Personalities, Emotions, Brain Maps & The Future of Our Nation
I'm about to embark on a discussion of a theory for which I am under-qualified, at least in academic terms. I strive to develop evidence based theories and opinions whenever I can. They are not merely opinions with no basis in fact, but may not be established beyond argument. As I start this piece, I have no idea how long it may be; it is a complex topic. If it becomes unbearably long, I'll look at breaking it into chapters or serializing somehow.
I've spent an excessive amount of time in my eighty years trying to understand the human psyche, my own included, and I have by no means arrived at an answer, if there is such a thing. Why the hell do any of us believe as we do, behave as we do, and sometimes embrace outrageous theories that seem to contradict the fact that in all other areas of life, we are reasonably intelligent and practical people?
I've been incredibly bewildered in the last few years with the rise of the MAGA crowd and all the strange satellite theories and bizarre beliefs proffered by these people who follow Trump and by Trump. QAnon, the Proud Boys, and other whack-job organizations have popped up or crawled out of the shadows into the lights of modern media.
I'm talking here about attitudes and personalities, the driving forces behind adopting any religious or political philosophy. What I will try to cover here is a deep and broad topic and most likely beyond my abilities, but I'm going to suggest that there are elements in all of us that respond to a particular type of message. Something happens to us when we hear the right message, even if it's the wrong one for everyone else.
Some of us shave our heads and start getting tattoos and piercings. Some dash out and buy military killing gear, others join a church or cult of some sort, and still others, like me, reject religion and spirituality as another invention of our often wild imaginings. It's that "something" deep inside of us that steers us in one direction or another that I'm fascinated with and want to try to understand. For simplification of discussion, I will refer to that as an impulse or many impulses.
Are impulses inborn, part of our inherited DNA, or are they learned? Is there more than one impulse just waiting to be awakened by the right message? Or do we carry a garden of impulses in our mind just waiting to be awakened? Did someone like Charles Manson or Jim Jones, and their followers, have more than one impulse in them that could be ignited by the right message, and only by chance was it the wrong one that got lit up? Do we typically have just one impulse, and for some of us, it is awakened by someone or some event, while for others, it remains dormant because the right stimuli never come along?
I am not breaking new ground here at all. What is generally referred to as personality types or personality psychology has gone on for thousands of years. In 370 BCE, Hippocrates proposed two pillars of temperament: hot/cold and moist/dry, resulting in the four humors or combinations of these qualities. While his theory segued more toward the science of medicine in the form of the Four Humors, it appeared related to other elements of human existence. Aristotle was also one of the first individuals to hypothesize connections between physical aspects of the body and behavior.
In another conceptualization of personality, Sigmund Freud published The Ego and the Id in 1923. Freud posited that the human psyche consists of three main components: the id, the ego, and the superego, which control all conscious and unconscious thought and, therefore, behavior. Carl Jung, a psychiatrist and student of Freud developed a type-based personality theory. He claimed that individuals fall into different dichotomous personality categories - for example, introversion/extroversion. Katherine Cook Briggs and her daughter Isabel Briggs further popularized this theory and developed the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Type theory remains a popular conceptualization of personality to this day, and I will mention later that I found validity in my life with their approach.
I've personally taken the Meyer-Briggs test several times. It seems consistent, assuming you answer the questions the same way and honestly. Once you understand where the test is going, you can fudge answers, which may make you a personality type right there.
I am an ENTP and sometimes an ENTF. An ENTP is one of sixteen personality types in the Myers-Briggs evaluation. It stands for Extraverted, iNtuitive, Thinking, and Perceiving, ENTP. Sometimes the P (perceiving) flips to F (feeling) because my answer in that quadrant is close to 50/50 when I'm evaluating a situation.
The designation ENTP( or F) indicates a person who is energized by time spent with others (Extraverted); one who focuses on ideas and concepts rather than facts and details (iNtuitive); one who makes decisions based on logic and reason (Thinking); and one who prefers to be spontaneous and flexible rather than planned and organized (Perceiving).
ENTPs are sometimes referred to as Visionary personalities because of their passion for new, innovative ideas; they are sometimes referred to as space cadets.
This test, while general in nature, did help me understand why typically fact-based engineers want a clear picture of the outcome. They would go bonkers when I started waving my arms and explaining some vision I had for a solution. For the engineer, typically linear thinkers, A + B = C - Period! With me, not so much. There's a question in my mind as to whether I have all the facts; I usually have an appetite for more data. If you're curious about this test, here's a link to a test site, or you can Google Meyers-Briggs and get a few hundred hits.
