How does our personality come about? Research shows that genome and environment are equally important – and can compensate for many deficits.
Often parents feel at the latest at the full bloom of the puberty of their children as a failure. If the children talk to anyone at all, it’s usually in a snippy tone. With the emphasis on not being able to do anything right anyway. But parents do not have to despair, because in most cases the extreme behavior goes back to the end of puberty. From a biological-psychological point of view, puberty is an emotional and cognitive roller coaster ride through chaos. Triggered by the influence of sex hormones, as well as the urge for Abnabelung and self-discovery. Although puberty is limited in time, it does not change much the basic structure of the personality.
When the child becomes a monster: lying, stealing, tormenting
If a child begins having behavioral problems, such as frequent lying, compulsive stealing or deliberate torture by other people or animals, as early as infancy, and puts them into adolescence, the child may have a personality disorder. In about five percent of boys and one to two percent of girls, personality disorders can be detected at a young age. Personality disorders are in many cases attributable to early childhood neglect and / or abuse. Genetic factors may also play a role in the development of a personality disorder .
Genetics or the environment alone, does not make personality ( personality disorder )
What makes people do what they are today? This can be seen from different perspectives, but under no circumstances should it be generalized. Biologists and scientists saw the answer mainly in “good” or “bad” genes and the corresponding brain development. For many psychologists and social scientists, it was the positive or negative environmental influences, and for many humanists and lawyers, the degree of self-directed spiritual-moral development that determines a person’s personality.
All these views have a very limited explanatory power. This is shown by studies of recent years by neurobiologists, psychologists and psychiatrists. The rigid contrast between supposedly purely genetic-biological factors and pure environmental factors is outdated, as is the classic-romantic image of the “self-developing” individual.
Damage in the brain can promote the development of personality disorders
It has long been recognized that malformations, diseases or injuries to certain parts of the brain can lead to profound personality disorders, including serious disorders of social behavior such as violence and psychopathy. Spectacular are the consequences of acute injury to the lower and inner forebrain due to mechanical injury or stroke. You can turn a peaceful and well-planned person into a highly impulsive and ruthless person.
In the meantime, these personality changes have been elucidated: in these parts of the forebrain there are areas that in the course of the first 20 years are “wired” under the influence of education and socialization in a specific way and guide our social behavior accordingly. In this context, impulse inhibition and the recognition and consideration of social risks play a special role.
Other areas of the brain have empathy and the ability to understand the thinking and feeling of others. For almost all aspects of social-communicative action, such as mutual understanding, love, but also shame, remorse and benevolent actions, researchers have found regions that together form a large network of the “social brain”.
The care of the caregiver creates basic trust
As early as the 1940s, British psychologists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth came to realize that the first years of life are critical in maturing this “social brain.” In the context of the early childhood attachment experience with the primary caregiver, so usually but by no means necessarily – with the mother. On the one hand, infants and toddlers experience the benefits of caring for the caregiver, and this creates a basic trust. At the same time, the emotionally communicative interaction slowly differentiates the initially diffused emotional world of the child. By the way the caregiver deals with him, their emotional world is at least partially reflected on the child.
This particularly concerns the handling of stress and burdens, such as the temporary separation from the mother, the ability to wait for rewards, to curb spontaneous impulses, to resolve conflicts non-violently or to develop an idea of others’ feelings and thinking – that is all which belongs to the basic social skills.
A depressed caregiver can pass the disease on to the child through their behavior
A secure bond only arises if the caregiver has the necessary competences. If these are not or not sufficiently available, for example due to their own lack of bonding experience, traumatization through mistreatment, abuse or severe blows of fate, then these deficits are fatefully incorporated into the psyche and personality of the toddler. They also form the basis of later mental disorders including poor attachment skills in adolescence and adulthood. In this case, there is a greatly increased risk of a depressed caregiver passing on their illness to the child through their behavior.
The power of hormones
Both in the early and later binding, the release of the binding hormone oxytocin is increased in the persons involved. Sometimes the sight of the beloved person or even the hearing of the voice is sufficient. As a result, the amount of stress hormones such as cortisol decreases. At the same time, the sedative serotonin is increasingly being formed as well as endogenous opioids. This interaction of hormones soothes and soothes the toddler as well as the adult. Maternal care or its absence in this way act on the level of regulation of gene activity, called “epigenetic level”. Under certain conditions, even changes can be caused there, which are inherited. However, not the genes themselves but the regulatory mechanisms are passed on to the next generation. Both are present in the germ cells.
However, the social environment does not imprint on the brain and the psyche of the infant, not just within the first years of life, about the primary attachment experience, but also before birth. This happens above all through the brain of the mother, with whom the brain of the unborn child is connected via the bloodstream. For example, substances such as the stress hormone cortisol, which is mass-produced in the mother’s brain during traumatic events, can enter the brain of the unborn child. There, the still very immature stress processing system can be damaged. At least there are preloads, which can later lead to an increased risk of personality disorders.
This can lead to a much greater sensitivity to stress, for example in the form of anxiety disorders or, on the contrary, to a greatly reduced sensitivity to stress. For example in the form of an antisocial personality disorder, depending on how severe the effect was and how early it took place.
Early childhood influences leave traces in the brain
Neurobiological procedures have been able to show that early childhood negative influences directly influence the development of the brain. The procedure is usually done by measuring the amount of certain substances relevant to the psyche (neurotransmitters, neuropeptides, neurohormones) and combining them with results from functional magnetic resonance imaging. It turns out that because of early childhood injuries especially those parts of the brain are concerned that have to do with dealing with stress, with self-pacification, impulse inhibition, attachment and empathy.
However, it can also be stated that such deficits usually disappear in the brain as well as in behavior if good alternative bonding experiences are achieved within about two years. This experience could be made with severely neglected or abused children who were received and cared for by caring adoptive parents within their first two years of life. Children who were only able to be housed in a sheltered environment after the age of two showed greater and more protracted efforts to bring about positive change. Due to the plasticity of our brain, it is never too late to change and to improve our condition. The rule of thumb is, the sooner, the better.
Early attachment experiences and epigenetics shape the personality
Our brain, and thus our personality, is thus shaped and shaped by at least three different factors in the immediate or wider environment. The genes in the narrower sense play only a general role: they state that we are humans in the biological sense and that we can be influenced by society in terms of our cognitive, emotional and social characteristics. The individual development of the personality then depends on the epigenetic processes before birth , the early experiences of attachment, and the later social experiences. The former two influencing factors having a special, though not irrefutable, effect.
Parents should not always look at themselves alone. The child has already been affected by mother and environment during pregnancy. Grandparents, as well as their origin as a society or country, play a major role in the development of the personality.
In the end, it can be stated that genes do not determine destiny and that the environment can influence many, but not everything. So it is a complex interplay between the two, which takes place during the brain development and finds its expression in the individual and social personality development.
Roth, G. (2015). How the brain makes the soul. Stuttgart, Germany: Klett-Cotta.