Monday, 30 June 2014

This Time it's Personal ~ part 9

Another interesting statistic comes out of those twin studies I mentioned, which is that even identical twins raised together come out 50% different from each other. I don't know how they work out the maths but it seems plausible when you think about it. Identical twins are so obviously alike in many ways but once you get to know them they are obviously very different people - one is often more outgoing with a 'stronger' personality than the other for example. I emailed Steven Pinker - the main (or at least best known) exponent of these studies to ask him about it.
"I was particularly intrigued by something I think I heard you say (on Radio 4 - In Search of Ourselves) about accounting for the huge (50%?) difference between twins. The consensus seemed to be that it had to be put down to random events (chaos theory?) which it was agreed, is not very satisfactory. Nothing else was left. I think I have another explanation, which is that it seems to me that any pair of people who spend a large amount of time together (spouses, siblings, business partners, double acts?) tend to go to opposite poles in various ways - they take up opposite or complementary roles in the relationship. The identical twins, one of which is outgoing and assertive, the other retiring and passive is an obvious example, the active dominant selfish husband and passive self-sacrificing wife (which also happens in gay couples), good cop/bad cop, straight man/clown. It's all about how they react to each other. I'm sure you get the picture. Of course this doesn't work for twins raised apart (which we would expect, paradoxically, to be more alike)"

He wrote back "Dear Steve, It’s indeed a plausible hypothesis, and a testable one: compare siblings (particularly identical twins) who grow up together with those who grow up in different adopted families. According to the differentiation hypothesis, the ones who grow up together should be less correlated than the ones who grow up apart (an effect that is in the opposite direction to any similarity enforced by parental shaping, so it’s a particularly powerful prediction). Unfortunately, the bulk of the data suggest that there is no difference in the correlations, so it does not appear that the differentiation hypothesis is correct. For more discussion, see Judith Rich Harris’s No Two Alike, which is focused on exactly this question. Sincerely, Steve Pinker"

I've not got around to looking at the book but the whole conundrum does show up the amount of room for manouver (hate that word. The correct spelling is so idiotic so you'll have to put up with mine. Another stupid one is 'gauge'. Ech!) even between people who should be almost exactly the same. Maybe it is about souls and free will after all. The differences between me and my brother Ian were always very obvious. He always craved company and, left to his own devices, soon got very bored. When we moved to a more leafy suburban area with lots of kids down the street he immediately joined in. He had a lot of friends at school, was in the scouts and enjoyed games and sports. He was generally easier company. He was a likeable lad. Unsurprisingly there has always been this tacit comparison going on - Why can't you be more like your brother? and the feeling that really, if he can do it why can't I? I was just being difficult.

I gave this some thought very early on in my quest to find out what the heck's going on and it occurred to me quite quickly that of course, although we have the same parents (I assume) we were brought up under very different circumstances - two children, born one after the other, always are. Quite apart from obvious changes, like promotion and moving home, there is the simple fact that the first child is an only child for a time. Even if that's only for a year it's something the second child never experiences. But there's a lot more than that. Think of almost anything you do - changing a wheel, baking a cake, filling out your tax return - you are almost always better at it the second time and not just a little better - hugely better. Plus you've already got the equipment - you don't have to go out and buy a lot of stuff at a time when you may be very strapped for cash. And you know what to expect. Every child is different but broadly, if the first one is still alive you know that basically it's possible. You can do this. Of course there can be a down side. Two children costs more than one and may exacerbate an already desperate situation.
In my case I was an unplanned baby - a broken condom baby - and my family being what they are, they were worrying about everything. They'd wanted to save, get a nicer place to live, to get more security, and now here was I. Plus the birth was long and difficult and my mother was alone with me in that basement flat in Hove. My brother on the other hand was planned (to keep me company - Hah!) and popped out like a cork.

