Nature vs Nurture

It’s an age-old question: What makes us who we are?  Is it nature or nurture?

For those who haven’t yet encountered this question, it asks whether we’re born the way we are, or whether our life experiences shape us into who we are.  In relation to mental health, the question might be, are some people just ‘born’ anxious, or bipolar, or depressive etc, or is it the result of what happens to them?

The nature/nurture question has been mooted for thousands of years now and nobody has yet come up with a definitive answer.  “Probably a combination of both” seems to be the majority view these days.

I’d like to interject a little story here, a vignette I once read, allegedly a Chinese fable.  I can’t find any version posted online so I’ll work from memory and hope to do it justice:

A student goes to visit his tutor one day.  The student arrives, sits down at the table and the tutor asks him if he would like a cup of tea.  The student says yes.  Soon after, the tutor sets down a cup of tea on the table, and alongside the cup, a large stick.  He announces to the student,

“If you drink the tea, I shall hit you with this stick.  And if you don’t drink the tea, I shall hit you with this stick”.

Initially the student is dismayed, it seems there is no way he can win.  But he thinks for a little while and then – with a flash of inspiration – simply picks up the stick, thus depriving the tutor of the ability to use the stick against him.  The tutor smiles broadly and congratulates the student, “Well done, you have learned well.”

There endeth the lesson. 

You might be wondering, what does this have to do with the nature/nurture question?  The connection in my mind is being presented with a question or conundrum where you are asked to choose between only two possible responses.  A bit like the one that goes, “Would you rather boil to death or freeze to death”, sometimes neither response is particularly appealing. 

I love irony, and there is a particularly beautiful irony in the response I choose to the nature/nurture question:

Q: “What makes us who we are, is it nature or nurture”

A: “Free will.” 

I believe free will plays an important role: and I can demonstrate the power of my free will by saying ‘free will’ in answer to this stupid question.

Yes, stupid sounds pretty harsh.  But it seems to me if you’re struggling to answer a question despite – as in this case – thousands of years of philosophising, theorising and research, surely, sooner or later, you have to consider the possibility that there’s a mistake in the question itself.  Like the one, “Why do men have nipples?” which embodies an assumption that there should be a reason for men to have nipples, when patently, there is no reason. 

Questions presented with only two possible answers should, in my opinion, always be regarded with suspicion.  Nature or nurture, boil or freeze, capitalism or communism…  Even if my answer, free will, is not right as such, maybe by now we could and should be considering that there might be more than just two possible answers. I stand my ground: It’s a stupid question.

Although the question is stupid, attempts to answer it have yielded a fascinating array of theories and studies.  I’ll maybe take a look at some of these in later blogs, but for now search “nature vs nurture” and “free will vs determinism” online if you’re interested.  

What saddens me is that both the nature and nurture standpoints are fairly fatalistic; they both limit, or outright reject, the potential for individuals to be who they choose to be.   We humanistic counsellors are very fond of a thing we call ‘personal agency’; the personal power and autonomy each of us has, which allows us to be in control of what we do and make our own choices.  For many clients, it is this ability, together with awareness of the choices available to them, which allows them to live more happily. 

This is one humanists’ view.  Personal agency can triumph over both nature and nurture. If that were not the case, if we were merely the product of our genes and/or life experiences, counselling could never once make a blind bit of difference to people’s lives. I don’t have a wealth of scientific evidence to point to, but maybe that’s because many researchers and academics don’t pay much attention to free will; they’re too busy trying to answer the stupid question. 

Human Givens?

I thought I’d share something I stumbled across a few years ago – the Human Givens Institute’s Emotional Needs Audit

Human Givens is a relatively new body of theory, which proposes that our emotions serve as signals, letting us know when our underlying psychological needs are not being met.  The needs audit linked above reflects a list of 9 psychological/emotional needs, which Human Givens theorists believe are genetically programmed into all humans, irrespective of cultural background.

