Mental health, emotional wellbeing & personal development

Nature versus nurture

Nature versus nurture

Have you ever wondered what it is that makes you who you are? Why do you like pizza but not ice cream? What makes you heterosexual or bisexual? Who you are is down to your genetic make up (nature) as well as your upbringing (nurture).

The stress response system is set up as a young infant by the quality of care we receive from our primary caregiver (Nurture). If the care we receive is neglectful or inconsistent, this changes the way the brain develops and affects the way the neural pathways form in the brain. Unhappy childhood relationships often lead to unhappy, more challenging adult relationships.

In the strange situation experiment, a baby was placed in room with some toys, after a while the parent leaves. The baby understandably gets upset. Next, a stranger comes in and tries to provide comfort. Usually the stranger cannot provide this comfort – baby wants mom. The parent comes back.

What happens next is interesting and identifies the type of relationship the baby has with its mother – is it secure, anxious ambivalent or anxious avidant? How the baby responds to stress and how the parent is able to help baby regulate that stress has a huge emotional impact on the  baby’s emotional development.. Most of the time, the parent can soothe their baby.

When the relationship isn’t secure – it seems as if the baby is a “hot potato” – the mother (or father) picks up the baby, then puts it down – ambivalent. There is not enough love and comfort to soother the baby and the baby has to learn to soothe itself. This is not good for an infant. It leaves them with a sense of emptiness. The study followed 60 families over 30 years. Babies who had trouble calming down were more likely to grow up with behavioural problems and be hostile and  aggressive.

As adults – this same group are 2 x more likely to be  anti social or suicidal. It’s not just the mother relationship that is important, others count too. Sometimes if one parent is loving and responsive this can make up for the lack in the other parent. There could also be a grandparent or older sibling who could provide the care and stability to limit the emotional damage. An infant’s brain can be altered by stress. The growing  brain is extremely sensitive to threatening situations.

Think about the teenage years – a very sensitive time with rapid transition. (Martin Teicher – Harvard Medical school).

There are more brain change in teens than in the rest of your life, therefore, teens are more prone to anxiety, depression and anti social behaviour.

The pre frontal cortex is responsible for higher level thinking and this can be stunted by stress, making it even harder for teens to control their emotions.

The Stroop test – depressed or suicidal people are not as good at it. Is it possibly because their brains wired differently? Fixed on suicidal thoughts? (Steven Pinker – Harvard Medical School).

Psychologists are continually studying the effects of emotional neglect/damage in early childhood and the more they uncover, the more it is proven that the developing brain is damaged during stress leading to entrenched dysfunctional thinking in adulthood.

Nurture is hugely important although some people cope better with the stress due to their biological make up.

Mandy X



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