Mythbusters II: We Do NOT Begin as Blank Slates

We can't all be geniuses, after all

Posted Aug 10, 2011

We love the idea of childhood innocence.  We love the idea that babies are born into the world with a blank slate.  Anything is possible.  Protect them from the dangers of the world and they will have perfectly wonderful, carefree lives.  The problem is that it's just not true.

In a recent post (Insight: Understanding What Makes Us Tick), I talked about the idea that we each come into the world with a pre-installed operating system—a particular type of temperament that varies from person to person.  Individual temperament is the filter that affects how we view what is going on in us and around us.  It affects how we make sense of our experiences, how we feel about them, and ultimately what we do about them. 

Temperament has a big genetic component.  We are biological creatures, after all.  Some of us are more naturally aggressive than others.  Some are more shy.  We vary in how smart we are, how athletic, how musical, how sensitive, how optimistic, how resilient, how emotional, how relational.  Ask anyone who has experience with babies and they will tell you that a baby's basic personality is evident from the get-go—as psychoanalyst Melanie Klein would say, from the beginning.

Remember Jacob and Esau from the Bible story?  Jacob was grasping the heel of his one-minute older twin brother as he slid through the birth canal, already showing signs of the rivalry that would lead to such radical betrayal many years later.  You might say that's just a story, except we now have modern-day evidence to back it up.  Alessandra Piontelli, an Italian psychoanalyst, did a fascinating set of studies observing the ultrasounds of twins in utero.  Studying the twins at several points during the pregnancy, she found that the way they interacted in the womb—their relational style with one another, if you will—carried forward into how they related after birth and as they grew up into more developed children.  Our basic personalities are set more than we would like to believe they are!

Now, I hope you find all this fascinating.  But I'm also guessing that it makes you uncomfortable.  We have a hard time believing that we have restrictions built-in to our personalities.  You might be thinking that I am saying that we are doomed by our biology.  If so much is already determined, where is free will?  How can parents make a difference in their children's lives?  Or teachers?  Or therapists, for that matter? 

Well, I do have some comfort to offer you.  The good news is that our psychobiology is rather flexible.  Indeed, our basic temperaments are greatly influenced by our environment, by the care we receive, by the investments we make, by the work we do, by the experiences we have.  It's just like intelligence.  We are each born with a kind of range of intelligence potential.  If we have enriching experiences early in our lives and put them to good use, we develop our intelligence at the upper end of this potential range.  If we are deprived or under-achieving, we develop our intelligence at the bottom of that potential range.  This can make a big difference in how we fare in life.  But it doesn't mean that anyone can be a genius.  We can only work with the raw material of what we've been given.  We have freedom within limits, as I like to say.

The good news as this applies to psychological growth is that we can make a difference in our success, happiness, and satisfaction in life—within limits.  As I tell my patients, a successful psychoanalysis has the potential to bring about real, lasting inner and outer transformation.  But you will still be the same person.  Hopefully, you will be a better version of yourself, but still the same person.  Think about it in this way.  An orange tree can only produce oranges, not apples.  But with changes in conditions, it can produce juicy, delicious fruit or nothing at all.  Small, positive, permanent modifications in how we view our experiences, manage our feelings, and live out our choices can have a great impact on the quality of our lives.

If we can bear the disillusionment that we can become anything we wish to be, we have the chance to become all that we can be. 


About the Author

Jennifer Kunst, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst, working with adults and couples in her private practice in Pasadena, CA.

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