How does where you grow up impact who you become?

Dr. Dorsa Amir

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Transcript

Hello and welcome to The Garden. I'm Sophie and I'll be your guide for today's Garden talk today. I'm delighted to welcome to The Garden doctor Dorsa. Amir Dorsa is an anthropologically minded psychologist and is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California Berkeley In the US Dorsey's research explores the impact of culture on the developing mind and how Children develop and behave across diverse cultures. She has investigated these dynamics in both industrialized societies like India Argentina and the U.

S. And foragers. Societies like the swat people in Amazonian Ecuador. She's joining us in The Garden today to help us work out how would we be different if we'd grown up somewhere else? I'm really delighted to have her join us here today. And at The Garden circle as well, Dorsa welcome to The Garden. Thank you for having me now. Before I hand over to you for your Garden talk I wanted to find out about what sparked your interest in studying the impact of childhood on our development. Yeah. You know as a child myself who grew up in two different cultures, the Iranian culture in my household, the american culture outside I think I really had an early fascination with understanding our place in the world, understanding different cultural norms and how we really pull that all together during this early period of development.

And I think that lifelong interest started for myself in childhood. Well with that it's time for me to hand over to dr Dorsa Amir for her Garden talk. How does when we grow up affect who we become today. I'm going to be talking about childhood and I want you to just take a moment with me now and reflect back on some of your early childhood memories, what comes to mind? Maybe you remember a delicious meal your grandma used to make that you just love to eat or maybe there was a case of injustice on the playground where someone broke the rules and got away with it and you're still mad about it to this day.

These early experiences have a lot of staying power, but not just in our memories. They help fundamentally shape who we become later on in life. Now, for me, when I think about my childhood, there's one clear event that stands out and that was when me and my family when I was a child moved from Iran to the United States. And so from a very early age, I got to see not just a different country but a different way of being human. There was a new language that I didn't know, there were new cultural norms like people wearing their shoes inside the house, we didn't do that, but they did it here and all these new ways of being that I had to learn.

And I think that really sparked a lifelong interest in childhood and these early experiences and I often find myself thinking who would I be today if my family had stayed in Iran and I grew up there or what if we moved to Sweden, like my mom's siblings did and I grew up Swedish, who would I be now? And those questions form a lot of my personal and professional interests and that's the question that we're going to try and address today. How do these early experiences set the stage for who you become as an adult now in order to do that? The first thing that we're going to do is zoom out a little bit and hopefully you'll join me on a quick anthropological journey where we consider why humans are actually a rather special and unique animal.

When people talk about human uniqueness, there are a few features that tend to come up time and time again. The first of these has to do with the ecology. So humans live on every habitat on the planet. And actually because of the international space station, we have a habitat outside of the planet as well. This is actually a pretty remarkable achievement when you compare it to other organisms. So other organisms like ants also live in lots of different habitats. But the way that they do this is by becoming different species.

So you have a species of desert ants and a species of jungle ants. But we don't do that. We're all one human species. How do we pull this off? Well, the second feature that comes up a lot when we talk about human uniqueness has to do with culture. Human culture is unique. It's complex, it's a body of knowledge that's greater than the sum of its parts comprised of different languages, different ways of being different social norms like whether you wear your shoes inside the house or not and all of this is refined and accumulates and is passed down from generation to generation.

Now the third thing that people often talk about has to do with language, which really is one big key to this puzzle through language, which again in the human world, it's an order of magnitude more complicated and complex than other animal communication. We have the ability to express an infinite number of thoughts. We have the ability to use excursion and refer to things by themselves. And these are all unique features of human languages and those are ways in which we can actually pass down the cultural information that allows us to live in all these different ecologies now.

Typically the list ends here, but I actually think there's 1/4 feature that's just as important and just as critical to our success as a species. And that is childhood. Humans are actually the only primate that experiences a period of development called childhood. Now this might surprise you because you think, well, a chimpanzee is born and then they become an adult somewhere in there. They're probably a child right? But human childhood is unique. It is an extended period of dependence on adults to help protect you and furnish you with resources for chimpanzees soon after they stop breastfeeding.

So soon after they're weaned, they're actually able to pretty much go out independently and forage for themselves. Now compare that to a human infant whose waned like my son who is one, he cannot take care of himself. He's definitely dependent on me for his care and he will be for quite a while longer. And it's this period of time after weaning. But before independence that we refer to as childhood and it's a really special period of time specific to humans that many people argue is specifically designed for learning.

