Some say that the glass is half-full. Some are ruefull that it is half-empty. The bitter truth remains: the stupid glass is twice as big as it needs to be. Optimist. Pessimist. Pessimist who has embraced his pessimism. But where do these outlooks originate? If it’s a conscious decision, i.e. will power, then the pessimist may argue that the optimist is deluding himself; furthermore, the optimist can argue that the pessimist is ruining everything on purpose. The high priests of pharmacology consider the issue to be one of brain chemistry, fixable with the elixirs of better living through chemistry. It may well be further out of our hands that, at least if preliminary research published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B turns out to be correct.
Elaine Fox and colleagues from the University of Essex took DNA samples from 100 people before giving them the dot-probe paradigm test. The test presents two images, one neutral and the other positive or negative. A dot appears within one of the images, which the subject indicates with a keypad. Elapsed time between dot appearance and subject recognition is used to infer attraction to certain visual stimuli. Optimists were more likely to recognize the dot in positive pictures. They also took longer to recognize the dot in negative pictures.
“Eureka!” came when the team compared the dot-probe test results with the DNA test results. The optimists all had two copies of the “long” variant of the 5-HTTLPR gene. Test subjects with at least one short variant showed no bias towards the images, though previous research suggests that 5-HTTLPR shorties tend towards anxiety and negativity. 5-HTTLPR is a gene that controls the movement of everyone’s favorite neurotransmitter: serotonin.
Serotonin makes us happy, unless your brain re-uptakes the manufactured serotonin too quickly. If that happens you’re depressed, and the answer to depression is something called a Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor*, SSRI, or even “happy pill”. Many of us take SSRI’s, enough to suggest that a large portion of the population is prone to anxiety and negativity. The Fox study appears to support that assumption. In order to be LL, a person would need to inherit the long version of 5-HTTLPR from both parents. The long version, is then recessive like red-hair. Furthermore, there would only be a one in four chance that a child who might be a genetic optimist will be one, unless both parents are genetic optimists.
The short story is that all the depressed pessimists out there can take heart: it’s not your fault. The blame lies with your parents who didn’t have the good sense (in a Darwinian manner) to mate with the right sort of person. You just got the short end of the gene, so to speak. And the optimists can quit telling everyone to just ‘cheer up’ as if it will help, because it’s not really optimism speaking…just those long genes.
But the chances that the answer is nature or nurture is only as good as the chances of getting two long, optimism genes. The study raises interesting questions and will certainly provoke further research. That will be necessary to solidify findings from 100 people. These findings, however, will be used in all manner of ways to justify silly arguments like genetic optimism and migration. It’s already happening on comment threads related to the research. The beauty of science is the same as the beauty of the Bible, you can use it to prove anything to anyone who doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
*The actual drug trials show that SSRI’s are no better than placebos, and the only evidence that serotonin controls depression is the efficacy of the SSRI’s. We do know that the major hallucinogenics work on either serotonin levels or the receptor sites. Clearly you may go through life lighter by taking 1/4 hit of LSD every morning, but that doesn’t make it a cure for depression.
When this news landed in my inbox, the first thing that came into my mind was “Monty Python”. To wit: