I have heard it cynically said that “the best thing for a writer is a bad childhood.” But what accounts for the effects of early experience on later behavior? In an essay this month for Science, Greg Miller reviews the exciting and controversial field of behavioral epigenetics. Epigenetics is the study of molecular mechanisms that alter the activity of genes without changing their DNA sequence.
One of the central claims of the field is that environmental experience can shape genetic activity in the brain, with potentially lifelong effects. The work of pioneering researchers Michael Meaney and Moshe Szyf suggests that epigenetics could be responsible for something like a relationship between bad childhood and artistic expression, if one exists.