It is a remarkably flexible and sensitive period of development. Consider the fact that a human infant born today can be raised in basically any human household and have all the psychological skills necessary to become a competent adult in that culture, Everything is there and that amount of plasticity is really rather interesting and rather unique to humans. And so today I'm gonna be talking a little bit more about this early period of time because in addition to its flexibility, it's also extremely sensitive and there are lots of things that are happening during this period of time that have really large consequences for later life outcomes.

So hopefully today you'll join me on a little bit of a tour through some of these things that maybe we don't reflect on too much our likes and dislikes and social relationship. And let's think a little bit about how those things have been shaped by our early experiences and I'm just gonna introduce a couple of terms before we continue to give you an idea of how we think about sensitivity in early life. The first of these is the idea of a sensitive window and we use this term to refer to things to a period of time and development where an experience has a larger effect if it happens earlier in life than later in life.

The most extreme case of a sensitive window is something we call a critical period and this is a period of time in which if you don't experience this event or you're not exposed to this stimulus during this restricted period of time, you may never gain the ability or behavior that you would if you were exposed to it. So one example of this is language which we'll talk about a little bit later. But the prevailing opinion is that if you're not exposed to language in those critical first few years of life, you actually may lose the ability to develop full blown human complex language uh that you would have been able to do otherwise.

Okay, so let's begin our tour and I'm going to start with one of my favorite topics and one of my favorite things to do, which is food. So we don't maybe often reflect on our food preferences, but a lot of what we like to eat, how we eat and who we eat with all of those things are deeply determined by the culture that we were raised in. When I think back to my favorite foods, often these are foods that I had growing up. So I have really clear memories of sitting on the countertop with my grandma and stirring this giant pot of Iran ascii, which is a yogurt, a savory yogurt stew with meatballs.

Now, maybe if you're hearing that and you're not Iranian, that sounds a little bit like an unusual taste. But to me it's one of my favorite flavors in the whole world, but maybe it's because that was the food that I regularly had growing up and that's kind of the point I want to make. That things might become more like an acquired taste if you experience them later in life. But our favorite flavors when you experience them early in life. And in fact when you ask people what their favorite foods are, many people will refer to foods that they had with our family growing up.

Now. You might have heard the old wives tale that the food that your parent has during when they're pregnant with you really determines the type of preferences that you have. There might actually be a little bit of truth to this. So there are some studies suggesting that there is a weak preference for very strong flavors that your parents might have had while they were pregnant with you. So flavors like licorice or garlic, if you expose newborns to those scents, they will actually sometimes turn toward that sent as if they recognize it, but only if your parent had those while they were pregnant.

And so there is some early setting of preferences that might be leaking in while you're still developing in utero. But really the food world comes online around the age of four months when you start getting exposed to solids and I've gone through this very recently with my son. But during this early period of time, what your body is doing is trying to figure out what are the foods in my environment, What should I expect to eat? What are the flavors in the cuisine of the culture that I'm being raised in.

And there's some studies to suggest that this period of early solid introduction between the ages of four months and 12 months are rather important for how food preferences are shaped a little bit later on in life. So the more temperatures and textures and flavors that babies are introduced to in this period of time is actually correlated with their preferences later on in life, they tend to be slightly less picky eaters later on if they were exposed to a diversity of foods during this period of time and in addition to figuring out what you like and dislike and what flavors exist.

There's actually a couple of other important things happening related to food in this period. One is that you're trying to figure out what food is friend versus foe. And by this, I mean you aren't actually early on developing your immune system which is trying to track and react to things that may be allergenic. So previously, actually not that long ago, the prevailing opinion was that you should hold off on introducing allergenic foods until about a year old because they were afraid that if you were introduced to early, you might actually develop a lifelong allergy.

Now it turns out that that was almost exactly wrong because there is a sensitive window for allergy development that starts much earlier than that, around the age of four months. And now the guidelines have changed in fact, and the best case of this is with peanut allergies. So that guideline used to be, wait until a year and introduced peanuts then, but then perhaps related to this guidance, there's a really sharp rise in peanut allergies worldwide and that and some of the studies that were done on that process led people to understand that actually the opposite is the right thing to do.