I recently heard the phrase 'Refrigerator Mums' on the radio in connection with autism and its causes. You can imagine what it means - mothers who are distant and undemonstrative (cold and hard and perhaps a bit angular and pale and a bit too clean) with their babies. The epithet has fallen into disrepute of late because it smacks too much of misogyny ('She's frigid') and its coiner said he wished he'd taken into account more of the troubles mothers have with their children and finding ways to help instead of simply blaming them. Certainly my father would admit (if he were still alive) that, confronted with the housework undone and an unresponsive wife, he was not very understanding and basically told her to snap out of it. Add to this the fact that my mother was far from stupid and had dreams of her own you can see it was a miserable situation. Other findings suggest that peri-natal depression, unwanted children and even 'not-yet' babies tend to lead to psychiatric problems later on for the child, and there is a whole realm of psychiatry called 'attachment theory' that is about what happens to people when they don't get enough affection as an infant. My mum still maintains that I pushed her away as a baby - literally - when she tried to hold me, which apparently is a classic symptom of attachment disorder (the fact that she blames me, even as a tiny infant is sort of tedious). We all know what happened to the orphans that were kept without care or attention in Romania's orphanages. Children die without love, but apparently there are measurable affects even with fairly normal and low level neglect. On top of all that apparently Dr Spock was saying you shouldn't go to a crying baby...
By the time Ian was born my dad had done a bit of reading and discovered my mum was not simply being lazy and he was by all accounts a lot more supportive.

What are we to make of all this in the light of the 50:40:10 (genetics (peer group : parent)) split mentioned before? Is it irrelevant? Can a person simply leave these early difficulties behind (it's only five years after all) or will they affect the rest of your life?

to be continued...

This Time it's Personal ~ part 8

So much for the hypothesis. What of this 'established knowledge' I'm supposed to be interpreting events in the light of?
My starting point is encapsulated in the question I keep asking - Where does this come from? All these anxieties and frustrations must come from somewhere. The fact that I was such a loner and had so much trouble with people must have a reason. This is not at all obvious though to some who would simply say 'he's just like that' or 'he's just made that way'. A lot of the time it doesn't matter and saying 'he's just made that way' can express an attitude of tolerance or broad-mindedness. 'It takes all sorts' is a phrase that often follows. Often though it implies some sort of judgement, albeit often a fairly benign one. 'It takes all sorts' we say as we smirk at other peoples' peculiarities, because of course, we are perfectly normal and what we do makes perfect sense.

Most people I suspect take this view pretty much for granted. We have some sort of essence that is just a given and can't be changed. People don't change. A leopard can't change its spots. If you asked the person what exactly it is that gives a person this basic character they might well say something about taking after their parents and some might mention genetics but I think a lot of people would say something about a soul or spirit. It won't surprise you to learn that I don't have a lot of time for this for the same reason I don't have a lot of time for the idea of god or the afterlife. If the idea of some sort of supernatural, possibly immortal soul is central to your thinking then the rest of this essay won't make a lot of sense to you but I don't want to get side-tracked. The fact is I'm just going to have to act like it's irrelevant. Maybe I'll come back to it later. Others, probably the majority, have a more woolly notion of what a soul is (or a god for that matter). They just believe there's... something. As such it explains nothing. We know nothing about it except that it answers all the questions. There is also Free Will of course but this also suffers from the problem of no one really knowing what it is, except that it seems to exist and it answers a lot of questions. I'm going to leave that on one side too.

A lot of people these days though would want to talk about genetics and psychology so I'm going to start there. Most people in the West at least know that genes exist, even if they don't know much about them, and we've all come across more or less scientific parenting advice, in self-help books, magazine articles, radio interviews and so on. Psychology is considered more of a 'soft science' which means it's a lot harder to do, not that it's just a matter of opinion. Like many of the life sciences (medicine, ecology, anthropology) it is a matter of probabilities and trends rather than the simple is/isn't answers you tend to get in chemistry and physics experiments. (Schrődinger's Cat notwithstanding). Traditionally this pair of explanations for why people turn out the way they do is summarised as the Nature/Nurture debate. Both positions can be taken to extremes (German Fascism and Soviet Communism most obviously) but lately the consensus seems to be that it's about 50:50. There have been studies done on twins to estimate their average difference in any number of characteristics - between identical twins raised separately (where all they have in common is genetics) and unrelated adopted children raised together (where all they have in common is their parenting) and the numbers come out at about 50:50, on average, and I suspect a lot of us liberal humanist, secular westerners who've thought about it at all will probably nod and say that sounds about right. All that old eugenic and behaviourist dogma goes out the window. It's a bit of both. Case closed.
Actually that's not quite what the evidence says. The surprising thing is that of that 50% nurture only 10% (on average) is parental. The rest is peer group and other social influences.

