An An-alleluial Allele? Genes, Depression, & Spirituality

structure of DNA“[N]ot too many people
Can see we’re all the same
And because of all their tears
Their eyes can’t hope to see
The beauty that surrounds them….” — George Harrison, “Isn’t It a Pity”1

That “we’re all the same” is one of the fundamental assumptions of most, if not all, forms of religion and spirituality. Without that assumption, there’s no plausible basis for imposition of universal requirements for thinking, feeling, and acting. And without that imposition, there’s no profit in religion for the primitive instincts, such as security and domination, that, in part, it serves. Nonetheless, the assumption is erroneous: we’re not all the same. We differ fundamentally in, for example, abilities, potential, and ways of experiencing and responding to the world. George Harrison’s sentiment notwithstanding, there are far too many people, Quakers included, who believe that they “see we’re all the same.” But they don’t see, because they don’t really look, or because they can’t see through the blindfolds of their belief systems. They don’t see the irreconcilable differences that make us more like a menagerie of exotic species, some by nature a mortal danger to others, than a flock of sheep in which the occasional expression of a recessive gene provides the odd black exception to prove the rule.

And genes (basically, strings of DNA) appear to be the locus of some of our most significant differences. Take the short 5-HTTLPR allele (please!). The 5-HTTLPR is a polymorphic region—a region that varies in shape—of the serotonin transporter gene (a.k.a. 5-HTT). Those who are familiar with contemporary antidepressant medications will recognize the word “serotonin” immediately: the neurotransmitter serotonin, or 5-HT, is involved in regulation of mood, including response to stress. And the 5-HTT gene is a crucial determinant in the regulation of serotonin. The region of that gene which is under our metaphorical microscope here, the 5-HTTLPR allele (5-HT Transporter-Linked Polymorphic Region), has an important characteristic: it may be either long (“l”) or short (“s”). And that tiny difference in shape matters greatly. As Caspi et al. put it in 2003, reporting on their research:

Individuals with one or two copies of the short allele of the 5-HT T promoter polymorphism [i.e., 5-HTTLPR] exhibited more depressive symptoms, diagnosable depression, and suicidality in relation to stressful life events than individuals homozygous for [i.e., having only] the long allele.2

Other studies have found that persons with the s (short) allele are likely to be more sensitive to the emotional content of experience and may find it necessary to attempt to shield themselves from negative emotional stimuli. (I am reminded of the “empath” characters in the Star Trek TV series.) Overall, research indicates that such people are temperamentally different from persons who have only the long, or l, allele, from persons who tend to be more optimistic and/because more neurologically resilient. Temperament is biology.

Given that depression is closely related to anxiety, it’s not surprising to learn that

Carriers of the short allele … have increased anxiety-related temperamental traits, increased amygdala [area of the brain, part of the limbic system, with a primary role in the processing and memory of emotional reactions] reactivity and elevated risk of depression.3

The authors of that statement, Pezawas et al., used neuroimaging technology to find out how that works. They found that s-carriers have “reduced gray-matter volume … in limbic regions critical for processing of negative emotion….” And they discovered a significant difference between s– and l-carriers in the neural feedback system that regulates the duration and extinction of negative mood states—which means that the central nervous system (CNS) of an s-carrier reacts to stressors, perhaps even small and “ordinary” stressors, more readily, more intensely, and for a longer time than that of an l-only carrier. (And that kind of reaction appears to have continuing effects on the physiology of the CNS/brain, reinforcing the structure of the feedback system and contributing to the reduction in volume of areas related to stress response and mood.4) Their conclusion was this:

These genotype-related alterations in anatomy and function of an amygdala-cingulate feedback circuit for emotional regulation implicate a developmental, systems-level mechanism underlying normal emotional reactivity and genetic susceptibility for depression.5

A “developmental, systems-level mechanism underlying” our emotional responses. A “genetic susceptibility for depression.” In other words, it’s the way we’re made. Many of us have a genetic makeup that makes us very sensitive to emotion-stimulating aspects of life; that gives us powerful but hair-trigger biological stress-response systems which, as it were, engage too often and too fully and don’t know when to quit (the feedback problem); that does not permit us to easily “get over” stressors but, on the contrary, makes us increasingly sensitive; that makes us more likely not only to be clinically depressed (a condition, by the way, which affects the entire organism, with cognitive, emotional, and somatic, or “physical,” manifestations) but to be suicidal; that even inhibits our response to antidepressant medications.6 All of that is genetic, biological, in origin, and correlates with the presence of the particular short allele we’ve been discussing. And 5-HTTLPR is but one of a myriad of interacting, soul-shaping factors in our biology.

