Psychopathy is hardwired in the brain

What shapes children : How does personality develop?

The parents are desperate. Your son or daughter, around 15 years old, will no longer be told, do too little for school, take drugs, steal, spray graffiti or bully classmates. “We tried so hard, and now this!” As a rule, parents should only try to avoid the “worst”. But they don't have to despair, because such behavior usually goes away by itself at the end of puberty. From a biological-psychological point of view, puberty is an emotional and cognitive chaos, triggered by the influence of sex hormones and the urge to cut the cord and find oneself. But all of this is limited in time, little changes in the basic structure of the respective personality.

Lying, stealing, bullying

However, parents need to worry if such behavioral problems occur in early childhood. Add in frequent lying, stealing, bullying, recklessness, or cruelty to animals and this behavior continues after puberty. This is the case for around five percent of boys and one to two percent of girls. These are then the “failed” and “ungrateful” children of whom world literature is full - just think of the daughters of King Lear in Shakespeare or those of father Goriot in Balzac. The parents blame each other for guilt: “Where did he or she get that from? But not from me, it has to come from your family! "

In this context, adoptions of Russian and Romanian orphans after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc are particularly tragic. This happens when the children were physically and / or psychologically abused or abused and they did not come to their new parents until they were two years old. Under such circumstances, despite the most loving care, the children developed severe mental and behavioral disorders. Some parents even tried to give the children back. In many cases they did not know anything about the sad history of the adopted children or thought that one could compensate for the damage through a large amount of care. But there are also enough counterexamples in which children from families of origin who were characterized by misery, violence and drug abuse became “very decent people”. Did they have enough “good genes” or were there saving people or events?

It is not enough to focus solely on genetic factors or the environment

In the past, all of this made the question of why people become what they later appear puzzling - unless one tends to generalize. Biological and scientific thinkers saw the answer primarily in “good” or “bad” genes and the corresponding brain development. For many psychologists and social scientists it was the positive or negative environment and for many humanities scholars and lawyers the degree of self-directed spiritual and moral development that determined a person's personality.

All three concepts have only a very limited explanatory power. This has been shown by studies carried out by neurobiologists, psychologists and psychiatrists in recent years. The rigid opposition between supposedly purely genetic-biological factors and purely environmental factors is outdated, as is the classic-romantic image of the “self-developing” individual.

The more recent social philosophy, represented for example by Jürgen Habermas or Niklas Luhmann (albeit with different justifications), and its many current followers essentially understand humans as a social-communicative being, in which the biological-neurobiological equipment has no specific meaning. For them it would be absurd to look for the characteristics of social behavior such as communication, a sense of justice, cooperativity, the pursuit of knowledge, morality and freedom in the brain. Scientific explanations are set against social and humanistic understanding, behavior against action, causes against reasons, and so on.

Damage to the brain can lead to personality disorders

However, it has long been known that abnormal developments, illnesses, or injuries to certain parts of the brain lead to profound personality disorders, including severe behavioral disorders such as violence and psychopathy. The consequences of acute injury to the lower and inner frontal lobe from mechanical damage or a stroke are spectacular. You can turn a peaceful and systematic person into a highly impulsive and reckless person.

Why these personality changes occur has now been clarified: In these parts of the frontal lobe there are areas that are specifically “wired” over the course of the first 20 years of life under the influence of education and socialization and accordingly guide our social behavior. Impulse inhibition and the recognition and consideration of social risks play a special role. Other areas of the brain have to do with empathy and the ability to understand how other people think and feel. For almost all aspects of social-communicative action such as mutual understanding, love, religiosity, but also shame, remorse and benevolent action (to name just a few), researchers have found regions that together form a large network of the “social brain”.

Caring for the caregiver creates basic trust

As early as the 1940s, the attachment research established by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth confirmed that the first years of life are decisive for the maturation of this “social brain”. And that in the context of the early childhood experience of attachment with the primary caregiver, i.e. usually - but by no means necessarily - with the mother. On the one hand, babies and toddlers experience the benefits of the caregiver's care, and this creates basic trust. At the same time, the emotional-communicative interaction slowly differentiates the initially diffuse emotional world of the child. The way in which the caregiver treats him or her, their emotional world is at least partially imprinted on the child. This applies in particular to dealing with stress and strain, such as the temporary separation from the mother, the ability to wait for rewards, to curb spontaneous impulses, to resolve conflicts without violence or to develop an idea of ​​how others feel and think - i.e. everything that what belongs to the basic social skills.

A depressed mother can pass the disease on to the children through her behavior

However, this presupposes that the caregiver, i.e. usually the mother, has the appropriate skills himself. If these are not or insufficiently available, for example due to a lack of personal attachment experiences, traumatization through abuse, abuse or severe strokes of fate, then these deficits are fatally imprinted on the psyche and personality of the toddler. They also form the basis of later mental disorders including poor attachment skills in adolescence and adulthood. There is then a greatly increased risk that a depressed mother will pass on her illness to her children through her behavior.

Now new: We give you 4 weeks of Tagesspiegel Plus! To home page