You should introduce allergies early and often even around the age of four months, which is what I did with my son. I just rubbed peanut butter in his mouth the second he could sit up and I made sure he was exposed to it to try and avoid that peanut allergy later on in life. And in fact the thing, the same pattern holds true for other some other types of allergies, like animal allergies. If you grow up in a household with cats and dogs are actually about half as likely as someone who grew up in a non pet household to have those allergies later on.

So there does seem to be a sensitive window in this early period of time for developing things like responses to allergens. Now, another thing that you're doing in this period of time is not just figuring out flavors and textures and allergens, but you're also taking stock of how much energy is available to you in your world, how many calories are going in versus going out and how are those calories being used. And one of the things that this is really important for is determining how much energy your body is going to invest in things like immunity and how much it's going to invest in things like physical growth.

And in fact one of the things that helps determine one of the most important in fact determinants of your adult height. Second to your genes is the energetic environment growing up, we all have some amount of genetic potential. There's some idea of where we might lay when we look at our parents and considered that genetic influence, but the genes are always interacting with the environment and there's really great evidence actually by a colleague of mine SAm Urlacher and his co author suggesting that Children that have more illnesses in early life actually end up being slightly less tall because a lot of that energy is going toward immune function as opposed to height.

And like with many things that we're talking about now, early energetic exposure and balance matters a lot, especially before puberty. Post puberty, it seems to matter increasingly less how much energy is coming in when it comes to determining things like height. So this early period is really important for all sorts of relationships that we have with food and the energy that it provides. Okay, let's turn our attention now to another topic that I think many of us don't reflect on that much, but in fact, is again, a big product of our of our preferences and the environment that we grew up in and that has to do with music.

So think about some of your favorite songs that when they come on the radio you don't want to skip it for me embarrassingly, It's probably things like in Sync or the Spice Girls and maybe based on me telling you that you can guess how old I am. And that's because there turns out to be something called a reminiscence bump when it comes to music preferences. When you ask people what their favorite songs are, they're disproportionately skewed towards music that we heard in late childhood and early adolescence.

There's something we really like about that music and something that brings us comfort or joy when we hear it on the radio And there's some studies interestingly with non humans suggesting that there is something of a sensitive window when it comes to preferences from music. There's actually a study done in mice where what they did was they took mice who were just born and introduced them to a world where there was music or a world that was silent And what they found was a sensitive window of development, something like 14 days after they were born.

Or if they were exposed to music during that period of time when later on you gave them a choice between being in a silent space or a musical space. They actually preferred the music, but only if it was exposed during that period of time. So there does seem to be an interesting process at work here with the development of preferences for acoustics and for music. Another thing pertaining to music that I think people tend to view as more of a rare ability that some people have and some people don't is something we refer to as perfect pitch.

So this is a scenario in which someone can just by ear recognize what musical note is being played. Now, we thought this was kind of like some, some musical geniuses have this and some don't, but there's some recent evidence suggesting that this may not be the case that actually the potential to be able to have perfect pitch is wider than we thought, but what it really requires is early musical exposure and training. There's a really interesting study about musical education in early life where what they did was train kids by the age of 4-6 in musical identification.

So they played a note, they told them what the note was and then they played the note and had them repeat it and they kind of continued like this. I think maybe an hour a week, something like that for about a year. And what they found was that that training persisted for long periods of time and Children were actually able to have what we identify as perfect pitch. Virtually all of the Children in the study developed perfect pitch as a result of this exposure in early life. Now it's not impossible for adults to attain this ability to really hard work and practice.

It's possible that you could be able to do this, but there is something about the sensitivity and flexibility in early life that makes it much more possible and much more easy to acquire when you're younger. Now, one of the other things that people tend to view is more being innate and they really think it's an immutable, deep part of who you are is your personality. Now in psychology, we define personality as consistent characteristics, but I think there's much less attention paid to how your early environment has pushed your genetic potential one way or another to highlight or turn the volume up on some personality characteristics over others and one that I'll focus on because I've done a lot of work on this myself is the idea of patience.

So let's do a little experiment together now. Imagine I'm offering you a choice between $100 today or $200 next week. So think about this for a second. Which one of those will you choose Now if I pick $100 today, maybe people will classify me as impatient because I'm not willing to wait for more. But it turns out that that's not necessarily just a deep part of who I am. That's unchangeable that these preferences tend to be more like behavioral strategies that develop in some environments versus others.

