Way back in the 1940s Jerome Kagan performed a classic study on personality in which he formed a core concept that rooted at least part of the mind in biology. This was an incredible breakthrough in understanding that certain perceptions and reactions can be rooted in inherited traits. What Dr. Kagan did was observe a bunch of children as eight month old infants.
He was interested to not that certain infants were easily upset, particularly when in new environments or seeing new faces. They cried more often, required more soothing, disliked noise and reacted to it sooner.
Another group of infants was incredibly easygoing, not bothered by strangers or new places and things. They sle0pt through anything. It took much more to get them crying. They didn’t mind loud noises or bright lights.
Being infants, these differences clearly were native to what the babies were. Their environment and learning had not had a chance to shape their reactions yet. Kagan wanted to know if this tendency to be overwhelmed by stimuli, or to stay very calm in the face of stimuli, changed with learning, so he observed what happened over time.
A decade later, Kagan interviewed all the children and put them through extensive personality tests. He found many different interests and personality types in both groups. They were not mutually exclusive. He found that one characteristic was constant regardless of personality type.
Those that cried easily as babies still preferred relative peace and quiet. They found it soothing and actively looked for it in recreation. They presferred quieter music. They enjoyed curling up with a book.
On the other hand, those who were the easygoing babies reported easily getting bored and a need to seek out novel experiences and stimulation.
Kagan dubbed this difference Temperament. It can be concieved of as having a nervous system that is incredibly active and charged by stimuli, resulting in easy overload of the system, or having nerves that take relatively more stimulus to respond, needing stronger input for the same response as the other group.
This high threshold group then is be drawn to the types of experiences that would overstimulate the other group, just to feel what the others do with relatively little stimulus.
This openned the floodgates to biological psychology. We learned that a basic reaction experiences within each of us is fundamentally biologically determined. As scientists are wont to do, they ran fast and furious with this.
Kagan himself has fought through his career to minimize the idea that our mind is biologically determined, even writing several books. He notes that a labrador and a Rottweiler have different temperaments, yet you can tame a Rottweiler, and abuse and training can make a Labrador plenty mean. Biology influences, but the mind transcends biology alone.
His other work has shown that personality can change through life experience, an idea that ran counter to the psychologic ideas of his time. He fought hard against dogmatic assertions by others that childhood set who you are in stone, immutable and unchangeable.
His work and countless others have shown that we can change or be changed through our thoughts and experience. In this way he also firmly grounded personality theory in our external and internal environment as much as biology.
He gave a fascinating interview with Natasha Mitchell in the All in the Mind Podcast years back and articulates all this better than I do. When asked if who we are is determined more by our experience or our biology he explains,
‘the development of a person is like a cloth that appears to us to be grey but it’s composed of infinitely tiny black threads – biology – infinitely tiny white threads – experience – but you don’t see any black and white threads, all you see is the grey cloth.’ A person is that cloth and it’s combined of both and to ask which is more important is like asking about a Christmas blizzard – which is more important the temperature or the humidity? The answer is they are both important.”
His answer to those who wanted to understand consciousness and all the inner workings of the mind through study of the brain is that it is simply isn’t going to happen. He likens these scientists to hunters.
They had a very strong need to discover an unambiguous fact, this is a permanently true fact, and I call them hunters because that’s like you go out, you’re going to get a moose and that trophy is put up on the wall and there it is – forever.
He classifies himself, as a child development specialist, more of a butterfly chaser.
Butterfly chasers fall in love with a certain aspect of nature, they know that all facts are transient, science is always changing but they’re in love with this aspect of nature. And they want to find out something about it, even if it’s a brief glimpse. So they’re in a forest, they’re looking for a particular butterfly and if they find it and can see it for 30 seconds, that’s enough for them.
I think this certainly applies to doctors as well. Many of us are prime hunters. The surgeon is the ultimate hunter. find the problem, go in, cut it out, problem solved, replete with trophy.
Living with ambiguity can be much more difficult, but for those like myself, its much more fascinating. Like Kagan, I, too, am fascinated by the mystery of child development. To specialize in this, I have to be comfortable with a certain amount of ambiguity. I have heard a few of my frustrated adult counterparts insult what we do as “veterinary medicine.”
The adult neurologist loves, loves, LOVES to localize a problem. They are exacting in their physical examination and history taking. They are diagnosticians, and hunters, of the highest order.
Kids don’t cooperate with this so well. They aren’t as good at explaining what is going on. We pediatric neurologists like that. We like the mystery. We deal with ambiguity.
Traditionally, neurology has focused on the understandable and functionally identifiable parts of the brain. The mysterious mind is for psychiatrists. Thanks to the work of Jerome Kagan and countless other scientists, that distiction seems to be getting muddier.
As Kagan says, we can’t understand the mind without understanding the brain. However, when we hijack terms of mind for describing the brain, we cause a whole new set of problems.
For example, Kagan argues fear is not electrical stimulation of the amygdala, fear is fear. Its a subjective experience, not the physiologic and measurable effects or triggers of that experience. This drives hunters batty, but I think it’s fascinating.
It was a computer scientist, Emerson Pugh, who stated, ” If the brain was so simple that we could understand it, then we would be so simple that we couldn’t.”
Which is a paradox in itself. Is the problem simply that we are simple, not as intelligent as we like to think we are, or is our brain just too vastly comples? Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in between. I’ll let you ponder that one on your own for a while. Then you can check out more of what Dr. Kagan has to say if you’d like.