There's no shortage of theories about how our brain works and how we react to various stimuli. I'm not here to argue one approach over another but rather try to understand how two people exposed to the same data, events, or words can arrive at such diverse conclusions about what they just received. I accept that we can fall into categories, such as the Meyers-Briggs tags, but also that there are variations inside each type. The way we receive and process information about something determines what conclusions we might reach.
One of the first and I thought interesting and insightful discussions of this phenomenon of different impressions of the same event came from a seminar when I was at Boeing. I'm at a loss to remember the speaker's name. As I recall, he was a professor from one of the universities in Colorado. I've looked a little for his name to share with you, but with no success. He focused on the generational differences in the workplace and the communication and perception problems that attend multi-generational groups. The groups are defined in general as;
- Traditionalists-born 1925 to 1945
- Baby Boomers-born 1946 to 1964
- Generation X-born 1965 to 1980
- Millennials-born 1981 to 2000
- Generation Z-born 2001 to 2020
Without giving you the entire seminar, you can imagine the difficulties of the Traditionalists (most are out of the workplace now) and the Gen-Z folks trying to discuss issues. Hell, the language/vocabulary differences between the two generations can be a considerable barrier to consensus. You can read more if you are interested at this site.
Another professor, this one I listened to on our Public Broadcast System years ago when they were running a series of one-hour programs aimed at helping understand each other and work together. He introduced, to me at least, the notion that we all carry, in our minds, a generational and personal lens through which we take in the world around us, sounds, smells, visual images, everything. I attended the "unknown professor's" seminar in the early-mid 80s. This particular professor had an analogy that has stuck with me over many years. As each generation above moves through life behind this lens. Their experiences are shaping their lens, like the one each of us carries in front of us to view and interpret everything we encounter in life.
As he explained the theory, we are born with this lens. I've concluded that the lens is formed at birth based on the psychological tendencies we might have inherited from our parents. As an infant, we don't perceive much about the world, but we take in mountains of data every waking moment as we learn to function as human beings. I won't go into great detail here, but in psychology class, I wrote a paper suggesting that personality traits were inherited at birth, as was our lens.
Psychologists have argued for years over how many personality types there might be. In my essay in college, I said I didn't care how many there were. I wanted to explain that every trait has an opposite, positive and negative poles, if you will, and that both nature and nurture play a role in where you are on the spectrum. For instance, the inclination to love or hate, be brave or cautious, and be inquisitive or accept the standard doctrine are a few examples of opposite traits.
I drew a schematic showing these traits situated on two lines at 90 degrees to each other, forming a scale. Where the lines crossed in the center, there was the "zero point,"; zero being neutral for all axes. Using the love trait as an example on the vertical såcale, there were ten points above the zero; this was the plus scale, and there were ten minus points below the zero for the minus scale. Your genetics would place you on that line somewhere; that is your starting point for the loving trait you inherited from your parents. A plus ten would mean a super-strong tendency to love people, and a minus ten would suggest a resistance or reluctance to forming loving relationships. Here's a quick look at how my love/hate graph might look. If you're listening to the audio, you'll have to visualize this one.
The upper-right green square or quadrant is ideal; the individual has a +10 love tendency and a -10 hate tendency. Few people ever get there, maybe Mother Teresa or Mahatma Gandhi. In the upper-left yellow quadrant, the individual has a +3 love tendency - not bad, but a +6 hate tendency, suggesting they might be somewhat volatile. A +10 on the hate scale and a -10 on the love scale would put the individual in the lower left corner of the chart and suggest they will have difficulty getting along with people. Not sure who might have been down there; I'll resist the temptation to say hashtag 45.
Wherever an individual starts on a particular trait chart (love/hate, aggressive/passive, loud/quiet, shy/gregarious, etc.), that trait can be modified over the years by influences and education. The degree of movement on the chart depends on how extreme the starting point was and the power of the mentor/influence on that person as it affects their traits. A person at the 0-point should be easily moved to either a positive or negative position, but a person on the end of any given trait will be harder to move.
Depending on the number of personality traits you believe might exist for the typical person, there are theories ranging from as few as five to as many as seventy, there would be a graph like this for each of those traits. Stacked vertically and looking down through them would give you an overall impression of the person's personality.
My only purpose in showing this is to discuss how experiences shape our personalities. We all start with a set of traits passed to us through genetics. Then life begins to move us around on each scale based on the information we receive during our life journey, how we are treated and nurtured, and how our personal lens interprets any incoming information; it can enhance or distort that information.
