Warning - getting rejected messes with your DNA cover image

Warning - getting rejected messes with your DNA

Dorian Minors • January 15, 2016

This is an archived article from our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology. The idea there was to take psychological scholarship and turn it into wisdom. The Armchair Collective tries to go a little further than just psychology. As such, these articles live here in archive form, until they're updated.

I bet you thought you know everything worth knowing about DNA. You were wrong. You see, DNA can change its mind about who you are.

The boring informational prelude

Deoxyribonucleic acid - it's not necessarily the 'building blocks' of life but is more like the instruction manual that tells your body how to build you. Groups of DNA are called genes, and each gene handles a different function. Like the commands in the code, a program reads to run software. But, like a lot of code designed to run big and complicated programs, our DNA has a lot of extraneous stuff in it. So much of it that useless DNA is sometimes referred to as 'junk DNA'. But not all that useless DNA is junk. Some of it is just switched off. Like, did you know we have a gene for a tail in our DNA?

. You ever leaned against a badly made wall? It's like that, but in your body. And yes, that's the best example I could think of.

Our bodies literally rebuild us in response to the world.

So some of our genes are 'off' and the ones that are 'on' get used to build us. We used to think that those genes that were off, stayed off. But a recent area of science has been created around the discovery that some genes seem to turn on and off due to changes in the environment - it's called epigenetics and it has powerful implications for our behaviour. You see, one of these environmental changes that can mess with our DNA is social rejection. It has been found that isolating experiences can actually switch on genes that change any new cells created after that experience. In fact, a lot of epigenetic research (usually on the effects of exercise) has found that it takes about six months for the new gene's functionality to have swept through the body. So, get rejected and six months later you're literally a new person. But, what kind of person?

Social exclusion makes us literally sick

Studies indicate that following an experience of social rejection, some of the genes involved in resisting viruses switch off (the scientific terminology is down-regulation) as soon as 40 minutes following the incident. Alongside that, some of the genes in charge of our inflammatory response (part of the wound healing process) 'turn on' (up-regulate). So we're more likely to be unable to resist things like colds and flus. And when our inflammatory system gets too excited, it can get confused and start attacking your own cells (thinking they're invaders). Obviously this isn't going to happen the next time someone refuses to go with you to the disco, but over time with a cumulative effect this becomes a problem (and more people than you realise are at risk of these cumulative effects).


I think it was Lance Armstrong who said "boos are much louder than cheers" (I bet he's been a bit overwhelmed lately) and it's certainly true that negativity tends to hold our attention better in general. But it's thought that this particular sort of response at such a basic biological level is a leftover evolutionary function. Preparations for what you might face if you were kicked out of the herd. Less resistance to viruses because you're no longer around other people - the main place viruses do business. Your body doesn't need to waste energy protecting you from your sickly comrades any more. Heightened inflammatory response because you're more likely to get eaten. Better wound healing response means you're more likely to survive an attack.

. I hear these guys just hang around at the edges of parties, waiting to eat up any skulking loners.

The crux - why should you care

Let's be honest. You know social rejection and isolation are bad juju for us. Especially if you've been at The Dirt for a while. But there's a deeper layer here that I want to explore. The idea that the need for social support is so fundamental to us, that it's genetic. That our social status is such a critical factor to our well-being, that is can alter us at the most basic level in response to perceived threats. Considering how young the study of epigenetics is, I wonder just how deep this particular rabbit hole goes.

I gave him my heart, and he took and pinched it to death; and flung it back to me. People feel with their hearts, Ellen, and since he has destroyed mine, I have not power to feel for him.” ― Isabella, regarding Heathcliff, Wuthering Heights

It's no wonder that so many people get anxious about social situations, with this kind of nonsense going on. Since this article started out as a bet, I'll go you double or nothing. I bet you don't know the difference between anger, hurt, and hate. Giving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and 'the good life' at The Dirt Psychology.

Turning scholarship into wisdom we can use at The Armchair Collective.

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Dorian Minors

I mostly do brain science. Sometimes I train honeybees. I promise they're related. I made this site because there's no reason why scholars should be the only ones to own knowledge. My special interests are interpersonal relationships, the science of community, spirituality and the brain, and the neural basis of complex behaviour. I hope this stuff is as interesting to you as it is to me. You can find out more about me here.