Does Genetics Play a Role in Shaping our Perception?

There are different ideas of how perception is established.  One is bottom up processing in which we start with information from the environment.  This converts into action potentials that are sent to the brain in which we react. The other is top-down processing in which we use our past experiences to guide and interpret the information coming through our senses.  These along with Gestalt’s Laws explains how our perception occurs and carves our personality.  None of these, however, explain the biological concepts of genetics.  I feel there should be another piece to perception, heredity.  How does this come to play in making who we are?  When I look at my own kids, it makes me wonder.

We knew when my daughter was very young that she was a born gymnast.  Since she was three years old, she has been at the gym working hard and competing since she was about eight.  She’s 14 now and spends 30 hours a week in the gym and aspires to be an Olympian.  Although I never did gymnastics, I was always athletic, and people tend to call her mini Kristi.  On the other hand, my older daughter plays softball, which is what I played for 20 years.  Although she is quite a good player now, she has really had to work for it.  She spent years practicing harder than most just to be able to compete.  So of course genetics has something to do with who we are, but how do we know just how much?  How do I know that my younger daughter takes after me at all, and isn’t who she is because of how we labeled her at such a young age?

Unfortunately there is no real way to know.  There is no way to make predictions in Psychology, and let’s think about the impact it would have if Psychologists did.  Currently there are some DNA tests that can be performed to find out if certain diseases are eminent.  But let’s keep in mind that since this is just a prediction, it is no way 100% accurate.  For instance, according to an article in the “Psycho-Oncology” Journal, there are DNA tests that can be performed to tell someone if they have the cancer gene.  (Psycho-Oncology )

Studies showed that people took extreme measures when they were told they had the gene, and most of the time, they never ended up with the disease.  This sometimes caused psychological issues.  Studying perception and how our perceptions shape who we are is important in helping us understand the human mind.  Genetics does aid in shaping who we are, but since we have no way of predicting which ones each person has, we should not assume a particular personality trait is inherited.  We should view our perception as information processing and reaction.  A combination of bottom-up processing, top-down processing and Gestalt’s Laws of Perception do this.


Works Cited

Vos, J., Gómez-García, E., Oosterwijk, J. C., Menko, F. H., Stoel, R. D., van Asperen, C. J., Jansen, A. M., Stiggelbout, A. M. and Tibben, A. (2012), Opening the psychological black box in genetic counseling. The psychological impact of DNA testing is predicted by the counselees’ perception, the medical impact by the pathogenic or uninformative BRCA1/2-result. Psycho-Oncology, 21: 29–42. doi: 10.1002/pon.1864

4 thoughts on “Does Genetics Play a Role in Shaping our Perception?

  1. Jamie Lucas

    I found your blog post to be very thought provoking. We are learning how perception is based on both physiology and experience but is it also based in genetics? It’s an interesting proposition. I was recently reading Diane Keaton’s biography where she posed the question to her deceased Father – “Do I see what you saw when I look at the ocean?”. She has an entire chapter devoted to question of if her perception of the world was somehow shared or passed down to her by her Father. How exciting to think that we could share in that part of our parents and our children might share that with us!

    When digging around on the internet for some articles that might discuss the issue of inheritance and perception I came up with not very much on the subject specifically. But I did find an article that discussed the impact of genetics on taste perception. It showed variations in gene receptors in children and their parents that shows that the receptors actually change as the child grows and bitter foods taste less bitter. We might even inherit a penchant for certain flavors. However what was really interesting to me about this was that HOW much flavor -bitterness especially- was tolerable or preferable was determined by cultural factors not genetic ones (Manella, Pepino, & Reed 2005).

    What this has to do with perception and inheritance might seem a little tangential, but I think it shows that what is learned can override what we are born with. Like the way that one of your daughters followed in your footsteps to play softball when she might not have been born with your natural ability. This could also be true of the other who seems to have inherited some of your athletic ability but went a whole other route. It’s been proven that we can inherit many traits genetically, so I’m inclined to think that some of how we see the world and ourselves in the world could be inherited too, I just don’t have anything to back that up!