So imagine a world where it's really certain and tomorrow is guaranteed and its resource rich and I think I can wait a week for $100. It doesn't really affect me that much. Now that might be classified as patients, right? But now imagine the converse scenario where you're in a world that's a bit more uncertain and maybe more resource limited in that case preferring something now actually just feels more rational, doesn't it? It doesn't really feel like impatience in that scenario. It just sounds like a slightly better idea.

And this is the view that me and other people like dan Nettle and Jillian Pepper have pushed for, which is that these behavioral preferences are not just things that you're born with and are immutable but really again developed in conjunction with the type of environment that you're in and it seems like things like the harshness or unpredictability of an environment really helped determine the level of quote unquote patients that someone has later on in life. One of the other things that's really important to consider when we think about personality characteristics in later life is that they're very sensitive to adverse experiences in childhood.

So there is some evidence to suggest that exposure to adversity in early life in many forms may lead to the development of things like anxiety or anger. And that's because in this early period of life we are determining many things and one of those is what kind of environment am I in? How many stressors are around me and your body is actually physically tuning to those stressors and it's responding the entire system around cortisol is being calibrated in this period of time to respond to stressors that your body is going to assume are going to happen throughout your development.

And this is really, I think a crucial part of uh clinical psychology is trying to understand how early adverse experiences shape behavioral characteristics and in later life and perhaps a lot of therapy sessions are focused on this idea of trying to understand how some things develop as coping strategies that you then have to address and maybe unlearn and some people including myself find that very hard to do to let go of patterns that were shaped earlier in life and retrain your mind to respond differently to things, especially like stress.

Okay, so moving from personality now to another domain that I think is rather interesting and this has to do with your social and moral preferences. And one of the case studies that will focus on with you now is our idea of fairness. So let's imagine, let's do another experiment here. Let's imagine. I've given you something like $10 and I ask you, okay, split this $10 with someone sitting next to you who's a stranger. So think for a second about what you might want to do in that scenario. If you were raised in the United States, a common answer is something like, well, I'll split it in half.

That seems fair. I keep five, I give five and it just feels so intuitive and clear that that's the right option. That's that's what's fair and even split is fair. But thanks to the pioneering work of people like joseph Henrik and his colleagues, what we've learned now is that fair is not fair everywhere. And what he actually did was take that experiment to lots of different people in lots of different societies, including people that live in small scale societies who are still foraging or hunting or gathering and how those people responded was very different than what people in the United States said In many of these societies, people were like, I'll just keep like $7 for myself and give free.

And everyone nodded and said, yeah, that seems fair. And so even this idea that just seems so clearly like of course this is what's fair, that also is a product of where you were raised and what the social norms around you are. And some of the work that I have personally done in collaboration with colleagues like Katie Mcauliffe is trying to explore how this decision making comes online in early life. And what we found specifically about fairness is that in early life, like around the age of four or five kids tend to be slightly more self interested in all of the different societies that we worked with.

So they tend to keep a little bit more for themselves than give to the other person. But what happens during this period of 5-10, which is really interesting is that we start to internalize the norms of the people around us and we start behaving like the adults in our communities. And so this period of middle childhood is really critical for internalizing the social world around us and really shaping our behavior to match what we believe are the norms that we should follow. Okay, And lastly, we're going to turn to language which is again just a fascinating and wide idea that I can't really get into so many of the details that but I am going to highlight a few cool things about it.

One is, as I mentioned before that we believe there's a critical period for language acquisition and we sadly, no some of this information by looking at case studies of Children that suffered from pretty tremendous neglect. So there are Children that didn't experience much input when they were younger, they were largely neglected and didn't have anyone speak to them. And what you find in those cases is that if they weren't exposed to language during an early period of time, they actually seem to lose the ability to develop full fledged language.

And so there does appear to be what we call a critical period, right? So if you don't get it in early life, you kind of never are able to get it later. That has to do with language acquisition and there's some evidence for something like a sensitive window for second language acquisition. So I did this myself. I acquired english at the age of seven mostly by watching friends with subtitles on which I recommend as a strategy for learning language. It's so good, but I was able to take on another language and totally speak it now fluently.

