Nature or Nurture?

In my opinion, an extreme stance on any discussion or general topic in life leaves no room for alternatives and thus detracts from the overall credibility of an argument. When I read this article my thoughts were brought back to a debate that has often been a central focus of many classes I have taken and literature I have read, both within the realms of psychology and biology (with specific reference to a class I took last semester on the perceptions of mental health and illness in society). The fundamental nature and nurture debate is what was brought to my attention when I thought about the relationship between the two fields. As I read about psychology and its focus on the “mind” I automatically think about ‘nurture’ or the psychosocial external factors that may play a role in influencing the minds mutable development and functioning. When I think biology, I think about the “brain” and the hard wired natural side of it that is determined by an internal genetic reality. As pointed out by Miller and Keller, the manner of conceptualization of one’s mental state critically determines how one may understand it- both in theory and in practice. So when I analyze the two groups of ideas, why is it that I instinctively think about each group (mind/psychology/nurture vs. brain/biology/nature) as mutually exclusive conceptions of our mental functioning instead of focusing more on the intersection of the same? In the ancient dialogue between nature and nurture as well as biology and psychology, one often (as I have myself) engages in an unending quest to tease out distinctions between the two. However, in doing so, one falls short of acknowledging that both are, in fact, crucial to the understanding of the human mental state.

Growing up in India, a country where the layman’s conception of mental illnesses is reduced to a single label of unsolvable and unacceptable “craziness”, my understanding of it was severely limited. With no room for behavioural psychology and sociology in my schooling, biology dominated my thoughts and explanations for many phenomena. More so, when the only context in which psychopathology was really ever acknowledged was by a doctor in a medical setting, it became increasingly difficult for my cerebral thought processes to conceive mental illness as being anything other than a slew of neurotransmitters that leaves an individual slave to a natural process which would be very difficult to gain command over. The only solutions could be medications that would alter the brain. But, what I didn’t think about was the simultaneous stigma and lack of psychological support associated with taking medication. Yes, medicine is useful; but isolated, it will never be able to deal with an initial and strong resistance to taking it. Medication is perceived by my society as the first and introductory confirmation of ‘abnormality’, and hospitals as the last and final attempt at salvation from complete ‘insanity’. Due to this complete ignorance of a necessary psychological strength so as to cope with one’s mental (biological and psychological) weaknesses the two fields are separated more and more.

A book that really threw light on, and helped me realized the true relationship and intersection between the biology of the brain and the psychology of the mind was a book by Kay Jamison called an Unquiet Mind (MUST READ). In this book she talks about her journey through her life with severe manic depression. She expresses a strong duality of importance to both the biology and psychology of her condition without giving one more importance than the other in terms of both, the cause and treatment of her illness. It really helped me shed more light on the broad ideas of the nature-nurture intersection we are going to discuss in class this semester, and not just in theory but in actual practice. Reading her book made me acutely aware of how important the manner of conceptualization of psychopatholgy is to the actual experience of it- direct or indirect.

Literature and stories such as hers greatly influence the development of this conceptualization of mental illness. It thus becomes critical and important for academics (such as Miller and Keller) and eventually the common person/student (such as us) to recognize and subsequently problematize the proclivity of theory to confine the human mental state to simple and competing binaries; categorically constructed axes that do not permit a critical and relational understanding of the multiple and mutable factors, biological or psychological, that jointly affect the human mind and brain. We are all in fact products of biological and psychological temperaments, and thus neither must underlie the other if we ever wish to understand the entire scope of our existence.

That said, I’m really happy that this will be one of the prime focuses of our class as I believe it is very pertinent to our current and future conceptualizations and perspectives on these interconnected fields that we are studying!

4 thoughts on “Nature or Nurture?

  1. Darshini, thanks for the title of the book–something to look into for sure.

    I am really glad you brought up Nature v. nurture. Especially because I feel like when we think of the nature v. nurture debate we tend to categorize nature as a biological phenomenon, and nurture as a psychological phenomenon. However, can these terms be interchangeable, such that the nurture aspect can actually impact the nature aspect? Or perhaps even the other way around? Why is this debate so central? And furthermore, why is it only nature v. nurture? What else could be incorporated? What else could contribute to mental illness or dispositions?

    This is why I like the diathesis stress model of schizophrenia so much. It accounts for both the nature (biological) and nurture (psychological) aspects, where one over the other cannot cause the disorder, but they must interact to cause the disease.

    I think it is also interesting how often the nature v. nurture debate is used for other “psychological” phenomenon, such as human sexuality, as well. How does this translate to sexual preference? How does it translate to the way we see our world?

    interesting stuff.


  2. Perhaps we can use Hebb’s quip in our thinking of this. When asked which is more important to who we are, nature or nurture, he famously retorted: “which contributes more to the area of a rectangle, its length or its width?” Indeed.


  3. Darshini, I’m so glad you posted about nature/nurture because I had been thinking about that while reading the article but forgot to post it. I’ve always felt like they both contribute to a person, but I had never really thought about the two interacting directly with each other… for example, nature determines how you interpret nurture, and nurture can change your “nature”/biology. Crazy! Melissa, great quote.


  4. I think the nature v nurture debate is parallel if not intertwined with the brain v behavior argument. I liked when you said, “However, in doing so, one falls short of acknowledging that both are, in fact, crucial to the understanding of the human mental state.” This statement is a great way to tie these two ideas together and show how parallel they are. In development as well as neurobiology these two seemingly opposing forces come together to contribute to our understanding of development, personality, mental illnesses, and many other facets of our being.


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