Nature me not your Nurture

In my teens I became obsessed with what I was. I wanted to understand what made me me. If I could understand the pieces, where and how they fit, my personality would become my playground. Things would become governable, I’d be able to take the pieces that made me socially awkward and inept, move them around and, voila, dapper and charming. I’d craft myself to any and all situations, alleviating building pressure that would crush my comprehension of myself (strangely I thought I comprehended the world) and be an improved person. I would become a man of emotional and intellectual Lego, removing and adding pieces until I was better, stronger, faster – like Steve Austin, just on a budget.

So I would read little bits and bobs about brain function and so forth, write them down and slowly piece together the machine that was me. It’s safe to say that I was a devotee of the mechanistic universe, a cheerleader for Descartes, Bacon and the Scientific Method. A Lego cheerleader shaking nature’s breasts as pom-poms.

And for a while I thought I’d done it – figured myself out. I’m a Stabile Introvert, you see. Also an INTJ. And some other stuff. I knew which cups the peas were under, all I had to do was move them round fast enough to dazzle the crowd. Needless (I hope) to say, things have changed.

I often wonder what my younger self would make of me now. I’m pretty sure there would be the embarrassed shuffling of feet and furtive avoidance of eye contact. We’d probably have to talk about our hair and what happened to it just to save ourselves from Older Me ranting about interconnectivity, systems theory and the folly of believing the universe a controllable machine, requiring only sufficient understanding of the parts to reveal its secrets, something that would no doubt be followed by Younger Me calling me a chicken-shit hippy wannabe that can’t grasp the elegance of a rational, truthful and unforgiving cosmos. Something like that. The younger me would eventually ask, in a hushed and horrified voice, if I believed in God now. I’d probably say yes, just to fuck with him.

The change in my perception of such things came about through various shards of knowledge, more and more found pieces shaping those that came before them, leaving me hopelessly confused. Until, with great relief, I gave up my need for a mechanistic universe or, more to the point, mechanistic people (the latter obviating the argument for the former). Let me try to walk you through some of my headache:

Extraversion and introversion are commonly understood traits but there are physical causes for them that aren’t widely known. The extra/intro traits have been traced back to a group of brain cells in the brain stem called the ‘ascending reticular activating system’, these cells ultimately determine levels of arousal (activity you dirty bastards) in the cerebral cortex. Physiologically speaking, extroversion is linked to resting states of low cortical arousal and introversion is linked to resting states of high cortical arousal. So when at mental rest the extrovert’s intellect is in neutral while the introvert’s, in the same position, only gets as low as second gear.

The outward displays of being an extrovert or introvert come about because the cortex inhibits the lower centres of the brain, and when it (the cortex) isn’t aroused (extrovert) actions become dictated more by the impulses and desires of the lower centres of the brain. If the cortex is aroused (introvert) then those same impulses and desires don’t get through as often as they have to go through the active filter of the cortex. Extroversion = uninhibited, introversion = inhibited.

An excellent demonstration is the effect of alcohol on the two kinds of traits: Alcohol lowers cortical arousal, thus promoting excited and uninhibited behaviour – a drunk extrovert is usually just an amplified version of themselves but a drunk introvert will often behave very differently to their sober character.

It is important to point out that one’s natural cortical resting state, be it high or low, doesn’t dictate levels of intelligence in any way.

Now. Stabile and labile are less well known but just as concreted by empirical evidence. An individual’s brain can be dominated by either the sympathetic or parasympathetic branches of the autonomic nervous system, this is the area of the brain where thoughts and actions are initially processed.  The sympathetic branch (labile) responds to outside stimuli and alerts the organism (being the brain and body) to immediate action. If dominated by the sympathetic branch a person is excitable and tends to act quickly on hunches, best guesses and experience. Labiles can make pretty awesome sword fighters.

The parasympathetic branch (stabile) habituates the organism to stimulus and restores the body to balance very quickly, thus stabiles tend to be more placid and react very calmly and thoughtfully to events around them. The result of this is that in an emergency it’s safer to be standing next to a stabile but somewhat more exciting standing next to a labile.

