Lindsay Lohan has been in the news recently (isn’t she always in the news?) for allegedly stealing a necklace from a jewelry store. Since news about her keeps popping up on my radar, I started thinking that her life provides an important lens with which to examine a variety of scientific topics.
Therefore I decided to write about how Lindsay Lohan’s escapades relate to scientific findings in neuroscience and addiction. It’s important to remember that I’m not an expert and this isn’t the last word on Lindsay Lohan’s brain. The papers linked in this post don’t represent a complete literature review. There are still plenty of uncertainties surrounding these research topics. I’m sure this material will provide plenty of resources for both her detractors and supporters.
Genes are incredibly important to our knowledge of human life. Even though the major promises of the Human Genome Project have yet to be fulfilled, as Craig Venter makes clear in this interview, genetics is still an exciting field with plenty of promise for mapping the human condition. Even without sophisticated diagnostic equipment, it’s easy to see heredity in action. When examining a baby, many people have said something along the lines of “He has his father’s eyes!”
Since physical characteristics are heritable, it makes sense that behavior would also have heritable properties. The phenomenon of assortative mating strengthens this association even more. Studies of families display assortative mating in action. This is the tendency for people with similar personality characteristics to have children with each other. People with depression mate with other depressed individuals; people with bipolar disorder mate with others who have bipolar tendencies. Studies of identical twins like the Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart have found twins separated at birth and raised separately sometimes have very similar preferences and behaviors.
The exciting field of personality genetics explores the genes and SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms) associated with personality characteristics. Lindsay Lohan’s parents, Michael and Dina Lohan, display impulsive and exhibitionistic traits. It’s interesting to think about the effect these genes had on their daughter Lindsay.
Some recent papers describe the association between genes and impulsiveness in human subjects, leading to these findings:
• Gene polymorphisms are associated with impulsiveness. (PMID: 20431430)
• Polymorphisms of the HTRA1 gene are involved in impulsivity. (PMID: 19725031)
• Personality disorders are somewhat heritable. (PMID: 20373672)
• Genetic variability in the dopamine receptor D2 is linked to impulsivity. (PMID: 19968402)
Neuroanatomy and Neurochemistry:
Neurobiology is hugely important to understanding human life. Everything that happens in human life is connected to the brain. Many people like to think they’re totally in control of their lives and behaviors, but many thoughts are bubbling beneath the surface of conscious awareness. In an essay in his book Monkeyluv, professor Robert Sapolsky describes the brain making excuses for emotions and autonomic bodily responses after the fact.
The prefrontal cortex is incredibly significant when it comes to making decisions. People with PFC damage can have problems with violence and impulsive behavior. Alcohol use disorders can reduce the volume of the prefrontal cortex, especially in adolescent girls. High profile cases of crime and depression in professional football players demonstrate the importance of keeping the brain in a healthy state.
Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that usually gets implicated when discussing impulsive behavior. People with elevated levels of dopamine as a result of heredity or drug use are more prone to acting out. Medications that increase dopamine in the brain can lead to addictive behaviors. People taking dopamine agonists for Parkinson’s disease can get addicted to gambling, sex, food, and alcohol.
• The ventrolateral prefrontal cortex is involved in inhibiting impulsivity. (PMID: 20542670)
• The dopamine network is involved in impulsiveness. (PMID: 20671181)
In Harvard professor Michael Sandel’s class on ethics (videos of the class were aired on PBS a couple years ago), he shows that 80% of students in the class are firstborn children. The same pattern tends to repeat each year, with the explanation being that firstborn children tend to be high achievers. Birth order is still a controversial topic. One interesting book on the subject is Born to Rebel by Dr. Frank Sulloway.
Lindsay Lohan is a firstborn and has three younger siblings. She became a child model at age three. Did her firstborn status increase the amount of time and energy her parents decided to invest in her? My take on birth order is that it may be useful in some cases, but it’s far less accurate than neuroanatomy and neurochemistry for determining personality. One study failed to find evidence between birth order and personality.
Like other high-profile celebrities, Lohan has had highly publicized experiences with drug use and alcohol addiction. The research of Dr. Nora Volkow is very helpful when it comes to understanding the neurobiology of addiction. Dr. Volkow is director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Ideas like “willpower” and “free will” are imprecise terms. It’s much more helpful to examine the brains of people who struggle with addiction.
Rapid detox centers exist for treating opiate addiction and are described in this excellent Wired Magazine article:
There are also medications to help reduce alcohol dependence, but scientists are still searching for more effective treatments. Supplements like B vitamins, L-glutamine, chromium, and magnesium can also be helpful in reducing alcohol cravings. An article from Discover Magazine also describes some promising areas of research in using psychedelics to treat addiction.
Like other starlets, Lindsay Lohan has had a string of boyfriends. Her personal life is much more nuanced than other Hollywood stars. She received plenty of attention for her relationship with another woman – Samantha Ronson. It’s important to emphasize that this isn’t just a case of feigning bisexual traits for popularity. Many women, even those who identify as heterosexual, speak of themselves as being attracted to specific people rather than certain genders.
This sexual flexibility among women is actually more common than people think. In experiments, most heterosexual men are only aroused by women, but many straight women are often aroused by people of both genders. The foremost authority on this subject is the professor Lisa Diamond.
Narcissism is a hot topic in psychology. Researchers like Dr. Jean Twenge claim rates of narcissism are rising among people of younger generations. This increase in narcissistic traits probably results from:
• The confusing alternation between intrusive and dismissive parenting styles
• Shocking media coverage and information overload that combine to reduce empathy
• Consumerism that encourages instant gratification
• Celebrity culture that worships fame and encourages everyone to be the hero of his or her own story
Other researchers disagree. The DSM-V committee is even contemplating the removal of narcissism from the newest diagnostic manual. However, there are neural correlates in narcissistic patients that involve deficiencies in processing emotion. Especially relevant to this post is a book by Dr. Drew Pinsky titled The Mirror Effect. He discovered clinical levels of narcissistic personality disorder among many celebrities.
The idea that people may not necessarily be completely responsible for their actions may start transforming the legal system in many ways. The law is struggling to incorporate scientific findings. If a person has damage to the orbitofrontal cortex from child abuse, is he or she responsible for violent outbursts? If an individual has a malfunctioning dopamine system, is he or she responsible for a lack of control? It’s important to protect society from people with malfunctioning brains, but it’s also important to make sure rehabilitation goes beyond putting them in jail and hoping they feel sorry for their actions.
The Law and Neuroscience Project is leading efforts to bring scientific findings about the brain into the legal system. The Initiative on Neuroscience and the Law at Baylor College of Medicine is another major project to improve issues relating to punishment and rehabilitation.
This post isn’t meant to attack Lindsay Lohan. No human being is completely perfect or totally irredeemable. If anything, researching this post has given me greater compassion for people with brain abnormalities, even celebrities. Lohan often receives news coverage for her DUIs and party lifestyle, but there’s another side to her. She also demonstrates altruistic behavior. Linday Lohan has given to charity, raised funds for Haiti relief, and fought against human trafficking. Even though she committed crimes, she also made efforts to help others.
The brain is involved in everything we do, and altruism is no different:
• Genes influence the ability to empathize with others. (PMID: 21289535)
• There is a neural basis for empathy and altruism. (PMID: 20302945)
• Social values have a neural basis. (PMID: 18502730)
• Cooperativeness has a neuroanatomical basis, especially in women. (PMID: 18234682)
• Giving to others leads to positive emotion. (PMID: 17569866)
• Fronto-mesolimbic networks are involved in making decisions about charitable giving. (PMID: 17030808)