To my mind, it does beg the question as to whether there are any ‘universal’ characteristics common to all humans.   There is considerable diversity in the world. I’m thinking of the people of North Sentinel Island in the Bay of Bengal, probably the most mysterious and uncontacted group of people on the face of the planet.  The Sentinelese have had zero communication with the rest of the world; attempts to interact with them have been unsuccessful, even resulting in death.  If it were possible to communicate with the Sentinelese, would they agree with the list of Human Givens…? 

Looking at the needs audit, I feel suspicious that certain western-liberal values may be present there.  We in the west place high value on individualism, personal liberty, equality before the law, and human rights.  So some of the questions on the needs audit – for example, those to do with personal privacy, autonomy, and achievement – do rather smack of liberalism.   Maybe these needs are rooted in values, which aren’t as universal as we might think.  It may be worth pointing out here that even the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” isn’t universally (or globally) respected.

So I wonder whether anything about humans can be taken as a given.  Many believe we are fundamentally social creatures… except, perhaps, for hermits.  I like to think compassion is a human trai… but then I think of psychopaths.  I’m reminded of the numerous accounts of ‘wolf-children’ from around the world, and the testimonies of their unhuman-like behaviours. It seems to me that any universal theory or hypothesis we might propose can, sooner or later, be falsified.  Including the claim that human nature is determined by our genes.

I’m conscious here it might sound like I’m ripping the Human Givens theory apart, or at least tearing a sizeable hole in it.  That’s not my intention: actually I like the theory, I appreciate the simplicity and neatness of it, and I do believe the needs audit can be a useful tool.  Sometimes we feel a bit ‘out-of-sorts’ without knowing why and a list of suggestions could help us narrow it down. In the world of me, all suggestions and ideas are welcome, and it matters less whether a theory is ‘right’ than whether it is helpful.

Do you need counselling?

There is a saying I like, which goes; “To a man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail”.  It’s a phrase I often think of in my work. I try not to be that man with a hammer. 

Sometimes I meet people who probably don’t need counselling, so if you’re considering counselling but feel unsure, you might want to read on. 

First and foremost I’d say: self-care.  The body and the mind are connected, so how we look after our bodies does impact our mood.  There is a ton of research out there to show that lack of sleep, poor nutrition and other lifestyle factors can have a negative impact on your mental wellbeing. 

Do you remember, as a child, having a tantrum of some kind, and your parent or other significant adult telling you “You’re just tired”?  You woke up the next morning, grudgingly accepting they were right; what seemed monumental the night before was indeed a mere molehill.  One of the problems of being an adult is you no longer have someone to tell you when you’re tired, and we’re not necessarily that great at telling ourselves. 

Point being, if you’re having symptoms like irritability, headaches, poor concentration or brain fog, consider improving the quality and/or quantity of your sleep.  Even though we’re not children anymore, problems have a tendency to feel bigger when we’re tired.

On the subject of nutrition, there is research going on all over the world looking at possible links between mood and certain food elements, for example omega-3, caffeine, and vitamins.  At a more common-sense level, it stands to reason that if you eat rubbish you’re likely to feel rubbish.  If you’re interesting in finding out more, the British Dietetic Association is a good starting point – https://www.bda.uk.com/foodfacts/food_mood

The third factor in this holy trinity of things-we-know-we-should-be-doing is, of course, exercise.  The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence recommends exercise for what it calls “persistent subthreshold depressive symptoms or mild to moderate depression” (https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/cg90/chapter/1-Guidance).  When we think about exercise, I dare say many of us immediately think of “the gym”, but there are many different ways to get more active.  Just as an example, I used to go rock-climbing: I found I was so focussed on the activity itself, I didn’t even think of it as exercise. Try searching online for ideas. If it helps, the dominant thought at present is that it only needs to be ‘moderate’ exercise several times a week. I’d suggest the key thing is finding something you enjoy and that fits within your schedule and budget. 