It’s worth noting that while labile traits and extroversion along with stabile traits and introversion often come as a package deal, it isn’t a physically dictated relationship; that person you know who is charismatic, a natural leader and kicks arse in fights with ninjas yet remains cool, calm and considered under pressure will most likely be a stabile extrovert – that sort of person can sometimes be identified by the adoring crowds that follow them around throwing underwear.

Okay, as far as personality types that’s fine, there’s more in that area (sanguine, choleric, melancholic and phlegmatic) but that’s getting more general and into the area of effect rather than cause.

The cause and effect of brain and personality function is essentially the nature versus nurture debate, a debate I think is largely over-hyped by our blind obsession with binary relationships and dichotomies. In terms of the brain I think confusing the hardware and the software is where the problems start, something compounded by our cultural confusion over ‘civilized’ and ‘primitive’ behaviour and our quest to define ourselves as culturally and historically unique. The One or the Other! The universe must adhere to our determined dichotomization! (maybe dichotomization is more about an inherent cultural mechanism rather than a functioning universal or biological truth… Bob Loblaw).

That’s not to say that the hardware and software (nature vs. nurture) don’t interact and inform each other in hugely significant ways, that is kind of the point of their relationship. Habit formation is proof of that: by doing a thing or thinking a thought repetitively you burn a neural pathway, a pathway that once burnt is quite hard to reroute. The ability to form that pathway is the brain’s learning hardware (nature), but the formed pathway represents the cultural software (nurture).

It’s easy to see the hardware but questioning one’s software is ridiculously hard because it is, quite literally, the way we think (not how). We burn our pathways as children, when we’re learning junkies (nature) but as adults look at our hardware through the eyes of our software, deciding, obviously, that we were always meant to be this way, making ourselves fated beings, imagining that our brains are made up of memes and genes and that, thanks to evolution, what will come from us is nigh on unavoidable (a round of applause for Mister Dawkins!). It’s essentially the same process as believing that J.C. is going to pop up at some point in the near future and usher in Judgment Day; it’s all a matter of belief in principles and rules that use their internal architecture of reasoning as the standard of measure of all other beliefs. Nurture defining nature, at least in effect.

Biology isn’t fate, no matter what our software tells us. Biology is interactive and fun, like sex. But our software has become so self-obsessed that it now believes it is hardware (nature). Our software (nurture) is our culture informing us of it’s operating principles, its rules and dictates, and that culture is the medium we use to transmit our beliefs and practices down the timeline through our children’s children’s children, etc. (assuming our nurture hasn’t totally screwed with our sex lives, that is).

One of the obvious problems this dysfunctional relationship between our hardware and software is that we have become cultural supremacists, totally devoted to the premise that the way we live is the one right way to live (sure we can tweak it but generally we’ve pretty much got it nailed). No other way will be tolerated (for evidence of this see any and all colonial ventures in history). To make it confusing, look at it this way: our nurture is convinced it is our nature, (which is why we’re convinced memes & genes are the same thing) thus we deny that our culture is a made up thing. We make ourselves fated beings by defining ourselves as a natural force, something undeniable, something inexorable (and probably ineffable), a thing that we consequently don’t need to make excuses or apologies for. We have done for the biosphere what Ptolemy did for astronomy.

Brains, like the universe, construct stuff from found things. Stuff and Things. Tinkering with ideas and implications, a bricolage from the rummaged notions and manifestations of the surrounding world, is, in its totality, an uncontrollable process. If you accept the resulting mosaic as truth unbending and absolute you’re abdicating responsibility in the hopes of control. If you’re unwilling to question your parts as a bricoleur then all you end up building is a cage.

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3 responses to “Nature me not your Nurture

  1. Your musings are very interesting to me. I managed to get a psyc degree but totally fail to learn anything about how people actually work.

    If I were to go back to a younger self I think there would be a lot of yelling, shaking and general lecturing. How did I manage to be so self centred, lazy, hedonistic and generally aimless?

  2. I just want a big cage…one big enough for my ENFP self and any friends I have left after my massive ego has scared them off…

    • it’s not the cage you build but the pretty pictures you hang over the bars. and the toilet, one should never forget how important a toilet is.

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