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Up-Regulation and Down-Regulation of the Expression of Human Behavioral Capacities

The Concept of Up-Regulation and Down-Regulation of Human Behavioral Capacities

In discussions of social philosophy and political economy, the terms “up-regulation” and “down-regulation” can be quite helpful. In such discussions these two terms may be used in the same way they are used in Medicine, where these terms refer to increased and decreased expression of gene function.

To review the medical concept of up-regulation and down-regulation: 

All human beings have a vast array of genes, each with a specific capacity to help us in some way. Since we do not need all of these genes to be actively helping us all of the time, genes spend much of their time in an inactive state (or less active state), during which they do not fully express their unique capacities. When needed, however, genes can become activated to more fully express their particular capability. This is referred to us “up-regulation” of the expression of that capacity.  When that gene expression is no longer needed, the expression is “down-regulated.” 

The human body functions by constantly up-regulating and down-regulating gene expression (different combinations of genes at different times), according to the body’s needs and according to what the human body is experiencing at the time, both internally and externally. 

In addition to genes that control mundane physiologic phenomena (by being appropriately up-regulated or down-regulated), there are genes that affect our emotions and behavior. For example, when a child is continually being traumatized, protective genes become up-regulated, resulting in the child becoming appropriately wary and guarded—both emotionally and physically prepared to meet the challenges of abuse. And, the neurocircuitry established by this chronic or frequent up-regulation tends to persist and become more and more habitual, in large part through practice.  That child becomes “conditioned,” with a constellation of protective genes constantly up-regulated.  When that same child spends considerable time in a warm, kind environment, expression of the protective genes become increasingly down-regulated and expression of genes that allow him/her to relax (emotionally and physically), trust and feel good are increasingly up-regulated, and the new neuro-circuitry established by this up-regulation tends to persist and become more habitual, largely through practice. A new sort of conditioning occurs.

In the same way, the natural capacities of human nature, both our capacities for kindness and our capacities for heartlessness, can be up-regulated or down-regulated; given frequent practice, or little practice—not just through our own actions, but through the influences of our social environment. The power of our social environment to up or down regulate our human capacities is typically under- appreciated, at least in the USA.

Unfortunately, the prevailing economic model, globally, (i.e. capitalism) inherently up-regulates expression of behaviors at the selfish/callous end of the behavioral spectrum and down-regulates expression of our more altruistic capacities. In fact, capitalism promotes, requires, rewards, and gives practice to our more selfish behaviors, while discouraging and even punishing our more altruistic capacities.

In my view, the most important freedom is the freedom to enjoy widespread up-regulated expression of the human capacity for kindness—up-regulation both in oneself and in the larger society, working synergistically, in harmony.  This freedom can be experienced during participation in social activities that are devoted to looking after others—in children’s hospitals, e.g.

And the greatest oppression occurs when one lives in a society whose economic and social behaviors are dominated by up-regulated expression of human heartlessness and down-regulated expression of human kindness.

Throughout the history of the USA the financially and politically powerful have gone to great lengths to deny the above important freedom, not only in the USA, but in dozens of other countries—resorting to regime changes, support for pro-American/pro-capitalist dictators, and wars that have killed, maimed, or displaced millions of people. Not only has the USA denied this basic freedom, it has insisted on its opposite—an economic and social model that up-regulates heartlessness and oppression. This can be changed.