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by Peter D. Kramer, M.D.
February 1996

The Science of the Novel

Ours was already an age of accelerating psychological materialism-mind as brain. But the scientific basis for the prevailing philosophy took a leap forward last month with the identification of a gene that correlates with a normal personality trait, 'novelty seeking.' The discovery was immediately understood as important-front-page news in the New York Times-but I think it easy to miss just how breathtaking the result is. Subjects were administered a questionnaire designed to assess temperament traits, including this tendency to be impulsive, excitable, and drawn to stimulation. Those reporting a high tendency to seek thrills were found more likely to have a certain 'long' variant of a gene for a receptor for dopamine, a chemical that transmits signals between brain cells. Other traits, called harm avoidance, reward dependence, and persistence, did not correlate with the form of the gene.

This is a strong finding because it confirms what theorists have predicted. For years, C. Robert Cloninger, a persistent and original thinker from the psychiatry department of the Washington University School of Medicine, has gathered evidence that novelty seeking is an influential and independent factor in what we ordinarily understand as personality, and that it is moderately heritable. Novelty seeking was already thought to be governed by dopamine transmission, in part because people with Parkinson's disease (who become dopamine-deficient), while preserving other aspects of personality, are low in novelty seeking; and because drugs like amphetamine and cocaine, that enhance dopamine effects, increase novelty seeking. Commentators immediately compared the implications of this research to the controversy over Prozac's possible effects on personality. It does seem that the discovery of heritable, normal personality variants rooted in neurotransmission would help justify what I have termed 'cosmetic psychopharmacology.' If temperament is a result of genetic happenstance, why ought not novelty-seekers, if they wish, tone themselves down (to some other normal level) with dopamine blockers; why ought not novelty-avoiders do the reverse? The drugs we have that might accomplish these ends have serious problems-addiction, neurological side effects, and the like-but these problems are technical, not moral or aesthetic. This line of discussion is not without interest, but the implications of the new research are much more profound. They extend to the way we experience ourselves and those we love. For example, just how do we understand the intensely curious and impulsive child before us? Parents of every generation look to psychology for direction in child-rearing. Freudianism gave rise to anti-authoritarian and sexually permissive modes, with an emphasis on parental guilt for bad outcomes. Psychological materialism will surely lead in other directions.

Advice might involve medication, but the focus may equally be on behaviors and attitudes. There is already limited data that a child's genetics affects how parents treat the child-that the emotional environment is shaped by the child's genes. Experts may soon be telling parents that if they have a novelty-seeking child they must beware of becoming too controlling and judgmental, as parents of hyperactive children tend to be. The vista before parents may be compelling: high novelty seeking and low harm avoidance can lead either to feats of derring-do or profound mental illness; how will you guide or try to change this child? Recommendations may be quite specific: With this sort of child (temperamentally, genetically) and these sorts of values, you might consider a specific set of parenting strategies.

The terrain before us is unchartable. Perhaps, though I doubt it, the new genetics will remain esoteric, leave us untouched. Or perhaps we will come to feel a commonalty-and not just a joking, metaphorical relationship-with cultures that believed in the humors. Perhaps we will feel yet more self-alienated than we do now; perhaps much less self-alienated and more aware of the roots of our emotions. We are facing something truly new, and even those of us who love novelty only to an ordinary degree may feel the excitement of not knowing what comes next.

Copyright 1995 by Peter D. Kramer, M. D. Dr. Kramer practices psychiatry in Providence, R. I, where he is Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Brown University. He is the author of  Listening to Prozac and  Moments of Engagement.