So, as I understand this lens, it is this sizeable imaginary lens that everything passes through on the way to our senses and brain. Everything we see, hear, and smell comes through this personal lens. As I mentioned, the lens begins with a unique grind for each of us based on our inherited genetics. As we go through life, having bad and good experiences, those events and feelings grind on our lens and change its curvature, distorting any information coming to our brain. Over time, these impressions and emotions move us on our traits scale, resulting in our personality.
Since each of us carries a lens and each one is a different shape because no two of us are identical in our journey through life, it results in our seeing or hearing the same thing simultaneously but interpreting it differently. No two of us have precisely the same experiences in life, so no two lenses are identical; it's sort of like fingerprints. Hopefully, you understand the "lens" concept for initially taking in information; I believe it's critical to understand that notion if we are to understand each other.
Now, all information reaches our brain after passing through our lens - the visions, the sounds, smells, whatever we take in. Our lens has done its job and filtered the information based on our preconceptions, judgments, or biases established by all the inputs that changed our lens over time. It's time for that grey football-shaped thing we call our brain to process the information, distorted or otherwise, and file it away so that we can react accordingly the next time we face the same kind of experience.
Our brain is a unique yet unexplored universe. We are learning new things every day about the human mind. We know how it receives signals from our senses and processes those to help us respond appropriately. For example, if someone hollers "fire" in a building we're in, we know how the brain takes that input and helps us respond to the danger; we don't have to think much. But, the more subtle activity in the brain, an understanding of the routing of synapses, neurons, and the like, is still a long way off. Here's a quote from Sergey Viktorovich Pushkin of North Caucasus Federal University in response to someone asking,
"How much of the human brain do we understand?"
"The brain functions through synapses - special contacts between neurons. Most of them use some of the most common signaling neurotransmitter molecules (GABA or glutamate). But it turns out that there are many other molecules, the action of which is still unknown to us. For example, scientists still do not fully understand which molecules are affected by antidepressants or opioids. Together, the IARPA MICrONS project is currently underway, the goal of which is to map the mouse visual cortex, containing about a billion synapses. After drawing up this map, the researchers will study which molecules "live" in which synapses."
I don't know about you, but I can read all the words in Sergey's response, but to say that I understand it all would be bragging. My non-technical discussion of the brain here, then, will be notional at best. But I do understand that if a mouse brain has a billion synapses, how many must our human brains have?
Our brain is this unbelievably complex mass of circuits and synapses, carrying electrical and chemical information to a literal universe of receptors that process that information and pass it on to what I'll call reaction points or decision points. I guess that any stimuli could energize tens of thousands of synapses among what must be trillions in our brain, all doing their thing all at once.
If my assumptions in that last paragraph are reasonably close, the second part of what makes us unique animals is the billions and billions of pathways these signals travel. Again, we are born with a brain with some synapses in place, but studies show these synapses increase and change as we age. There is a reason why children react differently than adults to the same event. Without our experience, they don't have all the synapses mapped to deal with some new stimuli.
There is also the reason that infants, as in all living species, rely on parents and adults in their community to teach them new things critical to traveling through life; those lessons are expanding and revising how our brains process the information we receive. The simplest example is an infant who doesn't understand that fire is hot. The parents may tell them over and over, "No! Hot!" But they can't relate the word "hot" to anything until the child feels the heat from a candle flame. Once that happens, bingo! Now the connection is there. Here is another quote related to the topic:
"We have looked at molecules of billions of individual synapses across the brain in mice aged from newborn to old. We find a remarkable variation in synapse types. Different brain regions have different types, and this mix of types changes as we age." - Erik Fransén, Professor at KTH Royal Institute of Technology and Researcher with SciLifeLab.
That's enough of the technical stuff before I make a fool of myself and give everyone a headache. To summarize, we're all born with a brain similar to our parents due to genetics. But, lacking in life experience, as we grow and learn, our brain constantly expands and changes based on those life events, how we internally process them, and the conclusions we reach.
It's fascinating that we can pass on some emotional elements to our children, and of course, the instinctual stuff like fear of falling, but most lessons learned don't seem to get passed on. We know early in life that 2 + 2 = 4, but we can't pass that information on to our children; they will have to relearn that. Most of life's lessons have to be relearned with every generation.
An example I like to use in that regard is a cub bear. Bears love honey, and mama bear knows that if you go for the honey, you'll have to suffer some painful stings; she knows that from experience. But every one of her cubs will have to experience bee stings for themselves to understand the risk of going for some honey.
Suppose a child grows up in a family of racists and is bombarded for their first five years with people being called the "N"-word, or spic, or wap, or beaner, or any other derogatory term typically used by racist people against other people. In that case, chances are this child will go out into the world with their information lens ground accordingly. Their synapses developed to take in information and map any new information to these racist models; that's all the child knows now.