Another aspect of self-care that doesn’t get as much coverage is what I will call “kindness”.  Being kind to yourself, both in thought and in deed.  If you have a tendency to chastise yourself a lot, just imagine that was another person speaking to you that way; you probably wouldn’t tolerate it.  Give yourself a break, literally – reading, resuming a long-lost hobby, spending time with friends and so on.  Re-engaging with the things you enjoy.

At this point I’d like to interject a personal belief of mine, which I regard as a hidden benefit of self-care.  Improving your self-care in any way is an act of commitment; it’s treating yourself as important, and worthy of better.  I believe that commitment, in itself, can be a powerful thing.

And it may take some commitment as well; like most diet and exercise endeavours, you’re unlikely to experience much change initially, it make take several months to feel significantly better. 

Again, I try not to be that man with a hammer; I readily admit that for many people, the source of their distress is not going to be eliminated by eating more oily fish or by doing yoga.  I’m old enough to appreciate that living costs – especially accomodation – have skyrocketed in the last couple of decades, whilst wages have barely kept pace with the Bank of England base rate.  There are many challenges to modern living. Nevertheless, I’d say that robust self-care does give you a better chance of keeping your head above water.  

Speaking of modern living, there are now numerous online services and smartphone apps which offer help with mental wellbeing.  NHS Moodzone might be a good starting point to look at digital resources and a range of other self-help options – https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/

For better or for worse, one of the two 64-million-dollar questions in the world of mental health is to do with knowing what treatments or strategies are going to work for an individual person at a given time.  Counselling is one option amongst many, and the number of options seems to increase year-on-year. If you try something and it doesn’t work for you, it’s easy to feel demoralised, but please be assured there are always more options to try. 

Mental Health?

We counsellors are fond of transparency, and I feel inclined to set out my stall early by saying – I’m not a fan of medicalised language in the world of counselling.  I’m not convinced that counselling belongs under the banner of ‘healthcare’ or ‘medicine’ at all.  This might sound surprising, but it seems to me that counselling could just as easily sit under ‘education’; it is, arguably, more like coaching than medicine, a form of personal development.

One reason I’m averse to medical language is down to the people I work with.  In my job I regularly ask people why they’ve come to counselling; most people will talk about a stressful situation, troublesome thoughts and emotions, or low personal confidence.  I’d find it pretty difficult and unnatural to regard these sorts of concerns as medical issues.

A second reason I’m wary of diagnostic labels is because, to be blunt, they’re not as reliable or scientific as they ought to be.  The DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) is the main ‘catalogue’ of mental health diagnoses that medical professionals work to.  I think it’s fair to say that the DSM has always been subject to criticism and controversy; but in recent years its’ plausibility has taken further tumbles amid claims of non-scientific methodologies; and also of some of the authors having connections (and large stockholdings) with the pharmaceutical industry.  Diagnosis is usually a pre-requisite to treatment, in effect the foundation of medical care.  In my mind’s eye, the whole medical approach to mental health looks like a house of cards.

This brings me round to my third reason for steering clear of medicalised thinking: I’m not sure that the medical/scientific approach is the best route to improving our understanding of our mental lives.  You’d have hoped we would have made better progress after all this time. Science is great for gaining information about the physical properties of things and has yielded life-changing innovations in the realms of chemistry, technology and medicine.  The world would be a very different place if we didn’t have antibiotics, electric motors, or telecommunications technology.  But the human psyche, I believe, goes beyond the limits of the physical sciences.  The philosophical and methodological systems which underpin the so-called “scientific method” might prove to be the wrong tools for the job when it comes to understanding mental health.

I dare say I’ll come back to these sorts of issues in in later blogs.  For the time being however, I am trying to weed out the medical terms which have crept into my vocabulary over the years, and to substitute more normal, “common sense” language.  In some cases this is no challenge at all; I find it natural to use words like “distress” in place of “disorder”. One I am struggling with though is the banner itself; “mental health”.  As indicated above, I’m not sure the word “health” is ideal – it has inevitable associations with “illness” – but whilst I’m about it, I’d have to say I’m not too keen on the word “mental” either.  If or when I think of a good alternative, I’ll let you know.