A chasm is developing between genetic research and the exploration of behavioral and social influences on health, warns the National Institutes of Health's leading voice for behavioral and social science research.
One of the worst consequences of the divide between biology and behavioral sciences is a widespread assumption that health problems viewed as having a biological origin require biological interventions and those viewed as having a psychological origin require psychological interventions, according to Gregory A. Miller, PhD, of the University of Illinois, editor of the journal, Psychophysiology.
Norman B. Anderson, PhD, director of the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (OBSSR) at NIH, writing in the January issue of the journal with co-author Paul A. Scott, warns that this conceptual divide is widening as molecular biologists discover genetic roles in more illnesses - cancer, Alzheimer's, lupus, sclerosis, HIV susceptibility, and others - that appear to promise ever more important biological breakthroughs and wonder therapies.
"Discoveries in molecular biology," Anderson writes, "often lead, either implicitly or explicitly, to more reductionist explanations for health and behavior, with the accompanying unidirectional views of causation (i.e., `upward' from genes to physiology and behavior). This type of thinking necessarily leads to a conceptual divide or a chasm between molecular biology and fields concerned with behavioral and social influences on health."
Compounding the problem, he says, is that scientists on either side of the chasm speak different languages, so much so that sometimes the same words mean different things to biomedical and behavioral researchers. He cites "prevention," which to a behaviorist means changes in diet, exercise and smoking to forestall poor health outcomes but to many biomedical scientists might mean chemical agents used to accomplish the same thing. Similarly, "environmental influences" mean either social and physical surroundings to behavioral scientist but to many biologists they are molecular-level events that occur immediately outside the nucleus of a cell.
To bridge the chasm, he says, "we need a new way of talking about and conceptualizing health research," one that incorporates multiple levels of research.
"The interpretation of findings from single-level research might benefit from the consideration of relevant factors from other levels," Anderson writes.
Such an integrated, multilevel approach involves two types of processes, he says, one that uses the findings from one level of analysis "to inform, refine, and constrain inferences from observations at another level," and a second that "involves the simultaneous study of a phenomenon across levels of analysis to foster a more comprehensive understanding."
The article was adapted from Anderson's address to the 37th annual meeting of the Society for Psychophysiological Research in October 1997.
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