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Don't believe the media hype: neuroscience has surprisingly little to say about personality

Posted on 18 Jan | 0 comments
Image by Filosofias filosoficas (Creative Commons License)
Image by Filosofias filosoficas (Creative Commons License)

A lot of people are talking, once again, about the impact of childhood trauma. According to a recent post in Psychology Today’s blog, letting your infant child cry can scar them … mentally and physically … for the rest of their lives.

Notre Dame psychology professor Darcia Narvaez writes:

“With neuroscience, we can confirm what our ancestors took for granted---that letting babies get distressed is a practice that can damage children and their relational capacities in many ways for the long term. We know now that leaving babies to cry is a good way to make a less intelligent, less healthy but more anxious, uncooperative and alienated person who can pass the same or worse traits on to the next generation.”

The notion that what happens to you at a very early age will define who you are for the rest of your life is the kind of snack the media can’t eat just once. When the American Academy of Pediatrics this month issued a policy statement (PDF) on pediatricians' roles in combatting  toxic stress in children, New York Times op-ed writer Nicholas Kristof noted in response that “The crucial period seems to be from conception through early childhood. After that, the brain is less pliable and has trouble being remolded."

So, we are who we were in childhood, got it?

Yes, except that we never outgrow high school.

Last year Newsweek reported that studies - based on MRI scans - concluded that teenage brains are in a crucial developmental phase, and what happens to you as a teenager will in large part determine the rest of your life.

“This emerging research,” wrote Russ Juskalian, “sheds light not only on why teenagers act the way they do, but how the experiences of adolescence—from rejection to binge drinking—can affect who we become as adults, how we handle stress, and the way we bond with others.”

So, to be clear, your early childhood years are the crucial ones that impact who you are for the rest of your life, until you’re a teenager, when those crucial years impact who you are for the rest of your life.

Until you get older, whereupon there’s research telling us that the brains of people in middle age are still developing and that middle aged people can change their lives and develop in wholly new ways.

And – let’s not forget – the research showing that the brains of senior citizens are still developing and that seniors can change fundamentally ... affecting who they are for the rest of their lives.

So ... if I get the research right ... the years when you are a child, an adolescent, an adult, and a senior are all crucial developmental phases that explain who you are for the rest of your life. Is that it?

This is what happens when science gets overexcited by new approaches – and the media thinks there’s blood in the water.

We didn’t really need brain scans to tell us that the things that happen to you in infancy … or adolescence … or any time … can have a lasting impact. It’s absurd to think that infants aren't affected by the way they’re given care, just as it’s crazy to think senior citizens aren't affected by the way they're given care.  Both can have life changing experiences.

But some people don’t believe the obvious unless it has the words “neuro” in front of it.

If you don’t believe anything about personality unless you have quantifiable data in front of you then you absolutely need this kind of research, but your understanding of human beings is all the poorer for it.

Human beings, and human personality, exist in a constant present: things are happening to us now, and we must react, and even make choices. It is our lot in life, as Sartre said, to be “condemned to freedom.” Observers of the human condition – like humanistic psychologists – have always understood that this applies to every step of life. Young children make choices, adolescents make choices, adults make choices, senior citizens make choices, and our lives and personalities follow suit. We are the sum of these choices, even as we make new ones. We are constantly changing, but also the same people we were before.

It doesn’t lessen the idea that childhood trauma is bad to point out how absurd it is to think that only children develop personalities. Trauma at any time is, by definition, traumatic.  Soldiers get PTSD that impacts the rest of their lives in spite of the fact that they're not infants.  Loosing a spouse is traumatic at any age.  Losing a child changes one's life.  These things have real psychological and physical consequences for the health of the traumatized, no matter how old.  Reducing childhood trauma is a good thing because reducing trauma is a good thing, not because that's the special time when personality happens.

We are all developing our personalities all the time. It never stops.

It’s important to realize that if you want to study personality you have to doing it by dealing with actual people and not just their brains. There’s a reason much of the recent brain research can be filed under “things we’ve known for thousands of years but science has just ‘proven’” – and that is that you can’t study the mind just by looking at the brain. The mind may only be observable phenomenologically, but those who study it that way know it best.

A humanistic approach to personality, one that takes the human condition and existential choice into account, doesn’t use brain scans – and it fits the facts better.

-- Benjamin Wachs

Read other posts by Benjamin Wachs

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