Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Genetic Programming Makes Nurture the Most Important Factor in our Behavior: Another Paradox

Claudia Gold, on a post on her Child in Mind blog, mentioned in passing that 700 new connections per second are made in the brains of newborns within the context of caregiving relationships700 per second! 

One of the basic theories behind my psychotherapy treatment method (unified therapy) for repetitive self destructive or self-defeating behavior patterns is that the behavior of primary attachment figures - in most cases, the parents - are, from a cognitive-behavioral standpoint, simply the most important environmental factor in triggering and reinforcing the problematic patterns. And not only when we our children, but throughout life. Certainly more powerful than a therapist could ever be.

I argue that babies come into the world completely helpless and with absolutely no knowledge about how the universe operates. We remain helpless far longer than the young of most species. Therefore, evolution likely proceeded in a way that resulted in our being biologically programmed to wire our automatic and repetitive  behavioral responses in most environmental contests - in particular social contexts - in accordance with what we learn from our interactions with those attachment figures. 

There is much evidence from neuroscience that the brain wiring that develops in this context and remains in the brain is particularly resistant to change through the normal process of neural plasticity. While it is true that later in childhood and adolescence the number of these connections is greatly reduced through a process called pruning, I suspect the ones that are lost are those that are not continually reinforced by the attachment figures.

In the nature-nurture debate about psychological behavior problems, for most of them I come down on the side of nurture being far more important than nature. Nature just provides us with a range of possible behaviors and reactions, while both nurture (and thinking - don't forget about that) allow us to choose where in that range we would prefer to reside.

But our nature as determined by our genes apparently does have one all-important function. Interestingly, it is the same influence no matter what the rest of our individual genome (assuming we have intact neural functioning) contains: it dictates that we are highly likely to respond to our nurture in accordance with the feedback provided to us by our parents. Paradoxically, it is nature that makes nurture so damned important in determining our behavior.

So learning about those 700 connections per second seemed to me to be good evidence for this point of view. So I looked up the source and found an article published by  Harvard's Center on the Developing Child. It said that those neural connections "...are formed through the interaction of genes and a baby’s environment and experiences, especially “serve and return” interaction with adults, or what developmental researchers call contingent reciprocity. These are the connections that build brain architecture – the foundation upon which all later learning, behavior, and health depend."

Serve and return was further explained as interactions that shape brain architecture: "When an infant or young child babbles, gestures, or cries, and an adult responds appropriately with eye contact, words, or a hug, neural connections are built and strengthened in the child’s brain that support the development of communication and social skills. Much like a lively game of tennis, volleyball, or Ping-Pong, this back-and-forth is both fun and capacity-building. When caregivers are sensitive and responsive to a young child’s signals and needs, they provide an environment rich in serve and return experiences."

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Motivation and Standardized Testing

In the Viewpoint section on Sunday, January 8, 2016, in the Memphis newspaper the Commercial Appeal (the opinion section with op ed pieces), a white teacher named Carly Fricano wrote a column in which she described a conversation with one of her students. Ms. Fricano works for the heavily African American school district in Shelby County, and the student was named Marquavan, so I am assuming he was African American.

The student came up to her and said, "Ms Fricano, I know you think I'm dumb or something, but I'm not."

"What makes you say that I think you're dumb?" She replied.

"You keep giving me these tests that say I don't know this stuff, but I do. I just don't really care about these tests."

I italicized the last statement because it makes a point I have sometimes made. Even though this story is just anecdotal, I believe it is a valid representation of the folly of using standardized tests alone to evaluate teacher competency, the intelligence of the test taker, their academic achievement, or much of anything else actually. The problem is that there is no way to control for a student's motivation to do well on the test, and without that, you may be getting more of a measure of how little or how much the student is trying to answer correctly on the test than of how much he or she actually knows or is capable of learning.

And teachers do not have a lot of weapons they can employ to help students get motivated to perform well if the student's parents do not care about that either. The parents' attitude is the far bigger problem than that of less-than-competent teachers.

Of course, in saying this I will no doubt be accused of "parent bashing" and/or discounting the sad legacy of racism in determining the attitudes of both the parents and the students. To that I call, "Bullshit!"