This slightly scuppers my hypothesis, and, I have to admit, put my back up a bit. As a scientist I should of course be indifferent to the results. I should simply want to know the answer but of course we all have an axe to grind. I'd been making up this story about my childhood that was mainly about my parents and now it turns out they were only minor players. It turns out it was indeed the kids at school and the telly and society at large that made up the other 40% of what I'm like.
And I've heard child psychologists, therapists and agony aunts express a similar outrage at this finding, because surely the childhood home and the family environment must play a huge role in how we turn out? On the one hand their whole careers are predicated on it but besides that, it just seems to make sense. 'Give me a boy until he is seven and I will give you back the man', or some such. Those early years are crucial, surely. Those psychologists and therapists also apparently have evidence on their sides to back up what they say, though I am in no position to critique any of it. I wish I was. So has it just become a dogma or is there a real question here?

I think I have an idea what the answer is. Remember - the original 50:40:10 hypothesis is an average, and the studies I understand are about 'normal' children and 'average' families. I'm not completely sure what either of those words mean in this context but I can imagine. I'm reminded of the term social workers use these days - the 'good-enough' parent. Instead of the old pejorative judgemental 'good' and 'bad' parenting (since most people are neither one nor t'other) they just look to see if parents are good enough - they function, they cope, generally, most of the time. Sometimes they are good, sometimes, not so much. Sometimes they get mad and do a lot of shouting, and sometimes they give the kids a big cuddle, but they hold it together. And the kids cope too, they keep it together, like their parents. They make friends, they get stuff done without too much drama, they make relationships, they find a job - they cope. With families like that the 50:40:10 makes sense. And remember, that's 60% parent altogether - the kids take after their parents (give or take a bit of rebellion here and there) because of their genes and from experience. They learn to get things done by example. They do stuff with their family, who they have a lot in common with and they use that as a stable reliable basis for dealing with all the other stuff they come across people doing in the wider world, modifying here and there as they go. Of course there are contradictions between home and outside but it is out of those contradictions that the new individual arises, making its own decisions (consciously or not) about how life should be.

But of course none of this says anything about abnormal childhoods and not good-enough parents, and that's where we're going next.
Cue credits...

to be continued...

Friday, 13 June 2014

This Time it's Personal ~ part 7

So, thinking about it, what I've tried to do over these last six postings is set out the problem. The first five were a bit chaotic but looking back on it, that's how scientific exploration works. There is a phase of observation to begin with - the explorer looks at how things appear and simply collects observations.
This stage can be summarised as 'Wow! Look at all this stuff!" It's the 'Naturalist' phase of the process.
The next stage is coming up with hypotheses - attempts at explanations of at least some of the observations - how it all fits together, what is the result of what. Ideally these are based on established knowledge - the hypotheses should be consistent with what we already know and not totally fanciful but often the established knowledge is itself tested by the new observations just as much as the new observations are illuminated by the established knowledge.
The third stage involves testing the hypotheses with experiments to see which fits best. This is always a problem in any science that studies people, and doubly so with anything psychological.

