Nurture Is More Important Than Nature

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    [captionpix imgsrc=”” align=”left” captiontext=”What is true for the minds and brains of adults is also true for the minds and brains of young, developing children.”]In an age when everyone is bombarded with too much information and noise, the sound of a gently flowing stream is not just music to the ears — it is a healing balm for the heart and soul.

    Sound and atmosphere are closely linked. The effects of sound on the attentive, receptive brain are striking. Sound is the first and best teacher of meditation, since unlike sight, one does not direct what one hears. Listening without labeling quiets the mind, and opens new dimensions of perception.

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    What is true for the minds and brains of adults is also true for the minds and brains of young, developing children. Unfortunately, parlous cultural conditions are now taken as givens, and seen as inconsequential to the child’s neuronal development.

    It was recently reported that the brains of autistic children react to sound a fraction of a second slower than normal children. Scientists believe this may explain the communication problems associated with autism, but it only raises more questions about child development in general.

    There is “strong supporting evidence for the emerging theory that autism is a problem of connectivity in the brain,” said Timothy Roberts, vice chairman of research in the Department of Radiology at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

    That’s no doubt true as far as it goes, but it’s a baseless assumption to think that “problems of connectivity” exist a priori, and could not be a result of some reaction to the environment in the infant’s forming brain.

    Using a new and as yet rare technology called magnetoencephalography (MEG), Roberts and his colleagues had 30 autistic children, age 6 to 15, listen to an array of sounds and syllables while monitoring the tiny magnetic fields produced by the brain’s electrical impulses.

    The response time in a normal child’s brain is a tenth of second, whereas MEG showed that autistic brains were 20 to 50 percent slower. Since a single syllable in a multi-syllable word often takes a quarter second to say, this lag can pose huge communication difficulties for the child’s acquisition of language.

    Under the reigning philosophical premise that all cognitive and psychological problems are biologically based, the presumption is that the root causes of autism, attention deficit disorder (ADD), and mental disorders in general represent preexisting deficiencies or “problems of connectivity” in the brain. That presumption is wholly unwarranted, and dangerously misleading.

    Looking for the biological basis of all mental problems is the very definition of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Researchers find what they’re looking for, and by stressing nature and overlooking nurture, they are contributing to the incidence of pathology. The very act of looking for biological causes of mental illness determines the scientist’s conclusions. Their small slice of science may be impeccable, but the overall philosophy is awful.

    [captionpix imgsrc=”” align=”right” captiontext=”The overemphasis on the biological basis of mental problems has led to a gross overemphasis on the nature rather than nurture side of the equation.”]Since we are biological creatures, obviously all behaviors ultimately have their basis in neuronal and genetic structures. But that does not mean all behavior (especially mental disorders and behavioral deficiencies) have roots in our neurons and genes.

    Anyone who has spent some attentive time with a pre-verbal toddler realizes that they understand a lot more than they can say. Babies and toddlers process sound well before they utter their first words. Therefore the aural environment has significant impact on the child’s development.

    Almost certainly, unseen influences in the home and the culture have a bearing on heart-wrenching disorders such as autism and ADD. But the overemphasis on the biological basis of mental problems has led to a gross overemphasis on the nature rather than nurture side of the equation. The unconscionable rise in pharmaceutical interventions follow, which of course suits the drug industry very well.

    With a disorder as complex, multifaceted, and intractable as autism, the question of nature or nurture is impossible to definitively answer. To suggest, as Dr. Roberts does, that MEG will be able to solve the dilemma of what is hereditary and what is environmental about the condition shows very faulty thinking.

    The human fetus grows so fast and large that a good portion of its development must take place outside the womb, or the head wouldn’t fit through the birth canal. A neonate’s brain is a completely dependent, rapidly developing conglomeration of neurons that is extremely sensitive to its environment.

    Though infants have not learned how to process information, they deeply respond or react to the emotional quality (or lack thereof) in the sounds and atmosphere around them.

    That means that much more care must be given to the quality of the developing child’s environment, and much more attention to the larger cultural influences in the first years of life. But parents can only do so much.

    It doesn’t take a village to raise a child; it makes a people what kind of culture we raise our children.

    by Martin LeFevre for

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