Coded Triggers: the Fault in Our Genes, pt4

You are alive. Congratulations! You are the latest in a long line of survivors. That six foot length of coded amino acids which make up your dna is both your unique recipe book, all the instructions that go into making you you are there, but it is also your history as a living creature on this planet.

Granted, many of the older parts are no longer necessary to ensure your survival in the form you have evolved into, but they are still there.

The human genome was only first mapped by 2003, meaning that we are truly only beginning to understand what is contained in that six foot long chain of amino acids, much less know what parts are active in our every day lives.

We know that many animals are born fully capable of performing tasks and making a living for itself without any external information provided by an adult of its species. Take some species of mockingbird, for example. The mother mockingbird will lay her egg in the nest of another species of bird entirely. The mockingbird chick, upon hatching, instantly knows to push the eggs of the other bird out of the nest so that the only chick left to feed is itself. That is its first instinct, even bereft of feathers, barely able to focus its new eyes. It methodically pushes all the other eggs out of the nest.

Baby turtles do not have the benefit of maternal cuddling or knowledge when they crawl out from their sand buried nest. They make their way to the ocean as quickly as possible and somehow know what to do to try to survive long enough that they are able to return to that same beach, no matter how far afield they have roamed, to mate and contribute to the next generation of turtles.

Oh, but we are humans, you say. We are not animals. Yes, we are animals. Are we precisely like turtles or mockingbirds? No. But we don’t really know how similar we are like them either.

The human child has the longest infancy of any animal, requiring the constant care and attention of some adult, not reaching full adulthood in all respects until they are in their twenties. The human brain, for example, continues to form in many important respects until well into the teenage years. The area of the brain responsible for judgment does not form fully until the child is an adult. This is why we treat juveniles who commit crimes differently than adults. This is why we don’t allow young people to drive automobiles until they are at least 16 years old.

When I was taking a MOOC from Rutgers University called “Soul Beliefs: Causes and Consequences”, Professor Leonard Hamilton of Rutgers Psychology Department illustrated what he described as a triggered survival skill, something which lays dormant in our dna until a set of circumstances help to trigger that unique ability.

He referred to a study involving a species of monkey. Now in the experiment, a baby monkey who had been born in the laboratory was exposed to the image of a snake. The baby monkey had no particular response to the image. A baby monkey born in the wild shown the same image immediately began screaming in fear and moving to avoid contact with the perceived snake.

The monkey born in the laboratory was then exposed to an adult monkey in an adjoining cage. The monkey in the adjoining cage was exposed to the image of a snake but the monkey born in the laboratory could not see that image. The adult monkey immediately began screaming and moving to avoid the image of a snake, but because the baby monkey born in the lab could not see the image of the snake, the baby did not show any particular response.

But when the baby monkey born in the laboratory was shown the adult monkey in the adjoining cage along with the image of the snake, and observed the adults reaction to the snake, the baby monkey born in the laboratory reacted with extreme fright and thereafter responded to the image of a snake with extreme fright.

Many humans react to the sight of a spider or snake, or react to extreme heights with great fear though they may not understand why they are so phobic about the items. They can even learn to overcome their fears. But the origin of the fear may either be witnessing a parent react to the item with fear, or it may have been coded into their dna which was triggered by exposure to the item.

In that same Rutgers Course I was exposed to the phenomenon in the human brain known as “mirror neurons”. When humans watch other humans engaged in certain activities, corresponding parts of our brain similar to those which would be engaged if we were ourselves participating in the observed activity are fired. This explains why we get so excited watching sports events. Or why we are so drawn into the human stories and activities depicted on film or in stage or on our television sets. The same areas of the brain working in the actor or athlete are working in our own brains and it is as if we are living through that observed activity ourselves.

This is why so many stage plays or movies are so powerful. They contain potential triggers which activate parts of ourselves that lay dormant. Suddenly we understand aspects of ourselves that we never fully understood before.

This trigger can occur when we ourselves encounter them in our daily life.