The child starts public school. There are 300 students their age in the school. Some were "programmed" nearly the same with racist views, while others were programmed very differently; they were taught to accept others and never discriminate. As the racist child interacts with more progressive children, hearing this new non-discrimination information will be disturbing; it won't map correctly to the shape of their synapses developed by racist parents. This is both unsettling and confusing for children.
A couple of things may happen in this circumstance. The child may begin to accept what their friends are telling them and change their synapses without knowing the process is occurring; that is the definition of learning.
Or, the child may go home and start repeating what they've heard in school. Depending on the parents' reaction, the child may stop learning and accept their parent's view of the world, or they may silently decide to mentally separate from the parents because the logic of their friends' arguments is more convincing than that of the parents.
This brings us back to those personality trait graphs I mentioned earlier. One or more of those trait graphs can contain traits like learning; it's easy or hard for an individual to learn new concepts. Another trait may be stubbornness and follower, which helps determine how willing they are to be influenced by further information. They may refuse to hear their friend's arguments or their parent's demands if they are stubborn. They may unquestionably follow their parents or friends if they are followers. That decision is made in conjunction with other traits and synapses involved in logic, analyses, desire to be accepted, etc.
We appear to be a unique species on this planet. This large and diverse brain of ours that has allowed us to dream of traveling to the stars and colonizing other planets is the same brain that produces serial killers, psychopaths, and morons. We should not be surprised that millions of people heard and embraced the craziness of Trump or his cult of followers. A percentage of the population will typically be the ones who believe an alien body exists in Area 51 or that landing on the moon was a hoax. We are all a product of our genetics, early learning experiences, and how our brains mapped our experiences from birth.
This brings us to Part 3 of my essay. You may continue or take a pee break if you are reading this. If you're listening to the audio version, you may take a pee break as well if there's a place along the freeway or continue with the Part 3 audio.
Children, starting in infancy and through their teen years, are a product of genetics and life experiences. Parents hold the traits they pass to their children; loving, caring, intelligent, ambitious, outgoing, cheerful, courageous, honest, etc. And less desirable traits like dishonesty, anger, manipulation, etc. My list is not all the possible attributes, nor will all your children be the same.
Our brain transformation starts in the latter stages of a fetus' gestation. The brain forms the pathways a fetus needs to function outside the womb well into gestation. Developed too early in the pregnancy before the fetus is viable makes no sense; ten to twenty-five percent of fetuses fail in the first trimester. Consequently, this brain development comes later in gestation; nature doesn't engage in wastefulness. A newborn infant doesn't require the complete set of pathways they will need at age twenty to exist in the world. They are born with fewer circuits, only those they will immediately need after birth.
An infant knows to grasp a nipple and suck milk; that circuit is complete at birth; some even suck their thumb in the womb. Put your finger in their hand, and they will grasp it. Things the baby doesn't have to think about, like breathing, peeing, pooping, and other organ functions, are managed by the autonomic nervous system that regulates various body processes. The autonomic system is the part of the peripheral nervous system regulating involuntary body functions, such as heartbeat, blood flow, breathing, and digestion.
Before birth, brain pathways development relied on feel and sound. Inside the womb, things are quiet and predictable. In the real world, people pick you up, roll you over, change your diaper, and stick thermometers up your butt. You will learn your name and hear sounds that are words of love and sometimes anger. All this activity creates new pathways in the brain. Once your eyes are open, and you see lights, images, and movement, let the party of life begin.
Your brain in the womb is planted like a garden with seeds. Those seeds are waiting for a signal to awaken them. I'll use love again as an example. When the mother first hugs the infant, the brain generates a new pathway connecting feeling, warmth, and other sensory sensations to a love receptor. Repeated hugs reinforce that message. These new humans feel love; they develop a strong sense and a capacity for love.
Our brain is planted with numerous seeds for love, hate, happiness, misery, depression, and every human emotion imaginable. As these little humans go through life, their experiences, good and bad, will affect their brain map in a way that produces their "personality." If their lives are devoid of emotions, those connections are never made or weak.
From The National Library of Medicine (lightly edited with my vocabulary software - but no content change): "Brain development continues for an extended period postnatally. The brain increases in size four-fold during the preschool period, reaching approximately 90% of adult volume by age 6 (Reiss et al. 1996; Iwasaki et al. 1997; Courchesne et al. 2000; Kennedy and Dehay 2001; Paus et al. 2001; Kennedy et al. 2002; Lenroot and Giedd 2006).
