What is and what is not innate

Discover magazine  interviews Lise Eliot, author of  Pink Brain Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps and What We Can Do About It:

Isn’t it empirically true that boys are generally better at math?
There are certain areas of math involving spatial skills that males definitely perform better at. Even in infancy, boys do a little better at visual mental rotation. But we need to appreciate how much this ability is enhanced through play like sports, building toys, and video games. When it comes to other aspects of math—addition, subtraction—girls actually have an advantage. They do slightly better. So you can’t generalize about all math abilities.

Why do many boys love guns and girls love dolls, without parental encouragement?
Gender identity is a strong im­-pulse. Children figure out their gender in the second year, typically around 18 to 24 months. This knowledge helps them decide which toys and clothes are appropriate. Differences in activity levels, social sensitivity, awareness of other people—these become magnified once a child figures out which gender she or he belongs to.

What about empathy? Is that something kids are born with?
Children have to learn emotion. Certain emotions are hardwired, but reading the feelings of other people requires tremendous social experience. The whole goal of therapies in autism is to train autistic children to be aware of the emotions of others.

Are the gender lines changing?
We’ve had a revolution in getting girls involved in sports. That’s been beneficial because it probably improves spatial skills. The surge of girls’ athletics seems to coincide with girls’ growing enrollment in advanced science and math classes. I speculate that it has made girls more comfortable with workplace competition, but I can’t say this has been proved. You haven’t seen a parallel opening up for boys. You are getting a lot of girls in advanced math and advanced science classes, but the boys are not moving into areas like foreign language and art.

In the last century, the field of psychology was given to fairly radical paradigm shifts. This is almost expected in a field which has only existed in any recognizable form for about the same amount of time. Right now, many researchers’ and theorists’  levels of enthusiasm for neuroplasticity are, to me, conspicuously high. It is possible this enthusiasm stems from failures to curb excesses of theorizing, just as Skinnerian behaviorists of the ‘fifties extrapolated a complete theory of consciousness from some insights about conditioning, and Freud’s speculations were made into a Theory of Everything. So I would not be surprised if in a few years or decade, after the impulse to react against more heavily innatist streams of cognitivism dies down, we again must reevaluate neuroplasticity. But for now, Eliot’s theories are some of those to be considered for argument.

Via Discover.


2 Responses

  1. I was under the impression that empathy was innate. A professor had told me about a NYT article that had said that the whites of our eyes might be part of the reason why humans have empathy. The whites of our eyes help us to track where others are looking and identify social cues.

    • As I understand it, most psychologists concerned with the topic will say some degree of empathy is innate (and point to sociopaths as the exceptions which prove the rule). However, the extent to which people act upon empathy or repress it is probably informed somewhat by upbringing; I *think* that’s what Eliot might be getting at.

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