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 had a worried personality. Now how did that happen?
In Psychology over the years there have been many explanations for personality, but they all seem to fall into two camps, Nature and Nurture. The definitions are obvious. The Nature set of theories contends that our personalities are a function of our biology, and the Nurture set of theories contends that personality is a function of how we are raised. We have been living in an era dominated by the environmental theories, but the paradigm is shifting.
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, anxiety, depression and a whole host of emotional conditions that were previously thought to be acquired and not inherited. Dr. Candace Pert, in her groundbreaking book, Molecules of Emotion, explains that chemicals in our bodies form the basis of our emotions.
So what about my friend Pam, and her furrowed brow? 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 GAB (gamma-amino butyric 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, easygoing people.
It stands to reason that if I inherit 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 will admit that as parents we 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, and instead help her plan for new situations. First we visualize the new event, and then we will try to go beforehand to check out the actual physical location. Both of these strategies help her prepare, and the preparation reduces anxiety. I want to be patient with her process of acclimating slowly. Someone like Pam is never going to be a Jim Carey, she may always be thoughtful and cautious.
Conversely, if a child is prone to angry outbursts, I want to help her find ways to release her anger that don’t hurt other people, like punching a punching bag, or going for a walk. Telling this type of child to calm down, is simply asking for the impossible, her chemistry may not let that happen. Ideally her energy will be redirected, not shamed.
As you can see, the list of emotions and behaviors that are affected 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”