Temperament Is Not Destiny

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in Daniel Goleman’s book “Emotional Intelligence.” Goleman writes, “The clearest answer to this question comes from the work of Jerome Kagan, the eminent psychologist at Harvard University.” For those who do not want to continue reading this post, the answer is that temperament is most definitely not destiny. For those who want to understand why this is the case, please continue reading.

Kagan posits that there are at least four temperamental types—timid, bold, upbeat, and melancholy—and that each is due to a different pattern of brain activity. There are likely innumerable differences in patterns of brain activity, each based on innate differences in temperamental endowment, each based on innate differences in emotional circuitry; for any given emotion people can differ in how easily it triggers, how long it lasts, and how intense it becomes. Kagan’s work concentrates on the dimension of temperament that runs from boldness to timidity.

Mothers have been bringing their infants and toddlers to Kagan’s Laboratory for Child Development for decades. Kagan and his coresearchers noticed early signs of shyness in a group of twenty-one-month old toddlers brought in for experimental observations. In free play with other toddlers, some were bubbly and spontaneous, playing with other babies without the least hesitation. However, others were uncertain and hesitant, hanging back, clinging to their mothers, quietly watching the others at play. Almost four years later, when these same children were in kindergarten, Kagan’s group observed them again. Over the intervening years none of the outgoing children had become timid, while two thirds of the timid ones were still reticent.

Kagan believes that the difference between the timid and the bold lies in the excitability of a neural circuit centered in the amygdala. Kagan proposes that people who are prone to fearfulness are born with a neurochemistry that makes this circuit easily aroused, so they avoid the unfamiliar, shy away from uncertainty, and suffer anxiety. Those who have a nervous system calibrated with a much higher threshold for amygdala arousal, are less easily frightened, more naturally outgoing, and eager to explore new places and meet new people.

When young men and women who were quite shy in childhood are measured in a laboratory while exposed to stresses such as harsh smells, their heart rate stays elevated much longer than for their outgoing peers. This is a sign that surging norepinephrine is keeping their amygdala excited and, through connected neural circuits, their sympathetic nervous system aroused. Kagan found that timid children levels of reactivity across the range of sympathetic nervous system indices, from higher resting blood pressure and greater dilation of the pupils, to higher levels of norepinephrine markers in their urine.

Moving to the upbeat-melancholy continuum, some people’s emotions seem to gravitate toward the positive pole. These people are naturally upbeat and easygoing, while others are dour and melancholy. This dimension of temperament—ebullience at one end, melancholy at the other—seems linked to the relative activity of the right and left prefrontal areas. Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin, someone who has appeared in many previous healthymemory blog posts, discovered that people who have greater activity in the left frontal lobe compared to the right, are by temperament cheerful; they typically take delight in people and in what life presents them with.

The encouraging news from Kagan’s studies is that not all fearful infants grow up hanging back from life—temperament is not destiny, Kagan’s research team found that some of the mothers held to the philosophy that they should protect their timid toddlers from whatever was upsetting; others felt it was more important to help their children learn how to cope with these upsetting moments, and so adapt to life’s small struggles. The protective belief seems to have abetted fearfulness, probably by depriving the youngsters of opportunities for learning how to overcome their fears: The “learn to adapt” philosophy of childrearing seems to have helped fearful children become braver.

Kagan’s conclusion: “It appears that mothers who protect their highly reactive infants from frustration and anxiety in the hope of effecting a benevolent outcome seem to exacerbate the infant’s uncertainty and produce the opposite effect.

Some children, though shy by temperament, who were more emotionally competent, spontaneously outgrew their timidity. Being more socially skilled, they were far more likely to have a succession of positive experiences with other children. For example, even if they were tentative about speaking to a new playmate, once the ice was broken they were able to shine socially.

Even innate emotional patterns can change to some degree. A child who comes into the world easily frightened can learn to be calmer, or even outgoing, in the face of the familiar. Fearfulness—or any other temperament—may be part of the biological givens of our emotional lives, but we are not necessarily limited to a specific emotional menu by our inherited traits. Our emotional capacities are not a given; with the right learning, they can be improved. The reasons for this lie in how the human brain matures.

Psychotherapy can be systematic emotional relearning. It stands as a case in point of the way experience can both change emotional patterns and shape the brain. One of the most dramatic demonstrations of this point comes from a study of people being treated for obsessive-compulsive disorders. Hand washing is one of the more common compulsions which can be done so often, even hundreds of times a day, that the person’s skin cracks. PET scan studies show that obsessive-compulsives have greater than normal activity in their prefrontal lobes. Half of the patients in the study received the standard drug treatment, fluoxetine (better known by the brand name Prozac), and half behavior therapy. During the therapy they were systematically exposed to the object of their obsession or compulsion without performing it; patients with hand-washing compulsions were put at a sink, but not allowed to wash. At the same time they learned to question the fears and dreads that spurned them on—for example the failure to wash would mean that they would get a disease and die. Gradually, through months of such training, the compulsions faded, just as they did with the medications. A PET scan test showed that the behavior therapy patients had as significant a decrease in the activity of a key part of the emotional brain, the caudate nucleus as did the patients successfully treated with the drug fluoxetine.

Several brain areas critical for emotional life are among the slowest to mature. The sensory areas mature during early childhood, and the limbic system by puberty, the frontal lobes—seat of emotional self-control, understanding, and artful response, do not fully mature until the mid twenties.

One of the most essential emotional lessons, first learned in infancy and refined throughout childhood, is how to soothe oneself when upset. This art of soothing oneself is mastered over many years and with new means, as brain maturation offers a child progressively more sophisticated emotional tools. The frontal lobes, so important for regulating limbic pulse mature into the mid-twenties. Another key circuit that continues to shape itself through childhood centers on the vagus nerve, which at one end regulates the heart and other parts of the body, and at the other sends signals to the amygdala via other circuits, prompting to secrete the catecholamines, which is the prime fight-or-flight response. A University of Washington team that assessed the impact of childrearing discovered that emotionally adept parenting led to a change for the better in vagus-nerve function. John Gotten, the psychologist who led the research explained, “Parents modify their children’s vagal tone”—a measure of how easily triggered the vagus nerve is—“by coaching them emotionally: talking to children about their feelings and how to understand them, not being critical and judgmental, problem-solving about emotional predicaments, coaching them on what to do like alternatives to hitting, or were better able to suppress the vagal activity that keep the amygdala priming the body with fight-or-flight hormones—and so were better behaved.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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