Posts Tagged ‘nurture’

Nature: Born to Focus

August 13, 2019

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in an important book by Winifred Gallagher titled “Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life.” University of Oregon neuroscientist Michael Posner has developed a three-part model of the brain’s attentional system. He describes alerting, orienting, and executive networks, each with its own neurophysiology and function, as nothing short of “the mechanism through which we have experience and control the sequence of our ideas. Along with University of Oregon psychologist Mary Rothbart, who’s well known for her research on temperament, Posner has been studying how the attentional networks get organized in early life. He finds significant neuropsychological differences among children that share their different ways of focusing and aspects of their identities, from the capacity of learning to the control of thoughts and emotions.

Posner has a computerized Attention Network Test, which is designed to gauge the strength of an individual’s three networks. Biological differences in brains can account for different attentional and temperamental profiles, but nurture as well as nature plays an important role. Rothbart’s research is on cultural differences in executive attention and self-regulation, she finds that the capacity for effortful control is a good thing for both American and Chinese children. In the United States, children who have this ability focus keeping a lid on feelings like anger, fear, and frustration—an important skill in our gregarious society. On the other hand, in China, self-regulating children concentrate on curbing their exuberance and trying not to stand out, which is an equally desirable attribute in their Asian culture. Depending on social or genetic differences, or both, says Posner, “the same behavior of focusing on a dimension of self-control seems to be involved in creating quite different personalities.”

A single individual, biologically based behavioral disposition doesn’t operate in isolation, but in concert with the person’s other qualities and environments. Posner points out that whether the small child’s innate temperament is sunny or stormy, parents will intuitively draw the tot’s attention to smiles, laughter, and hugs, thus reinforcing the desirability of positive emotion.

It is good here to focus how important it is for a child to be loved. Absent this love a child’s emotional and behavioral development is at risk. Other healthy memory posts have elaborated on these risks. Whenever HM reads about some act of violence, his first thought was that this person was an unloved child.

To help children who are not naturally inclined to focus on their schoolwork—or life’s little pleasures—Posner and Rothbart have developed exercises that significantly improve the executive attentional skills of four— and six—year olds. Such training could help the millions of schoolchildren who struggle with attention, mood, and self-control problems.

This chapter concludes: “Nature and nurture have combined forces to find you a characteristic way of focusing that’s part of who you are, but research on the brain’s neuroplasticity, or ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections through life, proves that your identity isn’t written in stone. Posner is speaking of the children he works with, but his observation increasingly seems to apply to people of any age. “Kids have strong genetic make-ups, but you can also shape them through experience.”


Nature vs. Nurture: Genetics, Environment, and Cognition

June 17, 2014

This is the title of Chapter 12 in Greenwood and Parasuman’s Nurturing the Older Brain and Mind. They begin the chapter with a quote from Rene Dubos, So Human an Animal. “Genetics and experiential factors shape the biological and behavioral manifestations of human life, but they do not suffice to account for the totatality of human nature. Man also enjoys a great degree of freedom in making decisions; he is par excellence the creature that can choose, eliminate, organize, and thereby create.”

It is unfortunate but all too often the nature vs nurture issue is regarded as a deterministic dichotomy. Behavioral geneticists have done studies, identical twins have been frequently used, to estimate topics such as how much is IQ determined by genetics and how much is determined by the environment. What these studies neglect is the interaction between genetics and the environment. Neither exists in isolation from the other. Behavior and performance are the result of the interaction between genes and the environment.

Fortunately molecular genetics provides an alternative approach to behavioral genetics. The molecular approach allows for the study of specific genes and their alleles. This research has found that a particular allele of the apolipoprotein E (APOE) gene is a major risk factor for the development of Alzheimer’s. Pay attention to the term “risk factor.” Rather than causing Alzheimer’s this particular allele increases the risk of suffering from the disease. Moreover, it is possible that age-related cognitive decline may occur only in those who possess one or two copies of this allele. It is estimated that this could include about 14% of the US population.

The weight of evidence from research on this allele suggests that this risk factor interacts with lifestyle factors. Carriers of this allele obtain a greater benefit from exercise than non-carriers for late-life cognitive functioning. This benefit is most strongly evidenced when the exercise is carried out in mid-life. Cognitive experience also confers stronger benefits on allele carriers than people who do not carrier the allele. Understand that cognitive experience benefits everyone, but it is even more beneficial for those carrying this threatening allele.

So no evidence has been found that condemns any of us to Alzheimer’s or dementia. The activities covered in Nurturing the Older Brain and Mind and the healthymemory blog should be undertaken by all of us. This advice is further underscored for those with risk factors.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2014. 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 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.