Imprinted Brain Theory and the Genetic Basis of Conflicting Dispositions: An Interview with Dr. Christopher Badcock
Bach vs. Karaoke: which one do you pick? You may or may not be surprised to discover your musical disposition is yet another thing determined by genetics, something sociologist Dr. Christopher Badcock discusses in his article: “The Epigenetics of Music: A Karaoke vs. Bach Genetic Conflict?” Dr. Badcock is at the forefront of research expanding on the Imprinted Brain Theory, which proposes a genetic basis for all mental conflicts. In his book “The Imprinted Brain Theory: How Genes Set the Balance Between Autism and Psychosis,” Dr. Badcock talks about the Diametric Model of the Mind that he developed; the theory connects evolutional and genetic models by showing that mechanistic thinking expressed paternal genes while mentalism expressed maternal genes. Below, Dr. Badcock elaborates on his research regarding the Imprinted Brain Theory as well as his experience in the field and the insight he’s gained from it. Make sure to check out his full article and blog for more information!
Dr. Badcock, thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to answer several questions for us! Your current research is devoted to expanding on the imprinted brain theory. Can you speak a bit about what your research is for our readers who may be learning about you for the first time?
The fundamental insight of modern, molecular genetics is that, contrary to what people have always thought, heredity does not reproduce the organism. On the contrary, we now know that organisms evolved to reproduce their DNA. But because DNA can’t specify a motile organism’s responses to real-time challenges from its environment, genes build brains to respond for and on their behalf. Unfortunately though, there is a major problem where mammals like us are concerned. Brains are built by DNA from parents of opposite sex and in mammals these genes are in conflict over growth, development, and behavior. The imprinted brain theory proposes that all mental conflicts which have a genetic basis—which is probably most of them—originate in this fact. In particular, it claims that an imbalance in gene expression in the father’s direction raises risk of autism spectrum disorder, while an imbalance in the mother’s raises risk of psychotic spectrum disorder.
Why did you decide to pursue the study of sociology? What motivates you?
With the benefit of fifty years’ hindsight, my choice of sociology as an academic specialty was a big mistake, and one for which I paid the price in full. At the time I did not realize that my motivation in academic life would become primarily scientific and research-driven. I realized too late that such a cognitive configuration is incompatible with most sociology and nearly all sociologists—especially if it takes its inspiration from biological and genetic insights into social behavior of the sort associated with Sociobiology. But rather than be negative, I decided to set an example by doing something better; so from the early 1980s I became one of the first to practice and teach what is now known as Evolutionary Psychology. Indeed, the textbook I wrote is still in print.
Have you faced any challenges during your research, and if so, how has that empowered your research?
Immense challenges confront anyone who has any original ideas in today’s increasingly Orwellian world, especially in universities: dis-empowerment, if you like. Getting your theory published is only the start of it—and that’s a purgatorial experience in itself. Getting people to actually read and understand it rather than simply ignore it or cite it and ignore it (which is what usually happens), is much harder, particularly when they confuse your theory and terminology with those of others. History suggests it will take 50 years at least for people to begin to understand the full significance of the Imprinted Brain Theory, and a century is probably more like it.
Your book, “The Imprinted Brain Theory: How Genes Set the Balance Between Autism and Psychosis,” combines psychiatry, modern genetics, and cognitive science to explain imprinted brain theory. It touches upon topics such as the nature of genius, the appeal of detective fiction, and both successes and failures of psychoanalysis. Can you share a bit about your research that went into writing this book and the connection between genetics and psychology you explore in it?
The big break-through for me—and I would say for cognitive science as a whole—came from the discovery of autism by Hans Asperger. Building on Asperger’s insight that autism was essentially a disorder of social/interpersonal behavior and modern research into sex differences in cognition, in the late 1990s I developed what is now known as the Diametric Model of the Mind. This proposes that evolution built two parallel modes of cognition into the brain: mechanistic mode for comprehending the physical, material world, and mentalistic mode for understanding organisms with minds: in other words, the psychological, abstract world of people (and some animals). In 2000 I finally connected this model to the genetic one explained above, and the new theory was complete: paternal genes were expressed in mechanistic thinking, with maternal genes being expressed in mentalism.
Regarding your current research with the imprinted brain theory, what do you hope to see from it in the next few years? Where do you anticipate your work going?