But some of my other family members who are a bit older are not able to have the same level of fluency that I have and that's because there does seem to be this decreased sensitivity and the ability to learn language as you get older and if any of you as adults have tried to learn another language, it's hard, you might experience that yourself. But for Children, it really becomes a lot more. It is a lot easier. And in fact when infants are born, they have the ability to distinguish every single human phone name in the world.

So there are 600 consonants and 200 vowels in the world's languages. And infants are actually able to recognize each of those. But by the age of 6-9 months, they start losing that ability and they stop being able to recognize every single one. And they start focusing in on the language that's around them. So that's how fast that plasticity goes away. So, you've joined me now on this tour of all these different things that maybe we don't think about or question as being deeply influenced by where we grew up.

But I hope now you've been able to give it a second look and there are a couple of points I want to make here. And if you walk away with one point, I hope it's this childhood is really special and it's a powerful period of development. It is so sensitive. It's really rather unique and I hope this you can take away two key points from this one is that we should reflect ourselves on our likes, dislikes our preferences. The things we believe are just correct and recognize that a lot of those convictions are shaped by how and where we grew up.

And the second is to recognize the amount of power and responsibility that we have in shaping and stewarding the next generation of young minds. Now, this doesn't necessarily mean that we need to sign our kids up for every single class that we can fit into their schedule, because the things that they're learning outside of class are just as important, right? Learning what's fair, learning how to navigate social relationships, learning who they are in their place in the world. This really is an important period of time for synthesizing a picture of the world and your place in it.

And I'll end by just sharing some of my favorite parenting philosophy, which comes from Dr Alison Gopnik at UC Berkeley, who I work with and her book. The summary really is just the title itself, it's called The Gardener and the Carpenter. And the main idea is that when we think about raising Children, we shouldn't think of it like carpentry, where we're forming a chair and these very specific dimensions, but really think of it more like Gardening, you want to provide fertile soil and sun and help shape the development of this young organism, but not trying to control it in any important way, and letting it flourish to take whatever shape it's going to take.

Thank you for listening to my talk and I look forward to some of your questions, Dorsa, Thank you so much. That was a fascinating talk and as somebody who has read The Gardener and the Carpenter, I can attest to it being an excellent book on parenting without some of the without some of the things that often go into these books. So thank you for sharing that. We'll share that in the circle with people who want to follow up on it. Um, I have so many questions for you because you touched on many of the topics I have a personal interest in.

But I can see we've got lots of questions from our members. So I'm going to go to the first question and that comes from laura and laura says, what is the hardest age for somebody to move to a different country? Does it get harder as people get older? Yeah, that's a great question. So it really depends on what you're interested in trying to maximize. So when it comes to things like language or social norms, really, the earlier you come into a different culture, the more likely you are to pick up everything that's in that new world.

But for people that are bicultural like myself, there's always this tension between trying to learn the culture within your household and trying to learn the culture outside of it. And certainly I think the earlier, the more plastic and the more able you are to really take on these different cultures. Um, and the later you immigrate. I do think a lot of those things become harder. They're not impossible. Certainly people learn languages all the time. They move as adults into new countries and they thrive.

So I don't want to say that that's at all impossible. Lots of people can do it. But certainly the earlier the more plastic now you talked about childhood adversity and Carol's question is whether or not adversity during childhood can never be a good thing, does it always hinder or can it actually be positive sometime? Yeah, that's a terrific question actually. So we tend to think and focus on the negative outcomes because those are the things that we ideally want to prevent and those are the things that we potentially through interventions can ameliorate.

But I think this question is spot on where it's not necessarily that there's just negative consequences because there are a lot of skills and mechanisms that develop in response to adversity. And so one of these that might be coming to many of your minds right now is this idea of resilience, so trying to cope and manage and function in the face of adversity actually is a skill that can be applied to lots of different contexts big and small later on in life, pushing yourself to persevere and in fact there's some work I think by William Franken house and colleagues suggesting that things like navigating social relationships, recognizing conflict and resolving those, those are all skills that are what he refers to his hidden talents of people that were raised in adversity And those often tend to go unmentioned or unremarked upon because what we're focused on is trying to prevent negative outcomes.

But in fact, I think these hidden talents are not always negative and there are some positive characteristics and attributes that can develop in response to adversity. That was a terrific question. Jennifer has a really good question as well. You talked about these sensitivity windows and she wants to know do sensitivity windows occur at the same age in Children across the world and they always is always the same period of time that people have these sensitivity Windows? Yeah, that's a great question.

