Nature or Nurture?

For a rather interesting perspective on the nature/nurture debate this month, check out the episode of radio 4’s all in the mind first broadcast on 26th April (Find it here , also available on the All in the Mind podcast). 
 
The first article on the programme features Professor James Fallon, professor of psychiatry and human behaviour at the University of California, Irvine. Amongst Professor Fallon’s many research interests is the imaging of the human brain and he recounts how a decision to review brain scans from his close family led to a very unexpected discover. At the time he had been involved in research looking at PET scans matching behavioural patterns and emotional reactions of a very unusual group of individuals – psychopathic killers – with the activity in their brains. This research had demonstrated clear patterns in the activation in the brains of the killers – patterns which could be linked to the various deficits they demonstrated in areas such as empathy, communication and the experience of emotions. These patterns were so powerful that it was possible to predict which scans were from people who were killers, and which were from other groups – normal controls or individuals with other severe mental health problems. 
 
What followed was the result of a chance situation - Professor Fallon was involved in a study looking into Alzheimer’s disease and volunteered his family as ‘normal’ (ie not suffering from Alzheimer’s) subjects – something which involved them all having a brain scan. “The problem is,” Professor Falcon reports in the programme, “One of the PET scans looked very very abnormal – it looked exactly like those scans I had just been going through.” He continues, “It was very strange because I had just finished looking at all these psychopathic killers brains and it turned out my PET scan looked exactly like the people I had been studying – the psychopathic killers.”
 
Now, obviously a PET scan alone cannot tell you that you definitely have features like these – this pattern of activation would also be consistent with other kinds of personality. However, in conversations with his family, alarming facts came to light – there were people in the family history who had indeed been killers. So, looking at a family history of violent killers, and a brain scan showing a pattern of activation which would correspond with a psychopathic personality, professor Falcon decided to look into things more – with further genetic tests. Other members of the family had balance in their genes – where there were high risk genes (for example for aggression) they were balanced with lower risk variants. Not in professor Falcon’s case – he demonstrated high risk genes for a whole variety of concerning aggressive behaviours. 
 
So – here was an individual who had the brain activation of a psychopathic killer, genetic background which seemed to predict violent behaviour, and a family history of killers – things were not looking good! But of course professor Falcon isn’t a psychopathic killer! His discussion following on from this is remarkable, as he considers the aspects of his own upbringing which he feels must have protected him from the potential weaknesses of his make-up – transforming his natural tendency and teaching him a more appropriate way of responding to the world.   
 
This story really grabbed my interest. Firstly, it throws a really interesting perspective into the nature vs nurture debate, showing – apparently – the clear effect that upbringing can have to moderate genetic patterns in personality and behaviour. In the programme Professor Falcon admits that this experience has totally transformed his own attitudes to the impact of genetic make-up – taking him from a position where he believed nature (that is the way you were born) was much more influential than nurture to a place where he has had to admit the very significant role nurture has on people. This has got to get you thinking about the way God designed the human brain and just how much chance we might have to see transformation in the way we respond to the world. Maybe not so much of who we are is genetically ‘set’ as some scientists have thought. This is going to be very significant for some people, who might feel 'doomed' by their genetics - by patterns of behabiour in their families or by reports about genetic patterns of inheritance for certain mental and emotional health illnesses.  It seems that we are not as controlled by our genes as some people have thought - at least in the area of emotional health.  There is always room for hope. 
 
Secondly, to me this whole story and the way that Professor Falcon shares it is a powerful example of the power that love, and parenting can have on an individual. We’re already aware of, and hear a lot about, the powerful negative impact that poor or neglectful parenting can have on children – but how much do we realise the positive impact our parenting can have on children – literally shaping the people they are becoming. ‘Love never fails’ says 1 Corinthians 13:8 – yet for some of us our experience of being parented may have lacked that kind of love and attention. I for one rejoice in the fact that even as adults, we can experience and grow through the love of a Father who never forsakes us, and always loves us (Deut 31:6, quoted in Heb 13 5). It’s a new perspective on the much quoted verse ‘be transformed by the renewing of your mind’ – that some of that might come from the experience of living life with that Fatherly love and guidance so many of us may have missed out on as children. I certainly pray that for some of the people I support, struggling to review the who they are after difficult, neglectful and abusive backgrounds. 

Finally though, I was just really impressed by this account. Professor Fallon is admirable in his honesty, and his willingness to share not just what must have been a rather disturbing experience in his life, but also such an open perspective on his own character and personality. His acceptance of himself and his limitations is inspiring, and for me as someone who always finds it hard to deal with any kind of weakness or ‘failing’ I might perceive within myself, hearing him talking so openly was really inspiring. “I’m generally considered a nice guy,” he reports, “but there are some deep flaws.” That’s probably a description most of us could identify with.

Kate Middleton, 07/05/2011