How is this relevant here? Well, that last (sixth) entry I think sets out an hypothesis - that the difficulties I still experience are a result of my unusual, almost Kaspar Hauser, infancy. I set out a story which is based on facts (I didn't meet any other children until I went to school) and which is at least plausible. It doesn't require any completely made up events (maybe I was sexually or physically abused. I don't remember anything like that but it's possible) and it fits with history - in particular - what roles boys and men were expected to fill back then, and how children were expected to behave. But it is just a story. I'm as aware as anyone of how our memories can trip us up. We are all biased. We unconsciously pick out the bits that suit our case and gloss over others, so obviously this can't have the scientific rigour of, say physics, or even ecology but I still think it's better than nothing.
I don't want to spend a lot of time here justifying myself but I think I have good reason to think that I am unusually honest with myself. I'm very aware of the limitations of my story for one very good reason. If my story is wrong, it won't work - it won't make me better. Often when people talk about psychoanalysis, which is essentially what this is, the whole language is about the subconscious trying to fool someone - be it the person whose mind is being analysed, the therapist or the concerned family and friends. We all fool ourselves some of the time, but it seems to me that most people need to fool themselves almost all the time just to survive. We tell ourselves all sorts of stories to justify our appetites, our priorities, our weaknesses, which is probably why so many people are so against personal questions or deep conversations. They don't want all that stuff unravelling. Most people I think - faced with the prospect of introspection, firstly dismiss the task as self-indulgent (some sort of Protestant work ethic type 'just bloody get on with life and stop making a fuss' kind of a thing). If they get past that they baulk at the mass of tangled emotions, impulses, motives, actions and ideas they find and just say it's all too complicated and it probably won't work anyway. Beyond that, if they try to get in there they shy at the first unpleasant revelation and prefer to go back to not knowing rather than face it.
I seem to have come out different. I seem to have an almost pathological openness. I don't seem to have a complacent view of myself to defend. My basic stance is that everything I do is questionable. Everything I do needs justification. I've spent a ridiculous amount of time wishing people would understand more and trying to explain myself to them. I also have the basic feeling that if my actions and motives are mistaken in any way, that it will be apparent to everyone and they will dismiss me with derision and contempt. My strategy therefore has always been to make my actions and motives as justified as possible, and when there is some flaw in what I have done (as there invariably is) to own up well before it is pointed out to me.

To use another engineering metaphor - if you are trying to sell someone some gadget (car, toaster, PC) it might pay you to use some shoddy parts and take some short cuts, if all you care about is taking their money and never seeing them again. But if you are making something for yourself there is no point in fooling yourself. You want it to work as well as possible for as long as possible. You use the best materials you can get hold of and do the job as well as you can, and if you can't afford the best, you want to be aware of where the weakness is so that you can allow for it and maybe put it right later. So it is with my self analysis. I really want to handle life better than I do. It's possible I could use some half-truth trick but it probably wouldn't work long term and may even cause more problems. A thought may be convenient or comforting but I know when it isn't quite right - when it is based on events that I can't really be sure happened (the physical abuse) or some quasi mystical truism ('It obviously wasn't meant to happen'). I can feel it, that niggle, and I know I'm going to have to go back and think again.

to be continued...

Monday, 9 June 2014

This Time it's Personal ~ part 6

I've been coming at this in a round about sort of a way, trying to set up the problem - get the reader intrigued by my predicament and wondering how all this could have happened. But reading back I find it's not that easy to read - even to me now a lot of what I've written seems like a disorganised rant.

