Why Nature Vs. Nurture is a False Dichotomy
Nature vs Nurture
The age-old question, nature vs nurture, is really a misguided question. It’s misguided because it implies that nature and nurture represent a stark dichotomy.
On one side of the nature vs nurture debate, there are those who believe that personality, mental illness, addiction, and so on, are dictated by genetics, biology, and neurological functioning.
I’m sure you’ve met people who draw conclusions such as: he got that from his father’s side, she was born depressed, it’s in his blood. What do people actually mean by these statements? Most people are probably not thinking about these comments’ deeper implications, but their underlying theory and philosophy is that the human brain and mind is primarily dictated by biology, neurology, and genetics.
One is born predestined to be a certain way.
On the other side of the nature vs nurture debate, there are those who believe that people are mostly products of their environment. Regardless of a person’s genetic endowment, they say, a person becomes who he or she is through interactions with parents, authority figures, etc.
Take somebody with almost no mental anguish and put him or her in a chaotic and stressful environment, and he or she will wind up having the same issues. This camp views psychology and social factors as primary.
The reality, though, is that nature and nurture do not exist as separate entities.
The Truth Behind Nature vs Nurture
The truth is that nature and nurture interact with each other with seamless reciprocity. Research has taught us that the environment actually shapes childhood neurodevelopment, moulding the brain as it grows and develops.
An extreme example of this is trauma.
Living through early adversity or abuse actually changes the physical brain to be hypersensitive to future stress, which often leads a victim of abuse to respond excessively to even minor stressors.
This relationship exists even without extreme adversity. The brain contains lower, more primitive areas (called the limbic system) that generate strong negative emotions when under stress or threat, and higher areas, particularly the prefrontal cortex, that process and modify these emotions.
There is a constant interaction between the more animalistic and raw emotional parts of the brain and the more intellectual and cognitive parts of the brain. The ability to process emotions and cope with distress develops in a complex interaction between the child and his or her parents and other caregivers over a period of many years.
The environment shapes and moulds the brain, leaving a biological imprint on its functioning, so much so that to speak about the brain in absence of its environment becomes nonsensical.
The reverse is also true. What happens when a biological wrench is thrown into what would be a normal psychological and social system? An individual who has overly intense emotions or impulses due to primarily biological causes will have to find a way to weave those factors into a coherent psychological structure and social environment.
A child with a genetic predisposition to react intensely to stress or threat, or who has an anxious temperament, may pose significant difficulties to his or her parents. For example, ADHD, which is thought to be a neurodevelopmental disorder, causes a biologically driven difficulty with attention and impulses. This biological deficit finds its way into psychological and social functioning, for instance if a young child with ADHD performs poorly in school and struggles with relationships due to inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.
These psychological and social difficulties can eventually lead to poor self-esteem and strained relationships, and in fact untreated ADHD has been shown to increase the risk for drug use, incarceration, and divorce.
While the bidirectional reciprocal relationship between nature and nurture makes the dichotomous “nature vs nurture” nonsensical, the problem actually runs deeper.
The Deeper Reality of Nature vs Nurture
There is really no difference between biology and psychology; the brain and the mind are the same thing. What that means is that the mind is actually a way to organize and describe high-level neurological functions. For instance, consider your relationship with your mother, father, or spouse.
There are parts of your brain that recognize the person and facilitate interpersonal relationships. Reflecting on your relationship with a loved one, rather than involving a few neurons or even a few thousand, involves millions or even billions of neurons in networks of neurons connected across the entire brain, all firing together in a particular pattern.
Psychology, which describes the mind, describes functions such as a concept of self, the internal image of a loved one, and the way in which these interact.
These functions, of course, are carried out by brain activity, but psychology provides a useful language to describe these functions in a way that neuroscience cannot.
Describing the millions or billions of neurons firing when you think about your father would not explain the phenomenon in any meaningful way. It would be like reducing a Beethoven symphony to millions of sound waves described mathematically.
Imagine somebody plopping a thick tome with millions of ones and zeros to describe a Beethoven symphony. While it may be true that a Beethoven symphony is composed of millions of sound waves, it’s not helpful to describe it that way. Nobody would be able to look at a list of sound waves and have any idea what they were looking at.
First of all, a Beethoven symphony is experienced on the level of audible music; the experience occurs on a level that is several orders of magnitude larger than an individual sound wave, and the experience simply cannot be reduced to its parts.
But more than that, when Beethoven created his music, he wrote it with this level of experience in mind. If the creative input of the system is on this higher level, then the impact of Beethoven’s creative intent can only be understood on that level. If he decided to balance a certain refrain between the violins and cellos in order to generate a certain emotional response in the listener, the observer combing over the tome of sound waves will have no idea why the arrangement is so.
What if he wrote the music a certain way to challenge established tradition? It is only the music connoisseur who can discern the intention and meaning behind the music, which, after all, is much of the point.
Psychology is a way to organize and describe neurological functioning in a way that is meaningful to our everyday experience.
We experience the world on the level of a sense of self, internal representations of others, ambitions, dreams, and relationships. All of these functions are performed with dizzyingly complex brain activity, and they could be described in terms of neural networks firing.
But I question whether that description would really mean anything.
If I gave you a million page document detailing every neuron’s firing pattern involved in your relationship with your spouse or mother, would that mean anything? In the same way that describing Beethoven on the level of sound waves misses the point because the reductive process misses the complexity and meaning of the music, describing human emotional life purely in terms of neuronal firing, though accurate, misses the complexity and meaning of human existence.
Perhaps more importantly, just as Beethoven’s creative input was on the level of heard music, childhood neurodevelopment of emotional and social functioning is shaped by input from the environment on the level of psychology.
If a child’s brain is influenced by the loving encouragement of a parent, as we know it is, this effect will be invisible in the tomb of neuronal firing.
The pattern of neuronal firing will be changed by a pattern of childhood abuse, but the reason for the change will be totally inexplicable from the list of cellular activity. In other words, if the patterns are changing because of a higher-level reason, we cannot understand the reason by looking only at the smaller level. Doing so would essentially doom us to miss the true nature and explanation of emotional life in a tomb of meaningless neurological data.
The Relationship Between Neurobiology and Psychology
Neurobiology and psychology are really the same thing; they’re just describing the brain’s function on very different levels.
Psychology provides a language to discuss the brain’s functioning in a way that is meaningful to us. More than that, it allows us to capture the higher-level inputs of psychological and social environmental influences that meaningfully change the brain during development.
When we talk about a “biological” cause of mental illness, what we really mean is a problem with the physical integrity of the brain tissue. There could be a chemical abnormality, like a neurotransmitter problem, a structural deficit, such as atrophy of a certain region, or damage to the connections between different regions, which can happen from inflammation or other causes. When we talk about psychological pathology, what we mean is that even if there are no physical problems with the brain tissue itself, the way in which it is patterned is maladaptive.
It’s for these reasons that the phrase, “Nature vs nurture?” is a contradiction of terms. The real question is, how do nature and nurture work together to produce human experience in health and illness. That question is much harder to answer, but that’s where the real understanding of mind, body, and human experience will come.
Thanks for reading,
Jason Dean, MD