I know from my own experience, that I spent most of my life not knowing what I was supposed to do with my life. I felt aimless, adrift, lost. But then, thanks to a fine arts elective I was able to take in my final year of an undergraduate degree, I stood upon a stage for what seemed like the first time in my life and all the hidden pieces suddenly came together for me. Standing on that stage in a rehearsal hall for the course Acting 201: Introduction to Acting, I felt that I had finally found home.

Of course, it took me another sixteen years before I actually acted on that original impulse, but that is material for an entirely different story.

I recently watched the movie, The Danish Girl, starring the talented Eddie Redmayne and the beautiful and talented Alicia Vikander. When Redmayne’s character is cajoled by his wife played by Vikander into dressing in women’s clothing to pose for her while she paints a portrait, he experiences a powerful sensation revealing to him that he was actually a woman born in a man’s body. The story was a fictional account inspired by the very real tale of a person who ultimately became one of the first recipients of a sex change operation. We are now aware of many individuals in society who are experiencing this phenomenon for themselves, and medical researchers have confirmed that it is possible for someone to be born in the wrong body for their gender identification. For others, it manifests as sexual orientation. It is has an actual biological basis and is not, as many people still believe, a matter of choice for the individual. I have even heard it described as “that is how they are wired”. It’s another way of saying their dna was coded for a certain thing which took time for them to reach the required level of awareness for them to act on it.

At this point, I want to return to a point I have made in the previous parts of my argument about the importance of our dna in our lives, namely that we are the culmination of hundreds of millions of years of evolution, successful evolution in that all of our predecessors survived to ultimately produce us. They used skills, possibly skills that lay dormant in their dna until it needed, and it is possible that those skills lay dormant for many generations, only to be expressed when needed to help the individual in the moment survive so that they could reproduce.

I think of the cases described by the renowned British neurologist, Oliver Sachs, where a patient is hit by lightening, the charge carried through telephone wires while they held a receiver to their head. After the event, the person who received the almost deadly shock developed a talent for playing the piano even though he had never played the piano previously.

Or take the cases of what we refer to as Idiot Savants, the blind autistic man who, although never receiving a lesson in his life, could play incredible music when sat at a piano. I know of no other explanation for that unique ability other than the ability to play was somehow encoded in his dna, in very much the same way skills are encoded in the dna of the turtles or the mockingbird.

Does that mean we should all be able to play the piano? Certainly not. But I am sure no one would argue with me that some students show an amazing aptitude for an instrument, be it piano or violin, and be the talent singing or acting. We often describe those discoveries as “the person was born to that thing”.

In my own experience, it was not until long after my mother’s death that I first learned from her surviving sister, my aunt, that my mother excelled in acting on stage in her highschool years. She was the star of every school production and they even toured their productions in the area of Alberta where she grew up and, as the star of the show, she was the only one of the cast permitted to sleep in a hotel room while all the others slept in the bus. My mother never mentioned any of this to me during my childhood. Nor was she alive by the time I discovered my love of acting for myself. Was this something I inherited from her? Was this love laying dormant in my dna until the circumstances aligned that my passion was ignited or triggered on that stage?

I remind you that a copy of our dna is found in every single cell in our body. It controls the proper functioning of that cell for our entire lifetimes. Little rna proteins read the dna and then methodically follow those instructions which are determined by the precise circumstances in which we find ourselves. And one thing we are not always aware of. All the cells in our body are in some form of communication with each other. They do not wait until the information reaches the level of awareness we are familiar with as our conscious thoughts. They communicate silently long before it reaches that stage at which we become self aware.

So how much is going on, how much is triggered by ancient memories, by our inhabiting the external circumstances necessary to trigger that old survival skill? How much is triggered by the operation of our mirror neurons as we watch a powerful story unfold before us, whether on stage on on the screen?

When a person asks themselves “what am I passionate about?” that question may lead them to the trigger that gives them their life’s purpose. It could be the key to our very survival to the next generation. After all, we have so much information and material buried in that six foot long string of coded amino acids. Much of it could be latent, waiting for expression for the first time in several generations. How much do you know about your ancestors? How much do you know about the circumstances of your ancestors’ lives? What did they need to learn to survive, and how much of that was subtly encoded into the dna to prepare the future generation to survive?

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