So I'm going to cut to the chase. I think I am as I am because I spent the first five years of my life effectively alone with my mum living in basement flats in Hove. When I first realised this - about fifteen years ago, I was astonished. I didn't know any other children until I went to school aged five. Ian, my brother was born when I was three, partly, my parents say, so I wouldn't be an only child, but a three year old has nothing in common with a baby. Nor does a five year old with a two year old. In short, he was no help. My aunts and uncles and my parents' friends only started having kids after Ian was born. I was effectively an only child all that time. My mother did not go out and make friends with other mums up the street and there were no nursery schools or day care back then.
Of course there were other adults about. Dad was there in the evenings and weekends although he did a lot of over-time and went out a lot (table tennis, fishing, union etc) The two sets of grandparents came over perhaps once a week each and my parent's friends came over to play cards. I don't remember any except my grandmas being especially interested in a small boy. My mum certainly didn't play with me or read to me or whatever. She just wasn't like that. She'd admit it herself. She was not a cuddly mum. There was no baby talk. Dad read me bedtime stories and sang me silly songs. We didn't really go out anywhere except to the shops.
Once again - I'm not blaming anyone especially. People did not take the time to be with children back then - they didn't try to communicate with them, far less listen to what they had to say. Certainly nobody thought children were interesting - far less likeable. They were a fact of life. A bit of a nuisance. They were kept clean and fed and warm, but they were not included or consulted in those days. They were kept under control - not exactly seen-but-not-heard, but that was what it amounted to. Children were just around, which would be fine if there were several of them to run about together and make their own little social life. I just don't think it occurred to anyone that that was not the case with me. Later, when there were young children running about they seemed out of control and spoilt to me.
I'm not even complaining about this. I don't remember being especially unhappy or bored. I became very good at entertaining myself with the minimum of props. Paper and pencils, or a blackboard and chalks, some plasticine, some mud and some plastic animals in the garden, my cuddly toys for friends, but mostly, just making things up in my head, talking to myself, singing or watching the sun shine through a coleus leaf or a kaleidoscope. I was quiet and self-contained. I avoided asking things of my mum as much as possible and she in turn did what had to be done. I think she was quite depressed a lot of the time, understandably, and my dad and the grandparents were not very understanding. In short it was best not to bother her if at all possible. I remember her crying a lot and my mum and dad not talking. There was a bad atmosphere a lot of the time.
Sometimes I think part of me still lives in that small, dim, subterranean space, free to potter about and make up stories and to stay out of everyone's way. All that would have been fine except that sooner or later I would be expected to grow up and face the world.

I coped with the first five years of school well enough. I was messy and forgetful but my art and writing and interest in nature were good. Maths bewildered me and I absolutely hated PE, as much as anything because only in PE are your failures public and the other kids judge you by them. Being good at football makes you popular in a way that being good at any other subject does not. Mainly I wanted to avoid attention. I had friends but I don't think I took it for granted that they would want to spend time with me. It was always something that might change at any time and I spent a lot of my play times on my own.
Things changed when I was ten because that was when we started to get home work. This had a profound meaning to me which has stayed with me ever since, which is that when you have homework, there is never a time even on holiday when you couldn't be doing some school work. There is no longer any such thing as free time. My parents told me to get it done straight away so I'd have spare time later but I never did. I put it off as long as possible (and sometimes longer) and dashed it off as quickly as possible, not looking back in case I had to do it all over again.
The other problem was the increasing sense that as I got older I should be 'joining in' more. Dad was a great believer in the Scouts and tried to get me interested in games and sports and joining clubs. I was spending all my time reading up on whatever my latest obsession was - prehistoric animals, Second World War armoured vehicles, aquariums, house plants. I made models and collected shells, built ponds and went down to Kingston Beach to hunt in the rock-pools. I went to the library and read everything they had on the subject. I made lists and drew pictures, diagrams and maps. I was almost never bored and almost always on my own. Increasingly I think they worried that I was not like the other boys. I did not behave the way they did. I was not interested in the things they were interested in. In fact, boys just made me uncomfortable. I was never really bullied but I was decidedly wary of boys. The men in the family especially - my uncles and my dad's friends didn't know what to make of me. I was still alone, playing with my models or watching my fish, or off walking alone in the country. They didn't know what I did or why I did it. They never asked. I'm sure my feeling of being viewed with incomprehension, exasperation and embarrassment, especially by men, comes from this. The fact that I was not interested in boys' things and that I was a quiet and sensitive child probably made them think I might be queer. Actually I really liked everything about girls, but there was no way of letting them know that.
On top of all this I had dreadful allergies which made me sneeze until my nose bled and gave me thick itching welts all over my body. I now recognise that the allergies sapped my energy and my concentration but everybody thought I was sort of slow. The Piriton probably didn't help.

