H0 heroes and H1 fairies among us

February 26, 2011 § Leave a comment

Unlike many correlation studies claim and imply – by linking our personal properties with our genes or brains – a great majority of us behave in a way that is different from the average correlation data in these studies. For example, some of us can posses a gene that is linked with a higher probability of being a novelty seeker or have a gene that suggests a tendency to depression but still have no depressive symptoms or have no characteristics of a novelty seeker. I call these people “H0 heroes” (http://www.innovationjournalism.org/archive/INJO-7-8.pdf) because they behave or have characteristics predicted by the null hypothesis, that is, they do not confirm the hypothesis that the scientists claim on the basis of the observed correlations and average differences. They are heroes who symbolically fight and win against the H1-hypothesis (that there should be an effect). Linking the activities of brain areas to specific individual features is no different from these gene stories.

But there is another class of inspiring individuality as well: many of us do not have these interesting genes, like the ones suggesting depression or novelty seeking personality – and still have the depression tendencies and novelty-seeking personality characteristics as predicted by the gene theories and as some of the observed cases with these genes indeed have. I call these model cases “H1 fairies” that display just the right type of behavior or characteristics even without the specified biological background factors.

Typical to many correlational brain and gene studies is that the H0 heroes and the H1 fairies in their material are totally neglected and the scientists do not particularly want to talk about them. We do not learn why H0 heroes and H1 fairies behave in their own and independent way. Such observations would make the generalization of correlations difficult and in fact they offer the scientists the difficult question “What is individuality?”

Of course we are different, but should we believe those who claim to know why it is so, what are the meaningful ways to characterize it, and how we are different?  Often it seems that because the question “What is it to be a human?” is too difficult to answer, it has been reformulated into “What do the genes do to us?”, “What is our personality profile?”, “How intelligent are we?” “How are these properties linked with our success, failure, health or diseases?”. In normal life, during significant life events, and in our spiritual development, in the joy of life, these data have very little to offer.

I believe that each of us lives in a psychological space that is under the influence of a continuous interaction with a specific, individual environment, our dynamic inborn base, and our own intuition of ourselves. It will never be possible to map this intimate space by any scientific means. When we willingly interact with scientists and exchange ideas with them, or allow them to record this exchange of this personal space it can take place only in another, situational space that is not the one where we live in. Do I have data to back this claim? No I don’t, but I think it is a really good question what should that data be like and how could we find it.

During the present times of hard science business, competition for visibility, and global pr we are repeatedly led by the media to believe that either the brain sciences, gene technologies or intelligent data mining methods will reveal the ‘objective’ truth about us and solve the mystery of the human nature. “The big five”, “brain imaging” and “gene maps” try to convince us that these problems will soon be solved and that we know what it means to be a “person”.

Professor Horace Barlow from Cambridge, once commented that while physicists works to the accuracy of several decimals in their work biologists just try to get the sign right. The situation appears even worse today. If someone would make a claim that we will soon solve the main problems of the universe, such a person would simply be considered a fool. But there seems to be no such decent criteria for the arguments concerning us as human beings. For example, on 30th December 2010 the Telegraph made the claim, by referring to a study at University College London that “Political views ‘hard-wired’ into your brain”. This and similar studies continue getting the attention of the mainstream media. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/8228192/Political-views-hard-wired-into-your-brain.html

As can be expected, the story does not tell why the observed correlations between brain anatomy and behavior do not concern all people. What on earth is taking place in the brains of those people who do not have the average properties? Besides, a clear majority of us are not “average”. So what is explained with these findings? They simply throw away all that is essential to human life, our differences, complexities, that is, what really makes us individuals. What is left to explain sounds like robots talking.

If we put the question “What are we like as measured by various indicators?” into another form, for example “How, during our lives and in numerous environments, we will experience the world and ourselves?” or “How and why will we behave in specific ways?” then the answers would have meaning to us and to the society. But these questions are too difficult and not much can be gained in pr by talking them.

True neurology and many other sciences of human biology and pathology are a different story: there the respect for the life of the patients and their demanding and compassionate close ones prevent unethical and stupid speculations what might be happening to them because of their genes or brains. The patients need help and then the criteria are simple: when a biological cause or a correlation is suggested as an explanation, the case has to be waterproof. It is a matter of scientific ethics.

If we ask, can we predict what will happen to us during our lifetime, what kind of life we will lead and how we will experience and share these experiences with others, the only honest response is “no”. It is as difficult a question as the problem of the universe, but we must try to solve it. There is a long way for many brain scientists and psychologists to finding the power of humbleness in front of these inspiring questions of humanity.

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