It Depends, she points out (as newspapers and magazines tend not to) that there’s “almost no such thing as a good gene or bad gene.” For example:

  • The gene associated with sickle-cell anemia can be fatal, but in a malaria zone, those with the gene are less likely to contract malaria.
  • Having one copy of the gene that causes cystic fibrosis seems to protect against tuberculosis.

Her main topic is the DRD2 and DRD4 genes, linked to things like attention deficit hyperactive disorder, substance abuse, and food craving. Variations in these genes affect dopamine receptors, which influence behavior such as impulsiveness.

A study looked at two groups of Kenyan tribesmen, one nomadic and the other agricultural.

If they had studied the gene only in nomads, scientists would have called it beneficial. if they had studied it only in the farmers, it would be called detrimental. By studying it in both populations, the research shows that whether a gene is good or bad depends on the rest of a person’s genes and the lifestyle he lives.

“It depends” is rarely a satisfying answer, especially to a complex problem, but sometimes it’s the best answer available.

Point of view photo by Sparkwash / Lach Mullen.