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We are all fascinatingly unique beings. Our individuality not only defines who we are, but also binds us together as a society. Each individual contributes unique talents towards a collaborative pool of human endeavour, in effect, enabling modern civilisation to exist as it does today. We have the strange ability to simultaneously preserve an exclusive sense of self whilst also contributing to the greater good through cooperative effort – loosing a bit of our independence through conformity in the process. But what does this sense of self comprise of? How do we get to be the distinguished being that we are despite the best efforts of conformist group dynamics and how can we apply such insights towards the establishment of a future society that respects individual liberty?

The nature versus nurture debate has raged for decades, with little ground won on either side. Put simply, the schism formed between those whom subscribed to the ‘tabula rasa’ or blank slate approach (born with individuality) and those whom believed our uniqueness is a product of the environment in which we live. Like most debates in science, there is no definitive answer. In practice, both variables interact and combine to produce variation in the human condition. Therefore, the original question is no longer valid; it diverges from one of two polarised opposites to one of quantity (how much variation is attibutable to nature/nurture).

Twin and adoption studies have provided the bulk of empirical evidence in this case, and with good reason. Studies involving monozygotic twins allows researchers to control for heritability (nature) of certain behavioural traits. This group can then be compared to other twins reared separately (manipulation of environment) or a group of fraternal twins/adopted siblings (same environment, different genes). Of course, limitations are still introduced whereby an exhaustive list of and exerted control over every environmental variable is impossible. The interaction of genes with environment is another source of confusion, as is the expression of random traits which seem to have no correlation with either nature or nurture.

Can the study of personality offer any additional insight into the essence of individuality? The majority of theories within this paradigm of psychology are purely descriptive in nature. That is, they only serve to summarise a range of observable behaviours and nuances into key factors. The ‘Big Five’ Inventory is one illustrative example. By measuring an individual’s subscription to each area of personality (through responses to predetermined questions), it is thought that variation between people can be psychometrically measured and defined according to scores on five separate dimensions. By utilising mathematical techniques such as factor analysis, a plethora of personality measures have been developed. Each subjective interpretation of the mathematical results combined with cultural differences and experimental variation between samples has produced many similar theories that differ only in the labels applied to the measured core traits.

Other empirical theories attempt to improve on the superficiality of such descriptive scales by introducing biological (nature) fundamentals. One such example is the “BIS/BAS” measure. By attributing personality (specifically behavioural inhibition and activation) to variation in neurological structure and function, this theory expands upon more superficial explanations. Rather than simply summarising and describing dimensions of personality, neuro-biological theories allow causality to be attributed to underlying features of the individual’s physiology. In short, such theories propose that there exists a physical thing to which neuropsychologists can begin to attach the “essence of I”.

Not to be forgotten, enquiries into the effects of nurture, or one’s environment, on personal development have bore many relevant and intriguing fruits. Bronfrenbrenner’s Ecological Systems theory is one such empirical development that attempts to qualify the various influences (and their level of impact) on an individual’s development. The theory is ecological in nature due to the nested arrangement of its various ‘spheres of influence’. Each tier of the model corresponds to an environmental stage that is further removed from the direct experience of the individual. For example, the innermost Microsystem pertains to immediate factors, such as family, friends and neighbourhood. Further out, the Macrosystem defines influences such as culture and political climate; while not exerting a direct effect, these components of society still shape the way we think and behave.

But we seem to be only scratching the surface of what it actually means to be a unique individual. Rene Descartes was one of many philosophers with an opinion on where our sense of self originates. He postulated a particular kind of dualism, whereby the mind and body exist as two separate entities. The mind was though to influence the body (and vice versa) through the pineal gland (a small neurological structure that actually secretes hormones). Mind was also equated with ‘soul’, perhaps to justify the intangible nature of this seat of consciousness. Thus, such philosophies of mind seem to indirectly support the nature argument; humans have a soul, humans are born with souls, souls are intangible aspects of reality, therefore souls cannot be directly influenced by perceived events and experiences. However Descartes seemed to be intuitively aware of this limitation and built in a handy escape clause; the pineal gland. Revolutionary for its time, Descartes changed the way philosophers thought about the sense of self, and went so far as to suggest that the intangible soul operated on a bi-directional system (mind influences body, body influences mind).

The more one discusses self, the deeper and murkier the waters become. Self in the popular sense refers to mental activity distinct from our external reality and the minds of others (I doubt, I think, Therefore I am). However, self comprises a menagerie of summative sub-components, such as; identity, consciousness, free-will, self-actualisation, self-perception (esteem, confidence, body image) and moral identity, to name but a few. Philosophically and empirically, our sense of self has evolved markedly, seemingly following popular trends throughout the ages. Beginning with a very limited and crude sense of self within proto-human tribes, the concept of self has literally exploded to an extension of god’s will (theistic influences) and more recently, a more reductionist and materialist sense where individual expression and definition are a key tenet. Ironically, our sense of self would not have been possible without the existence of other ‘selves’ against which comparisons could be made and intellects clashed.

Inspiration is one of the most effective behavioural motivators. In this day and age it is difficult to ignore society’s pressures to conform. Paradoxically, success in life is often a product of creativity and individuality; some of the wealthiest people are distinctly different from the banality of normality. It seems that modern society encourages the mundane, but I believe this is changing. The Internet has ushered in a new era of self-expression. Social networking sites allow people to share ideas and collaborate with others and produce fantastic results. As the access to information becomes even easier and commonplace, ignorance will no longer be a valid excuse. People will be under increased pressure to diverge from the path of average if they are to be seen and heard. My advice; seek out experiences as if they were gold. Use the individuality of others to mold and shape values, beliefs and knowledge into a worthy framework within which you feel at ease. Find, treasure and respect your “essence of I”; it is a part of everyone of us that can often become lost or confused in this chaotic world within which we live.