When I hit my teens everything got worse because there was more homework and I really wanted a girlfriend. Plus the things I'd been good at at junior school - the creative writing and the art and the nature became irrelevant. Again, schools in those days were not places where a person's strengths could be discovered and nurtured. School then was simply about doing what you were told. I don't remember a single inspiring teacher, far less one who went out of their way to encourage me, or any of us for that matter. I was in the top 10% throughout, despite my difficulties getting things done and not checking my work but there was never any sense of being someone who might achieve anything. Both my parents and teachers simply assumed I was lazy. It was the only explanation available for why a person was not doing as well as they might. I on the other hand was panicking the whole time, worrying about not getting things done but at the same time unable to think what I might do to change that. The only advice I got was 'pull your socks up'.

I passed my O levels well enough in this state and even got as far as a C in my chemistry AO that first year of sixth form but by the time the second year ended and I took my A level Chemistry and Biology I failed completely. Partly I think this was due to being with Claire, my first girlfriend - an experience which left me feeling utterly rejected and lost, but otherwise I think I simply didn't know how to approach the volume of work and as I began to feel more and more left behind, the less and less I felt able to do anything about it. I spent all my time at Claire's house being ignored by her or walking over the Downs to get away from it all. Needless to say nobody knew what to say to me or even tried. Getting angry with teenagers who don't do what they're supposed to was the only strategy back then. As far as they were concerned I just couldn't be bothered. It was the only explanation.

After that it was worse. School was hard but work was harder. At school they couldn't kick you out even if you regularly did badly but at work you were always under suspicion. Reading the sits vac in the Thursday Argus was all about fulfilling some incomprehensible and arbitrary criteria for some bloody-minded boss - people like my uncles and my dad's friends whose only interest would be in making you do what you were told and put up with it. Even if I succeeded in getting a job, all I could see was a lifetime of meaningless drudgery for money that never really made a difference, to pay for things that didn't seem to make anyone happy, till the end of my life and then what? What would it all have been for? When I did get jobs - none of them for long, I was always aware of how I was wasting my time when I could have been doing... what? Back in that small place of mine, or alone on the beach or on the hills, alone with my thoughts and my dreams and my imaginary girlfriends. I just wanted to get out. I knew I wanted to do something with my life but I couldn't even begin to imagine what. Instead I had to face being home with my family again, and their incomprehension, exasperation and embarrassment. I couldn't even get it together to sign on some weeks. I think in retrospect I was very depressed pretty much that entire time.

I did move on. At twenty three I got a job that I could stand (a part time nursing orderly at St Dunstan's), I rented a room, got a place at Brighton Poly to be a teacher (the normal refuge for people who couldn't get into uni) and I got a girlfriend. As it turned out I had trouble with my landlady (too much like mum), I really didn't know how to deal with the school kids (unsurprisingly) and my girlfriend was nine years older than me and more like a good friend than a lover, but it got me out and saved me from being much more of a loser than I might have been.
Since then I've had a lot of jobs - mostly part time and some not too bad. I've lived in a lot of different places, travelled a bit, made something of a success of academia (I never missed a deadline and was a straight 2.1 student. I got a distinction for my MSc, but my Ecology Phd fell apart after a few months.) I still find people difficult and don't make friends easily but I've had quite a lot of girlfriends. I worked out how to deal with my allergies in my mid thirties and they've hardly bothered me since.
Most recently I've met a woman on line, married her and now live with her and her two (now teenage) kids and we all get on remarkably well. I work part time as a gardener for an excellent old lady, have my own (small, unprofitable) business running a nursery and have written a couple of (unpublished) novels. Dad died a while back but I'm friends with my mum and my brother. I've come through. Like I said, I have no good reason to be unhappy, and yet...

Still, when things begin to go wrong, when things don't go according to plan, when things start to get on top of me, I'm like that thirteen year old caught not doing his homework again, or that eighteen year old not getting on with his revision again, or I'm that twenty year old not looking for work again. The temptation is always to go back into that space where I can just be in my head or with just some basic materials, and not have to deal with the world...

to be continued...