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What makes us tick?

Peter Kinderman introduces us to the nature vs nurture course and discusses what makes us tick
Clinical psychology is continually revealing more and more about human emotions, human behaviour, human thinking patterns. And this research is making very real and important differences in our everyday lives. It’s helping us to understand particularly mental health problems and how to improve the mental health and well-being of all of us. What we’ll do in this course is look at some of the science of mental health, some of the science behind how people respond to and react to challenges in their lives, how they develop their own way of understanding the world, and how that framework of understanding shapes their emotions. So in this first week, I’d like to look at some of the big questions that confront psychologists.
Essentially, why do people behave in the ways that they do? Why do people feel emotions in the way that they do? What makes us tick? Importantly, is it nurture or is it nature? What explains the differences between people? Can the differences between people be explained by differences in their biology, their biological makeup, the way that their brains function? Or are the differences between people best explained by the circumstances of their lives, the experiences that they’ve had, and the things that have happened to them in their lives? So some would say, perhaps, more nurture than nature. Or maybe it’s a combination of the two. But some would be sceptical even of that.
Some people would argue that it’s rather difficult merely to explain human life as the consequence of the events that we’ve been exposed to by suggesting that the way in which we think, and the way in which we feel, and the way in which we believe, is just the consequence of the contingencies of reinforcement that have happened to us in our lives, rather takes away from the human involvement. Maybe there’s something in addition to nature and nurture.
Our work within that larger longitudinal study is to determine if early life stresses can interact with your genome to bring about different levels of neurotransmitter usage, the effects of neurochemistry or biochemistry in our brain. Life events definitely impart upon how we develop, and there’s a large literature, in both psychology and psychiatry, documenting those events.
Maybe for the last 10, 15 years, we’ve been trying to understand how those life events by a chemical level can affect brain structure and brain function. I suppose that comes down to how those life events change neurotransmitter regulation in the brain. So the question would be how does the neurotransmitter variability affect the biochemistry structure of connections in the brain that lead a person to have negative thoughts about themselves. So from a chemical point of view, that seems fairly straightforward, I think.
The reason that people end up in really bad shape is obviously complex, obviously different for each individual. What we do know, after last 20, 30 years of research is that there is no specific genetic predisposition to any of the mental health disorders. And we know that the best predictors by far of all of them– whether it’s depression, suicidality, psychosis– are all life events. The strongest predictor all by itself is poverty, not because poverty by itself causes depression, but because it is a predictor of all the other things that are causal. So poverty has been described as the cause of the causes.
And those other causes are a whole raft of things- childhood neglect, childhood abuse, loneliness, all sorts of difficulties growing up, from problematic parenting, which I have to say is usually intergenerational. It’s not about bad parents, it’s about parents who themselves haven’t, perhaps, had the sort of childhood that predisposed them to good-enough parenting. And on and on. War combats, rape. All the things, interestingly, that when you ask the public what causes mental health problems, the public say poverty, child abuse, child neglect, unemployment, stress at work, stress at home, and then maybe way down the bottom of the list they might say perhaps some of it’s a bit biological as well.
But the public is well tuned in to what actually causes mental health problems. It’s only one part of one profession that seems to get it wrong, that seems to still be left 30 or 40 years behind, that it’s a very simplistic idea that something wrong with your brain causes you to have a mental health problems. It’s this old style, American style medical model that still seems to dominate in some quarters. But the public and most mental health professionals understand that bad things happen to you and they drive you crazy.
If we’re interested in human freedom, I think from a philosophical perspective it’s not necessarily relevant what causes our actions or our choices, but whether there are causes of our actions or our choices. The uncompromising philosophical position, incompatiblism, holds that if our choices have any causes, any prior causes that determine them, that means we’re not really free. So suppose it turns out that everything I do is determined by what goes on in my brain. Suppose the brain scientists would tell us that. I think there’s still a philosophical question, am I still free?

This course has been designed to make you think, and hopefully think differently. So we have chosen some challenging and very contrasting scientific papers that we hope will provoke and stimulate thought. It’s through these papers and not through the short videos that we expect you to learn.

Having said that… it’s always good to set some context for complex writing. So, as well as offering some more straightforward introductory materials, we have also prepared some brief videos that will set the scene, introduce the ideas, and illustrate the ways in which you might begin to think about the ideas we’re discussing.

In this first brief video, I introduce one of the fundamental questions about our mental health; nature or nurture? That could simply mean something like; are mental health problems the result of biological processes (nature) or social in origin (nurture)? Are they the result of biological abnormalities or are they the result of life events or other environmental factors? Or, to be a little more specific, is the variance that we see in terms of mental health a result of variance in biological or social factors? That is, can we explain the differences between people’s mental health in terms of differences in biology (different people having different genetics, or different biochemistry) or differences in the experiences they’ve been exposed to?

What will you learn, and what should you do?

Watch the video, think about how much you already know about psychology, and think about what aspects of psychology you need to learn about (or revise).

Feel free to post comments below with what you think you already know, and what you’d like to know more about.

Peter Kinderman

This article is from the free online

Psychology and Mental Health: Beyond Nature and Nurture

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