But structural changes in the major gray and white matter compartments continue through childhood and adolescence, and these changes in structure parallel changes in the functional organization that is also reflected in behavior. During the early postnatal period, the level of connectivity throughout the developing brain far exceeds that of adults (Innocenti and Price 2005). This exuberant connectivity is gradually pruned back via competitive processes influenced by the organism's experience. These early experience-dependent processes underlie the well-documented plasticity and capacity for adaptation that is the hallmark of early brain development."
I can't say how many or how strong those traits or impulses might be when a child is born - I call that the roulette wheel of genetics. Genetics play a role in who we are, but parents with brown eyes and black hair can have a child with blonde hair and blue eyes.
The possibility of being a loving, caring, positive adult depends on those brain seeds being triggered, nurtured, fed, and watered. That is the role of the parents in those first five-to-twelve years. The village of adults, teachers, family members, friends, neighbors, and strangers along the way also impact a child's map.
Children who are loved and nurtured, their hands held as they walk along, or are picked up and hugged and told how much they are loved and wanted will grow to be better people. And they will teach their children and other adults the same behavior.
A child ignored, rejected, criticized, or perhaps battered by their family and other adults will have a very different brain map. Information will follow a path in the brain that is warped by pain, suffering, anger, distrust, and even hate. This burdens this child trying to be a functioning adult in American society. Like the child who is loved passes on those traits, the disturbed child will do likewise.
I offered to share my experience. I cover this in my autobiography, Almost An Orphan - you'll find that on the Book Store page of my site. I grew up in the Omaha Home for Boys, aged five to fifteen. I was never abused, physically or psychologically. By today's standards, some might argue about the psychological impact of my childhood, but I'm convinced that while it was strict and very Christian-centric, it was not abusive.
Missing were those experiences I talked about earlier, mapping the brain around love and loving experiences. From age five, I lived in an emotional vacuum. No one held me, hugged me, walked beside me, held my hand. No one told me I was loved or wanted. An institution of some eighty boys overseen by older women called housemothers was regimented, strict but fair, and lacking in love. We were taught right from wrong, how to hold a fork while eating, not to curse (that didn't take), brushing our teeth, dressing correctly, religion, and all the rules of living as if we were in the military. But there was no emotional learning.
I did learn how to get along with a group of boys aged five to eighteen; this was the clan emotion. I later discovered my inherited tendencies. When you live in an institution, there is one constant - conflict and hierarchal battles. Bullies and people are trying to force or coerce you against your will. You understand the importance of forming friendships against bullies. My inherited sense of humor made me welcome in a clan. My gift of gab, anger, and willingness to fight if needed made me welcome.
My inherited traits were humor and a gift of gab to defuse a situation. Later in life, I saw the same ability in my mother and brothers.
That was my emotional development and mapping; clans, friendship, awareness, and anger if needed. In that environment, you develop senses and an understanding of potential problems. You analyze situations and people and become adept at avoiding problems.
My under-developed emotion of love was brought home again the other day as I saw a young couple walking hand in hand up the Magnolia Bridge in our Seattle neighborhood, laughing and talking. I never experienced that as a child or even as an adolescent.
I had girlfriends while still at the boys' Home. We went to public schools, and I was attracted to a couple of girls, one when I was eight years old and again at twelve. To describe my feelings would probably involve the words lost, crippled, and awkward. My emotional inadequacies, combined with living in the Home where I couldn't strictly invite a girl over to meet my family, left me paralyzed with fear and apprehension.
Later, I would meet my first wife, Mary. By then, I had observed others in relationships. I developed the ability to watch others and mimic typical behavior. I was using logic rather than emotions to guide my way, and I was cheating those close to me.
My first marriage failed. I remarried a few years later. Over the years, I've made some of the emotional connections needed for a relationship. I'm still incomplete in that regard; you can make such connections in your twenties and thirties, but they are not deep or complete. Making these connections as an adult is like learning a new language; it's possible, but it's more accessible as a child than as an adult.
I'm not trying to duplicate my autobiography here. I thought a real-life example might be helpful. Suppose we want a less violent, more caring, and loving society. In that case, it has to start with a generation of children raised in a loving and caring environment in the home and a society focused on love, not anger and hate. This calls for a cultural revolution or sea change.
This is a discussion we must have across society. Like most difficult changes, it won't happen with one conference or seminar. We must talk about this at home, in schools, in the workplace, over a beer with friends, and in the halls of government. We need to spend as much time on this topic as we do sports. We need PSAs in the media if we want this to happen. We will need several new generations of children raised in an environment of love and respect before we see real change.