Psych 601: Nature and Nurture of Mental Illness

Course Type: Undergraduate capstone (senior-level)
Instructor: Professor James Li
Requisites: Psych 225 and Psych 285
Course Credits: 3 credits
Normally Taught: Every other spring semester

Course Summary: The question of nature versus nurture has been debated for centuries and has often ignited heated debates and controversies. Today, the issue is no longer a question of nature versus nurture (nearly all experts agree that both are important) but has shifted to: how does nature interact with nurture? For instance, how do your genes affect the way you respond to stressful life events? If a disorder is highly heritable, what can we do to prevent its course for happening? Answers to these questions will have profound implications on public policies and mental health treatments down the line. In this capstone course, you will learn about how genes and environments interact to make us who we are. We will follow the journey of Elyse Schein and Paula Bernstein, genetically identical twins who were separated at birth and only met for the first time as adults. Paula and Elyse’s stories will illustrate the importance that both genes and environments play in making identical twins similar in many ways, but also very different in a lot of other ways. You will be exposed to perspectives and methods from across disciplines, including philosophy, sociology, epidemiology, medicine, and psychology, to learn about how modern advances in genetics have led to a promising future for mental health, but one that is also fraught with ethical dilemmas and potentially perilous repercussions.

Learning Outcomes:

  1. Understand important concepts in behavioral and molecular genetics, including terminology, classical and modern methods and major theories as they pertain to the study of nature-nurture in mental disorders.
  2. Analyze and critique current perspectives and empirical research on gene-environment interplay in mental disorders.
  3. Apply theories and concepts from the study of gene-environment interplay to address gaps in the field, develop clinical interventions, and pose new scientific questions.

Course Format: This capstone class is designed to be active learning based, such that student participation will be central to the learning. Each week typically covers a major theme around behavioral genetics, with lectures comprising roughly 50% of the time and discussion and activities comprising the other 50%. Empirical research articles and popular media sources (including recent news articles, podcasts, documentaries, and movies) will be used throughout the semester to highlight the multitude of ways in which behavioral genetics influences our society in very direct ways, beyond what you read in a textbook. Group assignments and activities will form the backbone for learning complex material concepts for each week. The goal of group discussions and activities is to apply the knowledge gained from the readings and lecture and to use that information for problem-solving, posing new hypotheses, and interpreting experimental results. Importantly, discussions are not meant to be review sessions of lecture material. Students will be expected to critically evaluate research articles and engage in scholarly discussion with their peers.