And that's actually the reason why people like myself want to do more cross cultural work. Because unfortunately the vast majority of what we know about developmental psychology and psychology more broadly has been done almost exclusively on what are known as weird populations. So that's an acronym and it stands for Western educated, industrialized, rich and democratic And people from weird populations comprise something like 96-97% of the samples that are included in psychology research journals.

So truthfully, while we have some insight potentially into the way in which culture might be shaping these windows, and it does seem, for instance, for some of these windows that there is a trend towards more universality, we really don't have a great answer to that question unfortunately, because we don't have the research to really rigorously test this across cultures because of this bias towards Western populations. And so I hope that's an answer that can be given to you in the coming years through more cross cultural developmental research.

Well, I'm glad to know that we've got an acronym for for all of us that were weird. I always thought we were all quite weird. So that's all good. Now, I'm going to move on to a question from Glen, And Glen has a really great question about gender role determination. He says, what are your views on gender role determination and early differential socialization of boys and girls? Yeah, that's a terrific question as well. So, I would refer you to a paper that my wonderful colleague Chyna love levy has done on this topic, which is focused on how gender norms are learned in early life across different societies.

And her focus is really on hunter gatherer societies. And so she focuses on the by aka in Congo and the hansa in Tanzania. And what she shows is that the gender norms that Children are attuned to. So they are from early on very attuned to their closest gender. Right? So the young girls tend to look at older women and take on those roles and there does seem to be an interest especially in late childhood and early adolescence where you're trying to in fact your play groups segregate a bit. And instead of being in these mixed age, mixed gender play groups, you start splitting off into more gender play.

But the exact form that that takes is really determined by what the gender norms are like among the adults. There doesn't really seem to be a one size fits all mechanism here. What happens is that in hostile society versus biogas society where there are different roles that play, You see that reflected in what happens among the Children as well. And so I hope again, this is a call to study more diverse populations to really try and understand how differing gender norms at the population level helped shape the development of gender norms in childhood.

Thank you. And we'll share the paper by Tiana in the circle later. So you can look up at that also, I would direct people to the talk by gina Rippon on gender norms as well. So if you want to dig in a bit deeper, we've got some great resources in The Garden for you. Now, moving onto a question from kate kate says, how much of our personality do you think it's impacted by our culture, our families, our environment compared to an innate personality that we're born with? Yeah, well, this is the ultimate question of nature versus nurture, right? And the answer to that question, Nature or nurture as a joke, I will say is always yes and either way it's your parents fault.

Um, but it does seem like there is a big component of our personalities that are genetically based. But again, we actually lack the resolution of the data to really study this rigorously across cultures, but there are some intriguing finds here. So if you thought about personality in a Western context, you might be familiar with what's known as the Big Five Model. Um The acronym here is ocean openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. And this is a personality structures that people tend to clump into higher or lower on these five scales across Western societies.

Now, the prevailing view used to be that this is kind of how personality is structured and you can condense down personality into this Big Five and it should apply everywhere. But again, with recent work on small scale populations and in this case I'll highlight the chairman who are a hunter gatherer group in Bolivia, what people like mike, kervin and paul Small dino have found is that this Big Five model doesn't hold up at all among the chain. It just doesn't make any sense. The factor structure doesn't work there.

And in fact what happens there, They refer to as the Big two. So it's there's these two dimensions of personality that seemed to capture all of the variation or most of the variation in what's observed. And so again, these questions of how universal are these patterns and how much does culture influence these patterns. It really is hard to answer that with the day that we have now, but there's some work to suggest actually that maybe it's not quite as universal as we assume. I'm going to go back to your questions, your comments about language development because Daisy's got a great question um really it's a question about education, um, and you mentioned that people find it much easier to learn a new language in their very early years, in their first few years of life, in their childhood.

And her question is, why is it then that most school systems UK and many of the european school systems at least on off, start teaching language learning From the ages of 10, 11, 12, rather than starting to teach it earlier. And she just wondered whether you have any thoughts on that. Yeah, that is a terrific point. And I think actually points to a bit of a gap here between our scientific understanding of how language develops and our educational policy that may not be congruent with what we know about language development.

