04. Knock Knock (Genes x Environment + Kindness)

Knock Knock is a Gothic horror story which starts out looking like a classic haunted house tale, complete with a creepy landlord and spooky old house noises. However, instead of ghosts, the house is full of alien insects that consume Bill’s unsuspecting roommates into the wood of the house. The insects are controlled by the creepy landlord, who we learn at the end reveal is just a man trying to protect his mother. In this episode, a selfless act of kindness that stands out is from the would-be villain, the landlord’s mother Eliza. When she discovers the truth of who she is and how her son is keeping her alive, Eliza ultimately sacrifices herself and her son to stop the insects and bring back Bill’s friends.

Doctor Who S10 Ep4 Knock Knock
(image source)

At its core, this is a story of the relationship between a parent and a child. There’s clearly a strong bond between Eliza and her son, twisted though it may be. Although he is an older man, the son is stuck in a childlike emotional state and unable to let his mother go. The parent-child relationship depicted in this episode got me thinking, how do our parents and our relationship with our parents affect our personalities and actions, specifically concerning kindness and empathy?

Genes x Environment + Kindness

It’s the classic debate of nature versus nurture. Are we raised to be kind? Is it just our personality? Or are some people born kinder than others? As a biology major with an interest in genetics, I believe that who we are is the result of both our genes and environment, working separately and together through complex, intersecting pathways to shape the person we become.

Recent findings in the fields of psychology and genetics support this idea in regard to kind, empathetic behavior (or in science-y terms, “pro-social” behavior). Both genes and parenting have a role, and one linkage between the two is a hormone called oxytocin. Oxytocin, a.k.a. the “love hormone”, is released primarily in the brain and blood stream, and it’s known to promote social bonding and trust. When oxytocin binds with receptors in the brain it triggers feelings of comfort and reward.

oxytocin
The “love hormone” (image source)

The actions of oxytocin are mediated by specific oxytocin receptors. We have one of three genotypes for our oxytocin receptor genes: GG, AG, or AA. One study looked at the genotypes of 23 couples, and found that people who had a GG genotype expressed greater pro-social behaviors. In this study, couples were videotaped describing a moment of suffering. Outside observers watched the videos and rated the kindness, caring, and empathy of the person listening to their partner’s story. Of the ten participants deemed the most trustworthy, six had the GG genotype. Of the ten least trustworthy participants, nine had AG or AA genotypes. What’s more, outsider observers were able to identify the genotype in less than 20 seconds.

In a 2012 study among 348 Americans, the majority (51.5%) had the GG genotype, while only 7.2% has the AA genotype. While having the GG genotype may set you up for more pro-social behavior, it’s only one piece of the story. Our environment, including how we’re raised, affects how our genes are expressed. The bond between parent and child has a significant influence, and it works both ways. Parental affection and play can improve prosocial behaviors in the child, as well as triggering oxytocin release in the parents. It’s a beautiful cycle of love and care.

One last thought on oxytocin. A firm hug (no lazy side hugs here, people) is thought to trigger the release of oxytocin. Hugs are a tangible way to provide social support and may help prevent or reduce the symptoms of a cold. As explained by psychologist Tiffany Field, “When you’re hugging or cuddling with someone, [he or she is] stimulating pressure receptors under your skin in a way that leads to a cascade of events including an increase in vagal activity, which puts you in a relaxed state.” So go forth, and be a hugging person.

12 not a hugger wth.gif

9 hug anyone.gif
(image source)
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