    Mennella, J., Papino, M., & Reed, D. (2005). Genetic and Environmental Determinants of Bitter Perception and Sweet Preferences. Pediatrics, 115, 216-222. doi:10.1542/peds

  2. Catherine Adams

    I had to stop and think about my son’s personality, interests and abilities after reading your blog. There are many times I wonder where he received certain aspects of his personality from and if it was genetics. For example, I am extremely introverted, terrible at math and science and never considered the sport of fencing before, yet, my son is outgoing, gifted in math and science and is very talented at fencing. Often I have wondered if he inherited his science abilities from my father who was a science teacher and his math abilities from his father who is somewhat decent in the subject. It was not possible for them to influence him personally since my father died when he was two and his father has been only a small part of his life. This has led me to believe that genetics has a part of who we are but we are also influenced by those around us; those who help shape our personality. I did not want my son to be shy like I am so I did what I could to help him socialize when he was younger. My mother and I both love to read and so does my son, he has been surrounded by books since he was born. It seems that genetics and our upbringing, (nature and nurture) work together to develop our personalities and abilities.

  3. Shadi Nemati

    I thought that your article was interesting because I have never thought about perceptions being something that is inherited. I have always known that physical features can be inherited, and even attitudes and predispositions for a disease, but I didn’t think the subject of inheritance extended much farther than that. Regarding this, I have also always thought that it is both genetics and our environment that play a role in shaping who we are and our attitudes; more specifically that our genetics give us the ability to go down a set of paths, and our environment guides us down a certain path.

    While looking for research to support my blog comment I remembered a part of your post when you asked, “How do I know that my younger daughter takes after me at all, and isn’t who she is because of how we labeled her at such a young age”, and came across an article that seemed to elaborate on this thought. The basis of a study done with twins who were separated into two different families came to the conclusion that, “Environmental influences were more important than genetic influences” (Bouchard, Hur, 1996). The article goes on to say that the researches thought that there should be further research on how much of an impact family environment has on how a person develops (attitude, perception, personality). I point this out because you stated that “we labeled her”; her family (environment) guided her onto a certain path.

    Maybe perception and personality traits should defined more along the lines of determination, tenacity, or even defeatist instead of athletic, artistic or intellectual. Your daughter may have excelled in anything that you presented her with (art, music, another sport) because she was born with a genotype, the genetic make-up of a person, that gave her the personality and the perception (determination) to excel. You as her parent (environmental factor) helped shape her phenotype, a person’s observable characteristics, into a talented gymnast.

    Bouchard Jr. Thomas J, Yoon-Mi Hur. “Genetic influences on perceptions of childhood family environment: A reared apart twin study.” Vol. 66 Issue 2, p330-345. April 1995.

  4. jmr6242

    In considering your post, I thought for a bit about the similarities that seem to genetically co-exist between my brother and I and our progenitors, from parents, to grandparents, to ancestral figures. When I really thought about it, the idea seemed appealing, even exciting, as the way I viewed the world seemed more and more to correlate with the way I knew other members of my family tree viewed the world. And yet, I found myself going back to one of the most basic tenets of scientific study:

    Correlation does not prove causation.

    This took me a bit deeper down the proverbial rabbit hole. I did some digging on whether or not traits, if not overall styles of perception, have been proven to exist on a genetic ‘hand-me-down’ scale. What I found was a bit surprising.

    In a study performed by the Laboratory of Clinical Science, part of the National Institute of Mental Health, located in Bethesda, MD, the researchers concluded that “twin and adoption studies suggest that 30 to 60% of the variance in many personality traits is due to inherited factors. However, there is little knowledge of the number or identity of the responsible genes, how they differ between individuals, or how their gene products interact with the developing brain and with environmental and experiential factors to generate the complex blend of attitudes and actions that comprise human temperament” (Benjamin, Li, Patterson, Greenberg, Murphy, Hamer, 1996).

    Implied in the excerpt from the report is that while we don’t know exactly which genes or outside factors are precisely involved, a good portion of personality traits are indeed inherited. The study goes on to determine, through use of an earlier study of long alleles of polymorphic exon III repeat sequences and the relation to dopamine triggers, that there are in fact cognitive traits that can be attributed to inherited physiological factors (Epstein, et al., 1996).

    In short, it’s not really feasible to say (scientifically) whether or not your daughter’s penchant for gymnastics is caused by genetic hand-me-downs, but there’s a good possibility that it is in fact the case. In the study of traits and perception being passed on, the study cited above is certainly promising science on that topic.

    Works Cited
    Benjamin, Li, Patterson, Greenberg, Murphy, Hamer. (1996.) Population and familial association between the D4 dopamine receptor gene and measures of Novelty Seeking. Retrieved from

    Epstein, R.R. et al. (1996). Dopamine D4 receptor (D4DR) exon III polymorphism associated with the human personality trait of Novelty Seeking. 1996.

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