Of course the parents play a huge role in determining their children's attitude towards learning. Do you really think that the relatively higher average achievements of Asian and Jewish students are just a result of their having higher average IQ's? That's nonsense. It's the family attitudes of Asians and Jews that is the primary determining factor.

And what about the other nonsense about my discounting the effects of racism in discussing African American student achievement? One can only accuse me of that if they think that I believe that these families reside in some sort of cultural vacuum. Or if they themselves are ignoring the wider context! It isn't only scientists who can be reductionistic.

Actually, it IS the racism that is the larger cause of the attitudes of many African American parents (and of course not all of them have troublesome attitudes - not by a long shot. I just said that, so please do not say I did not).

I will oversimplify the process in order to make it clear, but not really by much: Under slavery and Jim Crow, the latter of which existed for quite some time during my own lifetime, Whites' mistreatment of Blacks was justified on the basis of Blacks being thought of as stupid and lazy and therefore somehow less than human. 

Any black person who tried to disprove that mythology by sticking his neck out and showing how intelligent he really was was ritually and routinely humiliated, beaten, or even lynched and killed. Entire neighborhoods of successful black businesses were attacked and burned to the ground.

Culturally, this understandably led to a lot of fear within Black communities of looking too smart in front of white people, or even among themselves. This fear was then transmitted to the children by the parents - for the kids' own protection from the very real negative consequences, not because the parents had some innate defect or deficit. When these children grew up and had children themselves, they may not have completely understood where the fear had came from originally, but the damage to their attitude about education, success, and intelligence was already done. 

And the ongoing racism of Whites that is still evident all around them reinforces their fears. And so their kids "catch" it.

And thus we have the Marquavans of the inner city. 

I am afraid it is up to African American parents themselves to solve this problem, despite the continuing racism by Whites all around them, by taking the bull by the horns and learning how they have been affected, and by starting to start push their children to succeed academically. 

The fact that the odds may be stacked against their children is no excuse. That makes their success more difficult; it does not make it impossible. And the risks of Black success are now greatly reduced from what they had been. Not nearly as many lynchings these days. And please do not tell me that the last statements mean I am discounting current ongoing racist attitudes among Whites, or the fact that law enforcement still reacts with more violence and worse punishments against black suspects than white ones, because the statements simply do not do that.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Who's in Charge in Families, Parents or Children? A Paradox

In a recent column, my favorite parenting columnist John Rosemond asked a mother and father, “Who are the most important people in your family?” They replied, as many of today's parents are wont to do, “Our kids!”

Rosemond essentially read them the riot act:  “There is no reasonable thing that gives your children that status... many if not most of the problems they’re having with their kids—typical stuff, these days—are the result of treating their children as if they, their marriage, and their family exist because of the kids when it is, in fact, the other way around... without the parents, their kids wouldn’t eat well, have the nice clothing they wear, live in the nice home in which they live, enjoy the great vacations they enjoy, and so on.

He added: "This issue is really the heart of the matter. People my age know it’s the heart of the matter because when we were kids it was clear to us that our parents were the most important people in our families. And that, right there, is why we respected our parents and that, right there, is why we looked up to adults in general."

I absolutely agree with Rosemond that the parents' marriage should be the most important relationship in the house—not the relationship between the parents and the kids—and that the parents should be the authority figures in charge. The idea that this is the proper hierarchy within the house is in fact the basis of one of the more effective forms of family therapy, Salvador Minuchin's structural family therapy

On the other hand, I do have a slightly skewed take about the phenomenon of parents thinking their kids should be the most important people in the house that differs slightly from Rosemond.

The part I disagree with him about is when he say that, because of the parents' behavior, it is no longer clear to children these days that the parents are in charge. In fact, our brains are biogenetically programmed to put our primary adult attachment figures in charge. Our very survival depends on it.

When the children seem to be in charge, I believe they are just acting like it is not clear to them who is in charge, and are acting as if it is they, and not the parents. So how to explain the paradox? It may seem confusing, but it is actually quite simple. 

If children do in fact know that parents make the important decisions in the home, and the parents in their wisdom have decided that the children are more important and that the children's choices should be paramount, then who are they to question the parents' judgment? They will go along with it: They will act like they should make all the decisions, because doing so is in line with precisely the important decision the parents seem to them to have made.