I am currently working on a sequel to The Imprinted Brain, entitled, The Diametric Mind: insights into AI, IQ, the self and society. But most of the new ideas have already been aired on the Imprinted Brain blogsite, and more will follow as they develop. Today my focus is on literacy and language because this is how psychological discoveries affect people most: they give you a new way to express yourself. The Imprinted Brain theory was called “psychology’s grandest working theory since Freud” by The New York Times, and at the very least it is a whole new language of the mind, and a very different one from Freud’s. In the meantime, I expect the pattern established since the theory was published to continue: one in which all kinds of finds from many different areas of research will continue to build up the theory’s credibility where it matters most—with the facts.
The notion that music appreciation comes from our genetic disposition is quite interesting. For our readers who haven’t yet read your article, could you talk a little bit about what “epigenetics of music” means exactly and its potential for further uncovering the complexities of our individual psychologies?
Imprinted genes on chromosome 15, those critical to the conflict because expressed from only one parent, have been shown to affect sensitivity to music, with maternal expression favoring Karaoke-like musical bonding, and paternal expression perhaps the more discriminating, pitch-perfect music of Bach. Interestingly in view of the predictions of the imprinted brain theory, about a third of all autistics have perfect pitch, and training in pitch-discrimination has been shown to be an effective therapy for psychotics. Genes are like acorns, tiny and insignificant to begin with, but growing into massive forests of neuronal arborization in the brain in the process of epigenesis, so it is not far-fetched to believe that genes on chromosome 15 are critical to music—especially in view of the fact that musical talent has long been known to be highly heritable. Think of the Bach family, the name means brook in German but there were so many talented musicians among them it came to mean musician too in some parts of Germany. In the past, the fact that the ability seemed to be inherited along with the surname would have suggested that it was linked to the Y chromosome, which men pass on only to their sons. But there are very few genes on the Y, and none known to be linked to cognition, so the likelihood is that the Bach dynasty owed their patrilineal inheritance of musical ability to paternally expressed genes like those on chromosome 15 now implicated in music. So this is an epigenetic, rather than genetic effect which, like some similar ones, might almost be taken for the inheritance of an acquired skill were that not to be impossible thanks to the fact that DNA doesn’t and can’t copy the organism because the organism evolved to copy DNA.
Epigenesis, the way in which genes generate the organism, gives the lie to the fallacy that, because complex traits like musical genius involve the expression of hundreds or even thousands of genes, single or small numbers of genes cannot be important. But single genes can and do play key roles in epigenesis by triggering cascades of other genes to produce the end result, the paradigmatic example being the gene that determines being male in mammals. It doesn’t specify anything about males as such. All it does is to start the process that eventually makes a foetus male. Imprinted genes work in much the same way, so it is by no means far-fetched to suggest that those on chromosome 15 could be doing the same where musical ability is concerned. And if so, I see this as a striking example of the Imprinted Brain Theory’s ability to explain what would otherwise defy genetic explanation.
For those who want to learn more about imprinted brain theory, do you have any additional resources or further readings?
The Imprinted Brain blogsite is where I publish posts on the latest developments. My books, The Imprinted Brain, and Evolutionary Psychology provide all the background for those who want to do their homework. Millennials will I hope live long enough to read my posthumous biography (entitled Imprimatur) and other works that cannot be published yet but are biding their time—which could be a long one.
If you could give one piece of advice to Millennials and future generations, what would it be?
Get ready for a long life. Life expectancy continues to increase inexorably in developed countries, so many of you can expect to make it to the end of the century. My generation found the world we were born into completely turned upside down in 50 years, and a similar upset is almost certain to take place in this century. Things that were never spoken about and indeed criminal 50 years ago dominate the news media today (such as gay marriage), and a similar inversion is likely where the currently taboo topics of evolution and genetics are concerned. Computing revolutionized life for my generation, and evolutionary genetics/genomics will revolutionize yours, change people’s view of their place in nature, and usher in a new era of personalized, genetically-based medicine. Forget the Bible or any other sacred work: the genome is the text you should study if you wish to know the truth—above all, the truth about yourself. And once the Imprinted Brain Theory and the Diametric Model are taken onboard by psychiatry and psychotherapy, real progress will have begun on freeing the world from the curse of mental illness—and hopefully from much of the madness that passes for sanity today.
Thank you Dr. Badcock for sharing your research and experience!