Now, this information may make a classic, double-predestinarian Calvinist happy, but most theists, needing a God who gives us freedom and requires voluntary allegiance (a double bind, but what theist would dare call Him—or himself—on it?), will be tempted to deny it. Yet the research piles up, and the facts are ineluctable: innocently, science continues to illuminate the errors of religion. Why is this information a problem for, say, Christian moral theology? At the most obvious level, we need only recall that despair (greatly feared by the depressed George Fox) and suicide are among the most grievous possible sins for Christians, and that sin involves free consent of the will. Theistic religion condemns depression as evil, or, at best, as moral weakness: saints fresh from stoning sinners “make a joyful noise unto the Lord,” while Judas, whose somber realism has perhaps saved their lives, goes off alone and hangs himself. Likewise, anxiety is seen as a lack of confidence in divine providence: “consider the lilies of the field.” (That reminds me of the absurd history of churches and lightning rods, but that pleasure must await another post.) Depression and anxiety are signs of sin, selfish sorrows of the unregenerate who choose not to cooperate with God’s grace. Theistic religion requires that we try to overcome those sins by submitting to its sovereignty, purchasing its wares, and praising its God. But our little allele can’t sing alleluia.

I may return in a future post to consideration of Christian doctrine, in the prime myth of which the Other is sacrificed in order that we all may be one, from this perspective. For now, however, I want to examine the often overlooked, often harmful totalizing claim of contemporary “spirituality,” particularly in a popular Buddhist form, regarding anxiety and depression.

That which today goes by the name of spirituality wants to distance itself from theistic religion’s oppressive and anachronistic belief systems, but in this respect at least it does no better. Among those influenced by popular Buddhist and New Age (e.g., “integrative”) thought, unhappiness and anxiety are, again, signs of weakness, unfortunate characteristics that indicate one’s “unevolved” condition, negative tendencies that have unwholesome effects on self and others and must be overcome or transmuted by vigorous discipline (and, of course, by the purchase of books, magazines, electronic media, workshops, retreats, meditation aids, etc.). Those who cannot overcome such negativity will be seen—and, more importantly, will learn to see themselves—as failures, lesser beings, losers in need of a spiritual make-over.

Consider the following passage from the opening paragraphs of the book Being Peace, written by the beloved Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh.

If we are not happy, if we are not peaceful, we cannot share peace and happiness with others, even those we love…. If we are peaceful, if we are happy, we can smile and blossom like a flower, and everyone in our family, in our entire society, will benefit from our peace.7

It appears that, according to this popular master, we have a duty, a moral obligation, to be happy and peaceful. Another double bind? But Thich Nhat Hanh has not yet defined these terms. What is happiness, and what is peace?

Happiness, we learn in subsequent paragraphs, is an awareness that enjoys the present moment. Although, as we are reminded, “Each day 40,000 children die of hunger,” yet “To be here and now, [sic] and enjoying the present moment is our most important task.” Such happiness, such enjoyment, is the feeling we have when we’re smiling. “If in our daily life we can smile, if we can be peaceful and happy, not only we, but everyone will profit from it. […] Smiling means that we are ourselves, that we have sovereignty over ourselves, that we are not drowned in forgetfulness.” Presumably, then, not smiling means that we are false beings, alienated from self and others; that we are weaklings, unable to govern ourselves; that we are submerged in self-centered ignorance, not awake, not aware, not mindful—that we are, in effect, spiritually weak, disordered, dormant, or dead. Is this the Buddhist version of “grievous sinners”? In Christianity, sinners are condemned to reside in hell after death; in this popular westernized Buddhism, we’re already living there—and need to get ourselves out by smiling.

And what is peace? Apparently, it is closely related to, or the same as, happiness, that feeling associated with smiling. We are advised that, in a world which has “more than 50,000 nuclear warheads,”

Smiling is very important. If we are not able to smile, then the world will not have peace. It is not by going out for demonstrations against nuclear missiles that we can bring peace. It is with our smiling, breathing, and being peace that we can make peace.

