October 10, 2009
Some Babies Born To Be Anxious

Robin Marantz Henig has a lengthy article in New York Times Magazine about how some babies are born anxious and remain that way even as adults.

The tenuousness of modern life can make anyone feel overwrought. And in societal moments like the one we are in — thousands losing jobs and homes, our futures threatened by everything from diminishing retirement funds to global warming — it often feels as if ours is the Age of Anxiety. But some people, no matter how robust their stock portfolios or how healthy their children, are always mentally preparing for doom. They are just born worriers, their brains forever anticipating the dropping of some dreaded other shoe. For the past 20 years, Kagan and his colleagues have been following hundreds of such people, beginning in infancy, to see what happens to those who start out primed to fret. Now that these infants are young adults, the studies are yielding new information about the anxious brain.

These psychologists have put the assumptions about innate temperament on firmer footing, and they have also demonstrated that some of us, like Baby 19, are born anxious — or, more accurately, born predisposed to be anxious. Four significant long-term longitudinal studies are now under way: two at Harvard that Kagan initiated, two more at the University of Maryland under the direction of Nathan Fox, a former graduate student of Kagan’s. With slight variations, they all have reached similar conclusions: that babies differ according to inborn temperament; that 15 to 20 percent of them will react strongly to novel people or situations; and that strongly reactive babies are more likely to grow up to be anxious.

I'd love to see a political poll done where people are measured for their anxiety and then measured for their views on an assortment of political issues. Are anxious people more likely to support, say, socialized health care or measures against global warming or aggressive policies to stop terrorists or other measures that tend to reduce various risks? Which types of risks do they want to see action taken about at the political level?

I also wonder whether anxious people are more or less likely to become police, military officers, or politicians. Does the worry about threats cause them to seek power to take measures to reduce threats? Or do they try to avoid those sorts of jobs so that they can spend less time worrying?

The article reports that anxiety is the most common mental illness in America with 40 million suffers. Well, when state of mind that probably is genetically caused afflicts 13% of the population I have a hard time calling it an illness. It seems more like an evolutionary maladaptation in modern society. We evolved in niches where that higher level of hypervigilance and fear had selective value that enhanced survival. Now with TV news and web sites reporting all manner of dangers and bad outcomes people who have these anxiety-causing genes are suffering too much in response to the environment around them. Natural selection is obviously cruel.

The article reports that some people channel their reactive temperaments into conscientious and productive behavior. Not all suffer or live in constant worry. Higher IQ people are more likely to channel their higher reactivity into productive pursuits. I wonder whether it will be possible to make our innate traits more often useful and less often crippling.

I've argued with people who insist that Steven Pinker's book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature attacks a straw man. Yet here's Harvard child psychologist Jerome Kagan explaining that it took him 20 years to take seriously the idea that he was seeing anxiety in children that was due to innate differences in temperaments.

Among these prose summaries, which ultimately Kagan and a colleague, Howard Moss, turned into the book “Birth to Maturity,” were descriptions indicating that babies had different innate temperaments. Kagan studiously ignored this finding; it didn’t fit with his left-leaning politics, which saw all individuals as born inherently the same — blank slates, to use the old terminology — and capable of achieving anything if afforded the right social, economic and educational opportunities. “I was so resistant to awarding biology much influence, I didn’t follow up on the inhibited temperaments I was seeing,” he told me. It took another 20 years of listening to arguments about nature versus nurture for Kagan finally to entertain the possibility that some behavior might be attributed to genes.

We live in the era when the genetic causes of all these innate differences are about to be discovered. The costs of DNA sequencing have fallen so far so fast that the flood gates of DNA sequencing data have opened and the rate of DNA sequenc is going to increase by a few more orders of magnitude. So neuroscientists are going to be able to run down and identify the many genetic influences on temperament and intelligence.

The genetic sequencing results aren't even needed to identify anxious children under the age of 1. The article reports that Jerome Kagan figured out that the amygdala plays a big role in anxiety in ways that also change heart beat, respiration, blood pressure and other externally measurable signs. So babies can be classified for anxious temperament pretty easily.

The whole article is worth reading in full.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2009 October 10 11:05 PM  Brain Development

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