Genetics and psychology – exploring the links

baby waterbuck

I certainly don’t understand the science behind all of this, but I like the implication that epigenetics may explain how the psychodynamics are carried through the generations.



monkey family

2014. That date is a detail from the science fiction stories of my childhood. And here it is, and here I am at the age of 48. I have spent most of my life working with the idea of how we as humans can nurture each other, and help each other become more able to both give and receive nurturing. These days that extends to wondering how we can achieve more nurturing for all the other living things on the planet. This photo was a surprise – I took it in a hurry (as wild vervet monkeys are quick and difficult to photograph) and was not really able to see what I was taking a picture of, other than an adult monkey. It was only when I downloaded the picture onto a large screen that I saw the suckling big-eyed baby. May 2014 be full of such surprises.

Layers of discontent

All the things that happen to us produce an emotional response. Thankfully, emotions move through us if they are allowed to be expressed.  If emotions cannot be expressed they are stored in the psyche. The long term implications of these simple and obvious facts are critical to human stability.

To elaborate, if we lose someone we love then we become sad, if we are allowed to mourn, then the sadness eventually passes. If someone hurts us, we become angry, and if we are allowed to protest against the violation (hopefully appropriately and in a way that our protest is heard and respected) then the anger dissipates. The exact type and intensity of emotional response to given events will vary depending on different personalities and their psychological history, but emotional responses cannot be avoided.

If (for whatever reason) the normal function of emotional response and subsequent expression is inhibited, unprocessed emotions will lay themselves down in the psychic bedrock in layers upon layers upon layers, all filled with potential energy. And one day, when it gets hot enough, they will blow through a crack into consciousness. This eruption almost always wreaks havoc and is usually a great surprise to everyone.

So, it follows that we should think twice before we tell ourselves and others (especially our children) that we must “get over it”; that things are “not so bad”; that we must “stop crying”; that we must put “a lid on it”; that we should stop “throwing a tantrum”. We need to stop preventing emotional expression either through unspoken disapproval, or explicit prohibition. Little meltdowns every now and then are preferable to a major eruption that destroys everything in its path. And interestingly, the more we are allowed to have our true emotions and are supported through their expression early on, the better we become at managing them constructively later in life.

The evolution of childrearing

I am doing research for my book on the unconscious and in considering the work of John Bowlby on attachment theory, I stumbled across a perspective that has horrified me.

The research about Bowlby indicated what a breakthrough his thinking provided. He emphasised the idea that children form an important bond or attachment to their mother or primary caregiver and that a disruption of this bond, in terms of sudden and/or prolonged separation, is detrimental to the child. He also talked about the idea that the effects of disruption in this important relationship transmit themselves over generations. These are ideas that I now take for granted. One of the personal facts about Bowlby is that he grew up in an upper class British home, where he only saw his mother for an hour a day. It was apparently felt that any more time with the mother could spoil the child. So Bowlby’s history explains his work. But, somehow it woke me up to the idea that my current perceptions and assumptions about children and childrearing are very different to those which have prevailed over the ages in many cultures.

The idea that children are precious and should be protected and nurtured is a fairly new one in many cultures. In many instances, what is now seen as child abuse was standard and accepted practice. I left Bowlby behind temporarily to investigate the history of childrearing. Google it. The information is terrifying. I will spare you the details. Suffice to say that it disturbed me greatly. But also, when seen in context, extremely hopeful.

Yes, we still neglect and abuse our fellow humans, particularly our children, in a multitude of ways all over the world today. However, gradually, over the ages, parents have tried to do less harm than their own parents, and have in many instances, succeeded. Many parents who suffered abuse and neglect at the hands of their own parents, have, like Bowlby, tried to and have done better, and even more, tried to teach the world about the destructive effects of the beliefs that prevailed at the time. As a result of Bowlby’s work, hospitals reconsidered their policies regarding the access of parents to their sick children. And as a result of all the other work done by parents and practitioners over the ages, my children and I live in a far more humane society than my ancestors did.