So you're exactly right here that if what we really want to do is incorporate a second language, for instance, into Children's lives and really celebrate that language that should be introduced early on because it is much harder to develop that later on. And this is why in a lot of private schools, for instance, you get language immersion. So there are day cares around here, for instance that are mandarin immersion or spanish immersion schools and they're capitalizing upon this exact finding that it's easier to develop that second language in early life.

But I will say there have been some tremendous efforts, especially when it comes to preserving indigenous languages. And there's been a tremendous amount of success in schools that have been uh bilingual from the start. And so I'm thinking of Gaelic and I'm thinking of some of the south american indigenous languages like Petula, where if you have schools, where classes are taught in both the speaker's native language and the predominant language, be it spanish or english, what you find is that you can really revitalize that language from the bottom up and keep it alive, otherwise really within one generation, you could lose all of this beautiful linguistic diversity and cultural diversity that exists in the world.

Now, Gavin has a question about family structure. So you mentioned there is a lot of difference in, you know, how people grow up between different cultures, but his questions about family structure, he said, what can you say about birth order? And is there any notable factor factors in, say, between a three child family as opposed to say, an eight child family and the experience is different. Yeah, so this is one of those questions where I have such a strong intuition that there is an effective birth order, like I have an older sister, I feel like our dynamic really changed what aspects of my personality came out and what aspects of her personality came out.

But I'm sorry to say that in almost all of the bigger studies done on birth order. And in fact I think there is one that came out just a few weeks ago, massive studies with lots of people suggest that there is no effect of birth order, at least no consistent effect of birth order on personality outcomes. So the data I think speak to there not being an effect my heart says there is, but I think we should probably trust the data on that one. I think we'll trust the data on that one. But that's that's a really great insight because I think we all would have felt the same way about birth order.

Now we've got a question again from Glynn about what is the impact of geography for example, people living you know by the coast or in the forest or in the jungle and the mountains on their personality development and the person they become. Yeah, that's a terrific question. So, I am not aware of any good papers, I'm sure they exist. I'm probably just not aware of them that show a really strong relationship between geography and personality. The paper that comes to mind has to do with what we call ecological niches actually.

So, um this is the same paper actually that I referred to earlier by paul small Dino and colleagues and what that suggests is as societies become larger and more complex. There are more possible niches that our personalities could fit into. There are more types of people potentially that could fit into this larger and more complex structure and what that does is drive the formation of more personality types and more factors in our personality. And so that's actually the argument they've put forward for why among the chairman, you tend to have this two factor structure and among the United States, for instance, you get this five factor structure and they say it has to do with different number of niches that are available.

And I'll happily put that paper in the chat as well, because that seems to be really relevant to a lot of the questions that we're hearing. That would be great. Thank you very much. Now we've got a question from Mike. Mike says, are there any documented examples of people that have failed to develop language through lack of exposure to language as a child? Yes, so sadly, there are, these are sometimes referred to as feral Children. And I think one of the more famous infamous really is a very sad case of a young girl named Jeannie who was raised largely in confinement in her home and largely neglected.

So, given just enough to survive and basically very little human contact and what you found when she was finally rescued from that really horrific situation, she seemed unable to communicate with language and even after immense amounts of training uh and attempting to try and get her to develop language, she still had more of a rudimentary language structure, She could use sign language and could do some simple communication, but it was far less than the kind of full blown human language that we would consider the norm that you and I are speaking right now.

And so there's a little bit of work there to suggest that that might be an example of this critical period in language acquisition. There's also some studies with Children who are deaf and hard of hearing growing up in environments where their parents don't communicate with them through things like sign language, which is also a fully blown human language. And I'll just add, it's very sweet, but in the same way that Children babble in verbal languages, you also get signed babbling where they start kind of doing similar things with sign language as they would with verbal language.

So just one uh little tangent for you there. But in those situations, um what we can measure is the amount of time that it's been since they've been exposed to american sign language for instance, and there does seem to be some effect where the earlier they're introduced to it, the more complex and fully fledged their language development becomes, but there we don't see necessarily that there is no language development whatsoever, but it may be the case that a lot of those Children from very early ages are being introduced to sign language.

And so there's, yes, I think there's lots of case studies that we can look at and we can kind of look at natural variation in the world. Um and those all seem to suggest at the very least, a sensitive window at the very most critical period for language acquisition in humans. And we've talked quite a lot about language Monica has a great question about empathy. She says at what age do Children develop or tend to acquire empathy? Yeah, that's a terrific question as well. So it really determined, it's determined quite a lot about how you define empathy.