Happiness and peace are, then, conflated, if not equated. If we are not happily smiling, peacefully free of anxiety, then we are making the world a less peaceful place, we are guilty of spiritual and moral failure. The double bind is doubled: we must not be anxious, and we must be happy. We need to pull ourselves together and do the right thing: smile and calmly enjoy the present moment! What is the likely effect of that judgment (“You are morally wrong to feel unhappy!”) and that imperative (“To be a compassionate person, you must feel differently!”) on the sensitive “soul” of, say, an s-carrier? We can expect activation of the stress response system with its unfortunate feedback loop, reinforcement of negative feelings, exacerbation of anxiety and depression, hopelessness or cynicism: a strangling of the soul.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching appears to be a well-intended doctrine directed to a compassionate end, but in practice it misses the mark because it neither respects nor understands the irreducible otherness of the other. It is a totalizing narrative constructed on the false (and narcissistic?) premise that “we’re all the same” and that therefore we all can and should attain the same goals by the same, or similar, means. But, as science increasingly confirms, we’re very different, from the genes up (and down: as we’ve seen, genes, too, are composite structures), and our goals, and the means to approaching them, must needs differ. Compassionate praxis begins with the recognition of that reality. “The beauty that surrounds [us]” lies precisely in the differences, in the otherness of each unique event of human biology interacting with the world—of each unique expression of the human individual. Unless religions and spiritualities open their eyes to that reality, their compassion is too often a well-meaning brutality that harms the more vulnerable of us while passing on its genes, or memes, through the pleasure of those who believe they are loving others while they are only making themselves feel good.

And that reminds me of Freud, who at least recognized happiness for what it is ….

———-
NOTES

  1. George Harrison, “Isn’t It a Pity.” From the record album All Things Must Pass, 1970.
  2. Caspi, A. et al., “Influence of life stress on depression: moderation by a polymorphism in the 5-HTT gene.” Science. 2003 Jul 18;301(5631):386-9. Online at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12869766.
  3. Pezawas, L., et al., “5-HTTLPR polymorphism impacts human cingulate-amygdala interactions: a genetic susceptibility mechanism for depression.” Nature Neuroscience 8, 828 – 834 (2005). See http://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/v8/n6/abs/nn1463.html.
  4. See, for example, Peter D. Kramer’s book, Against Depression.
  5. Pezawas, L., et al., op. cit.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Thich Nhat Hanh, Being Peace. Parallax Press (Berkeley, 1987). This and following quotations are from pp. 3 through 9.

The image of DNA structure is from Wikipedia Commons.

5 thoughts on “An An-alleluial Allele? Genes, Depression, & Spirituality

  1. Dear George,

    I have much to say in response but it just took up too much room. I’ve posted my thoughts on my own blog

    Here, I’ll just say thanks.

  2. George and Hystery,

    Thank you both so much for bringing these concerns into the light. As a chronic depressive I agree wholeheartedly that both East and West have developed ways of judging and talking about depression that are usually useless or harmful.

    I also remember with remorse how quick I was to blame my parents for all my problems when I was younger. We all believed back then that bad parenting caused almost everything that children and young adults suffered.

    Now we’ve entered a world of neuroscience where we have begun to understand the biological underpinnings of these things. It’s important not to become deterministic about it, however. There was that great series on NPR recently about that neuroscientist who was studying psychopathy and found a particular genetic pattern and brain structure that, when combined, tended to be found in serial killers. But then he found the same pattern in himself! He attributed his positive life to good parenting. No doubt there were many factors that contributed to his well-being.

    I have found that it’s possible to work skillfully with my depression, both honoring the gifts it brings and seeking to be a responsible parent and member of my community. In my dreams, the “slough of despond” where someone once drowned himself has become a fertile estuary. It’s blooming, but it still is dangerous and I have to continue to respect that. I take responsibility for my relationships, but I also give myself space to experience depression and allow it to teach me. No doubt I can do this mostly because of various privileges, though.
    Thanks again,
    Rosemary

  3. I have encountered this attitude in a relative who has embraced Advaita Vedanta–he sends me articles on the spiritual “gift” of depression–and how confronting it would make me stronger, how I should use yoga rather than medication, I shouldn’t be one of these ‘over-medicated sheep-like American consumers’ etc.

    I see a similar trend in the “mind-body” health movement. If all is one, then there is no separation between the mind and the body–and if you can use stress relief, imaging, etc.to control/prevent/cure physical ailment, then perhaps you are responsible for your heart disease, fibromyalgia, and so on…

    What a distinct lack of compassion in this approach–how dismissive of others’ experiences–and all in the name of “loving-kindness.”

  4. Sorry to add on here–but a thought just came to me…that for many, including my relative, the embrace of the all-is-one, reality-is-an-illusion outlook is a desperate attempt to escape from their own suffering. And as they try to make their suffering disappear, by asserting that it does not exist, they do the same for others and their suffering. And since they often make the assumption that the suffering is the same–they do not listen to or need to be present for what they can’t account for–my relative can refuse to hear or understand my actual struggles; he can distance himself from my actual experience. And so, with this effort of compassion, this assumption that “I feel what you feel,” he pushes me away–he need make no effort to feel what I do. To listen.

    And I see now that this is what this outlook can do to our connection to all other people, as you described it, George, in your post about “that of god.”

    This discussion has been really helpfully to me personally…both to understand his perspective and behavior, and to give name and expression to what has concerned me for years about this outlook.

    Thank you.

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