Sunday, July 8, 2007

Williams Syndrome and Big Brains

For all you psych geeks, I recommend a very interesting article on Williams Syndrome in this week’s New York Times Sunday Magazine. WS starts with some missing genes, which leads eventually to “a love of company and conversation combined, often awkwardly, with a poor understanding of social dynamics and a lack of social inhibition.” Williamses (as they call themselves) also have congenital heart problems which lower their life expectancy; they also suffer from a lack of spatial awareness.

The author, David Dobbs, branches off from the syndrome itself, and into various interesting implications. Of course, researchers are drooling over the possibility that genes might directly cause or prevent certain behaviors. That’s the kind of find that people spend whole careers seeking.

In one fascinating, lengthy segué, Dobbs outlines recent research on why the human brain grew so much larger than that of our forebears over the millennia. It has been assumed for many years that the purpose of the larger brain was greater facility at hunting and tool-making. This new research suggests the brain grew in order to allow humans to develop language, which was needed to help us navigate the complexities of ever-larger communities of fellow humans.

From the Darwinian perspective, bigger brains, and the language they made possible, allowed us to both to fulfill our basic longing to affiliate with others, and, at the same time, assess the level of threat those others posed within the confines of the group.

Hey, wait a minute. If understanding people and bonding with each other gives the greatest edge in competitive selection, we therapists ought to end up passing on far more genes than anyone else, right? Woo-hoo! Finally a social advantage to being a geek!

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