Um, so we know that empathy and really perspective taking, trying to understand the feelings or thoughts of another person is really contingent upon something we call theory of mind, which also appears to be largely a human specific phenomenon. So the idea that I can look at you and think you have, you know, an inner world that's your own and I can kind of guess your preferences and desires and thoughts based on you being there next to me. That is again, a pretty specific human achievement. And that does seem to underlie a lot of all of these downstream emotional behaviors like perspective taking or empathy.

And that seems to come online somewhere between the ages of three and six depending on how you measure that and that we have good cross cultural evidence for that, it really does seem to develop pretty universally at similar rates. And so it seems like between these ages, kids really start learning that other people have minds. Uh, and that when they don't have visual access to something that means that they don't represent the thing that they're seeing. This is something called the false belief task that we can talk about a little bit offline as well.

Um, so that's happening pretty early on in development and that's setting the stage for things like empathy and sympathy and perspective taking. But those are all also emotional skills that can be taught or talked about and communicated in early life. And I think the earlier you start introducing and normalizing some of these concepts, the more likely those concepts will make an impact in how Children think about their own emotions and the emotions of others. So, Margaret has a question again about the impact of what we understand from science on educational policy, and she says, do you think that schools should be developing learning schedules based on age, for example, would it be better to teach languages first? And they then say mathematics later.

Yeah. So yes, I do agree that there is a lot of adjustments that we can make to our educational policy as a result of what we know about the science. And yes, I do agree. If we if we care about bilingual Itty, for instance, that's something that should be incorporated very early on And there's actually some experiments from the 1960s and 70s. I know Peter Gray has summarized some of this research suggesting that when it comes to things like math earlier is not always better when I believe there were two different schools, one of which math was introduced early on in like second grade and then the other school it was introduced in fourth grade.

And what they found was that being introduced to it earlier didn't actually have many positive effects because Children were kind of confused and they had a really hard time grappling with the more abstract concepts of math. And when they were introduced to it later they did just fine and there seemed to be no benefits. In fact, there may have been some costs of too early of an introduction. And in general, I will just add my personal view that I think a lot of our educational policies are focused a lot on these technical skills like algebra or vocabulary reading comprehension.

But so much of our lives and our success in adulthood is determined by other skills like social skills, soft skills like resilience or conflict resolution. And a lot of those are skills that Children developed in unstructured play when they have the chance to really explore and practice these skills in low cost ways during play for instance. And I'm increasingly seeing especially in industrialized societies, quite a lot of push away from unstructured play and generally time given for socialization and a push toward these technical skills like playing the piano, things like that.

And I do think there is a cost to that. And when we over schedule and we over pack all of these things that we think are important in Children's lives. Were actually taking time away that they could be using to develop all these other skills that are just as foundational and just as fundamental to their success that get less valued unfortunately in our societies. Well, we could ask you many many questions. I'm going to finish on one question from Haddie and had he says speaking of cultures effect on the mind.

What do you think of evolutionary psychology? That's an interesting question. So there is sometimes a distinction between evolutionary psychology which what they call capital E capital P. Evolutionary psychology and there's lower case evolutionary psychology. I tend to prefer the idea that evolution has shaped us as a species and of course that has consequences for our physical and our psychological states. And so this idea that I've been focusing on a lot, this idea of childhood being an important period of development.

You'll notice I couch that actually in comparisons with other animals and other species to really highlight human uniqueness. And I think that perspective is really valuable because it allows us to understand the origins of where some of these characteristics or skills or periods of time developed and contrasting it with other tax that with other animals really helps us understand our space in the animal kingdom more broadly. So I think when used correctly, it really is a very interesting and important perspective.

Well, Dorsa thank you so much for sharing all these amazing insights with us in The Garden today. Your talk is fantastic. And we really hope you'll join us again in The Garden variety, but we'll see you in a minute in the circle. So thank you for joining us today. Thank you for having me and thank you to you. Our members for joining us here today too. We will see you again at your next Garden gathering, but until then stay curious.

Anatomy & Identity Collection

How we think about who we are and how that intersect with our bodies, brains and biology is the subject of discussion today. But has this always been the case? Are there blurred lines between anatomy & identity we should be exploring?