Exploring the Mutability of Human Nature

A new interdisciplinary research team is involved in the development of fundamental theories about the nature of behavioral systems that structure and guide adaptive behavior.

On a moonless, starlit night, Kate and Ashley walk across campus, hearing only there own footfalls. Deep inside their brains, in the temporal lobes, small networks of cells continuously evaluate information from their senses. The cell networks are part of an ancient adaptive system that constantly – and unconsciously – evaluates the threat level.

As Kate walks, the cells in her network evaluate the walk as being safe. Consciously, she thinks of her friendship with Ashley and feels reassured by the quiet companionship.

As Ashley walks, the darkness, the isolation of the pair, the novelty of the route, are being evaluated—and her cell networks arrive at a different answer—there is a rising threat level. The cell groups in Ashley’s temporal lobes send chemical signals to different brain cells to an area called the hypothalamus. Ashley’s heart begins to race, her breathing quickens, and the pupils in her eyes become dilated. More cells of Ashley’s hypothalamus get in the act—like stranded islanders floating messages in bottles, her cells drop chemical messages into blood vessels that supply her pituitary gland. A chain of events has begun that will lead to the release of cortisol, the stress hormone. Virtually every cell in Ashley’s body could be affected by the cortisol.

Why are Kate and Ashley so different? Why did they not react the same way to the same stimuli? These are questions that occupy The University of Tulsa’s Institute for the Biochemical and Psychological Study of Individual Differences.

All Institute scholars have actively collaborated in the theory-guided selection of targeted signal systems. TU Psychology Professors Allan Harkness and John McNulty are experts in the measurement of the stable properties of human adaptive systems. They developed the Personality Psychopathology Five measurement system that is used by the revised version of the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI-2). The MMPI-2 is the most widely used clinical assessment system for personality and psychopathology. Biochemistry Professors Bill Potter and Robert Sheaff have developed analyses of biochemical signaling systems using minimally invasive sampling. Consistent with the interdisciplinary spirit of the Institute, Dr. Sheaff recently was awarded a grant by Merck/AAAS to enhance science education and collaboration in biology, chemistry, psychology, and other related fields.

The Institute collects saliva and finger prick blood samples before and after students watch a horror move and collects genetic samples. The horror movie frightens some and does not bother others. Biochemisty and psychology gradate students use this data to advance our understanding of how the Kates and Ashleys of this world differ. How do their genes differ? How do the systems that control the expression of these genes differ? How do the receptors of biochemical signals differ? What are the stable, measurable properties of their major adaptive systems, and how do those properties link with measurable biochemical signal properties?

Institute members are involved in the exciting development of fundamental theories about the nature of the behavioral systems that structure and guide adaptive behavior. The Institute creates exciting opportunities for scholars to stretch across disciplinary boundaries to address some of the deepest questions of human nature.