Personality; Nature versus Nurture

Recently I found myself in the living room with my son, watching MTV. Dr. Drew was talking to a caller on the show Loveline. She had a history of drug and alcohol abuse, and because it runs in her family, Dr. Drew was telling her she will need to pay attention to this problem. I turned to my son, and told him that he may also have difficulty with substance abuse, because both his grandfathers were alcoholic. He looked me square in the eye and said,

“Thanks a lot”.

“Thanks a lot”.

“Thanks a lot”.

The words resonated in my head. What kind of legacy have I unwittingly passed on to this child, and what can I do about it now?

When Bob and I made the decision to become parents, we naively thought that we would be in total control of how our children grew into adults. We subscribed to the notion that NATURE would have only a limited influence, and ultimately we would have the final word in the end result by the character of our NURTURE.

I know better now.

The cutting edge of research in the late 1990’s points squarely to the fact that not only are characteristics such as eye color, height and intelligence set at birth, but also temperamental properties such as shyness, addictive tendencies, anxiety, depression and a whole host of emotional conditions that were previously thought to be acquired and not inherited. Dr. Candace Pert, in her ground breaking book, Molecules of Emotion, explains that chemicals in our bodies form the basis of our emotions.

Here’s an example. I met my friend Pam just hours after she was born, and I noticed a rather unusual characteristic for a newborn. She had a furrowed brow. This baby was worried. Now how did that happen? Obviously this wasn’t due to her environment, she wasn’t old enough to have something to worry about. No, Pam was born with an anxious temperament, and her environment did little to create it. Dr. Pert would explain that she had an overproduction of stress related chemicals such as adrenaline, and would feel less anxious if her body could produce more of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid. Holy Cow!)

Brain chemistry explains a lot. For example, it seems that depression is associated with diminished activity of the neurotransmitters norepinephrine and serotonin. And I bet chemical analysis would show lots of serotonin in the bodies of carefree, easy going people. So what about the girl on MTV? Could she be inheriting chemistry that steers her toward drug addiction?

It would stand to reason that if I was inheriting my mothers’ blue eyes, I might also inherit her brain chemistry, and in turn pass it along to my children. So, as much as we may hope to raise happy children, when we have a history of depression, or brave children, when we have a history of anxiety, we may be disappointed. Strict biological psychologists believe that children are a preprogrammed mass of genetics and chemicals, and the way they are nurtured has little effect on their outcome. I disagree.

I will admit that Bob and I have less influence on our children than I had once hoped, but we can still have an impact, and possibly even a vital one. The most important thing that we can do as parents is to accept our children, and if their brain chemistry is causing them distress, perhaps we can help them find an antidote.

That means if a child is predisposed to anxiety, like Pam, I might think twice about telling her not to be afraid. I help her plan for new situations and I am patient with her process of acclimating slowly.

If a child is prone to angry outbursts, I help her find ways to release her anger that don’t hurt other people, like punching a punching bag, or going for a walk.

Or, if someone is experimenting with drinking and drugs to give their chemistry a boost, I might need to redirect the activity, and help them find an abstinence program.

As you can see, the list of emotions and behaviors that are effected by our chemistry is endless, but so is the list of possible remedies. Like Robert Bridges said,

“Man masters nature not by force, but by understanding”.