We know that bipolar and other mental illnesses affect behavior, but what precisely is behavior? Rather than go for a definition, maybe it’s best to look at a select sampling of classic experiments and observations representing wildly disparate fields. Let’s get started:
Conditioned Reflex - Ivan Pavlov’s celebrated experiments into conditioned reflex on dogs set the scene for research into human behavior. What you may not have known was that this research grew out of Pavlov’s studies into the digestive systems of dogs, which was his primary focus. Pavlov received the Nobel in Physiology and Medicine in 1904.
Memory and Learning - Intending to become a Freudian psychiatrist, Eric Kandel got sidetracked by neuropsychiatry, which led to decades of research using the humble California sea snail as his unlikely model for the human brain. In the lab, Dr Kandel investigated how the brain laid down memory and learned new tricks. This led to breakthrough findings into neural signaling pathways. Thanks to Dr Kandel, we know that the strength or weakness of neural circuits looms large in human behavior. Dr Kandel shared the Nobel in Physiology and Medicine in 2000.
Genes and Environment - Rather than hunt for a “depression” gene or a “bipolar” gene, psychologists Terrie Moffit and Avshalom Caspi investigated how stress affects certain gene variations, which may in turn influence behavior. Their 2002 and 2003 studies on a New Zealand birth cohort totally changed the discussion from one of “genes OR environment” to “genes AND environment.” One of the studies found that those with a certain gene variation experienced far greater rates of depression when faced with stress while those with a different variation of the same gene proved far more resilient. Take home message: Watch your environment, manage your stress - your brain will thank you for it.
Selfish vs Altruistic - Working at RAND in the 1950s, mathematicians Merrill Flood and Melvin Dresher came up with the “prisoner’s dilemma,” the best known of all game theories. For example, two prisoners are taken to separate rooms for questioning. If neither one snitches, they both get off. If one snitches, he will be charged with a lesser crime while his partner gets charged with a major crime. What would you do in the situation? Self-interest vs cooperation - the two co-exist in a knife-edge tension.
Love and Lust - What happens in the brain when we fall in love? Thanks to brain scans, we have a pretty good idea. In a 2005 paper, anthropologist Helen Fisher reported that three separate but interrelated brain systems are activated for sex, falling in love, and long-term relationships, respectively. Love may still be an affair of the heart, but like all human emotion it is mediated in the brain. In all fields of human behavior, brain scans are telling a very interesting story.