p 220

By nature, some people's emotions seem, like my aunt's,
to gravitate toward the positive pole; these people are
naturally upbeat and easygoing, while others are dour
and melancholy. This dimension of temperament—

ebullience at one end, melancholy at the other—seems
linked to the relative activity of the right and left
prefrontal areas, the upper poles of the emotional
brain. That insight has emerged largely from the work
of Richard Davidson, a University of Wisconsin
psychologist. He discovered that people who have
greater activity in the left frontal lobe, compared to
the right, are by temperament cheerful; they typically
take delight in people and in what life presents them
with, bouncing back from setbacks as my aunt June did.
But those with relatively greater activity on the right
side are given to negativity and sour moods, and are
easily fazed by life's difficulties; in a sense, they
seem to suffer because they cannot turn off their
worries and depressions.
In one of Davidson's experiments volunteers with the
most pronounced activity in the left frontal areas were
compared with the fifteen who showed most activity on
the right. Those with marked right frontal activity
showed a distinctive pattern of negativity on a
personality test: they fit the caricature portrayed by
Woody Allen's comedy roles, the alarmist who sees
catastrophe in the smallest thing—prone to funks and
moodiness, and suspicious of a world they saw as
fraught with overwhelming difficulties and lurking
dangers. By contrast to their melancholy counterparts,
those with stronger left frontal activity saw the world
very differently. Sociable and cheerful, they typically
felt a sense of enjoyment, were frequently in good
moods, had a strong sense of self-confidence, and felt
rewardingly engaged in life. Their scores on
psychological tests suggested a lower lifetime risk for
depression and other emotional disorders.6
People who have a history of clinical depression,
Davidson found, had lower levels of brain activity in
the left frontal lobe, and more on the right, than did
people who had never been depressed. He found the same
pattern in patients newly diagnosed with depression,
Davidson speculates that people who overcome
depression have learned to increase the level of
activity in their left prefrontal lobe—a speculation
awaiting experimental testing.
Though his research is on the 30 percent or so of
people at the extremes, just about anyone can be
classified by their brain wave patterns as tending
toward one or the other type, says Davidson. The
contrast in temperament between the morose and the
cheerful shows up in many ways, large and small. For
example, in one experiment volunteers watched short
film clips. Some were amusing—a gorilla taking a bath,
a puppy at play. Others, like an instructional film for
nurses featuring grisly details of surgery, were quite
distressing. The right-hemisphere, somber folks found
the happy movies only mildly amusing, but they felt
extreme fear and disgust in reaction to the surgical
blood and gore. The cheerful group had minimal
reactions to the

surgery; their strongest reactions were of delight when
they saw the up-beat films.
Thus we seem by temperament primed to respond to life
in either a negative or a positive emotional register.
The tendency toward a melancholy or upbeat temperament
—like that toward timidity or boldness—emerges within
the first year of life, a fact that strongly suggests
it too is genetically determined. Like most of the
brain, the frontal lobes are still maturing in the
first few months of life, and so their activity cannot
be reliably measured until the age of ten months or so.

But in infants that young, Davidson found that the
activity level of the frontal lobes predicted whether
they would cry when their mothers left the room. The
correlation was virtually 100 percent: of dozens of
infants tested this way, every infant who cried had
more brain activity on the right side, while those who
did not had more activity on the left.

Still, even if this basic dimension of temperament is
laid down from birth, or very nearly from birth, those
of us who have the morose pattern are not necessarily
doomed to go through life brooding and crotchety. The
emotional lessons of childhood can have a profound
impact on temperament, either amplifying or muting an
innate predisposition.

The great plasticity of the
brain in childhood means that experiences during those
years can have a lasting impact on the sculpting of
neural pathways for the rest of life. Perhaps the best
illustration of the kinds of experiences that can alter
temperament for the better is in an observation that
emerged from Kagan's research with timid children.

Taming the Overexcitable Amygdala

The encouraging news from Kagan's studies is that not
all fearful infants grow up hanging back from life—

temperament is not destiny. The overexcitable amygdala
can be tamed, with the right experiences. What makes
the differ¬ence are the emotional lessons and responses
children learn as they grow. For the timid child, what
matters at the outset is how they are treated by their
parents, and so how they learn to handle their natural
timidness. Those parents who engineer gradual
emboldening experiences for their children offer them
what may be a lifelong corrective to their fearfulness.
About one in three infants who come into the world with
all the signs of an overexcitable amygdala have lost
their timidness by the time they reach kindergarten.7
From observations of these once-fearful children at
home, it is




Temperament Is Not Destiny


clear [hat parents, and especially mothers, play a
major role in whether an innately timid child grows
bolder with lime or continues to shy away from novelty
and become upset by challenge. Kagan's research team
found that some of the mothers held to the philosophy
that they should protect their timid toddlers from
whatever was upsetting; others felt that it was more
important to help their timid child learn how to cope
with these upsetting moments, and so adapt to life's
small struggles. The protective belief seems to have
abetted the fearfulness, probably by depriving the
youngsters of oppor¬tunities for learning how to
overcome their fears. The "'learn to adapt" philosophy
of childrearing seems to have helped fearful children
become braver.
Observations in the homes when the babies were about
six months old found that the protective mothers,
trying to soothe their infants, picked them up and held
them when they fretted or cried, and did so longer than
those mothers who tried to help their infants learn to
master these moments of upset. The ratio of times the
infants were held when calm and when upset showed that
the protective mothers held their infants much longer
during the upsets than the calm periods.
Another difference emerged when the infants were around
one year old: the protective mothers were more lenient
and indirect in setting limits for their toddlers when
they were doing something that might be harmful, such
as mouthing an object they might swallow. The other
mothers, by contrast, were emphatic, setting firm
limits, giving direct commands, blocking the child's
actions, insisting on obedience.
Why should firmness lead to a reduction in fearfulness?
Kagan speculates that there is something learned when a
baby has his steady crawl toward what seems to him an
intriguing object (but to his mother a dangerous one)
interrupted by her warning, 'Get away from that!" The
infant is suddenly forced to deal with a mild
uncertainty. The repetition of this challenge hundreds
and hundreds of times during the first year of life
gives the infant continual rehearsals, in small doses,
of meeting the unexpected in life. For fearful children
that is precisely the encounter that has to be
mastered, and manageable doses are just right for
learning the lesson. When the encounter takes place
with parents who, though loving, do not rush to pick up
and soothe the toddler over every little upset, he
gradually learns to manage such moments on his own. By
age two. when these formerly fearful toddlers are
brought back to Kagan's laboratory, they are far less
likely to break out into tears when a stranger frowns
at them, or an experimenter puts a blood-pressure cuff
around their arm.

Kagan's conclusion: "It appears that mothers who
protect their highlly] reactive infants from
frustration and anxiety in the hope of effecting a
benev¬olent outcome seem to exacerbate the infant's
uncertainty and produce the opposite effect."8 In other
words, the protective strategy backfires by depriv¬ing
timid toddlers of the very opportunity to learn to calm
themselves in the face of the unfamiliar, and so gain
some small mastery of their fears. At the neurological
level, presumably, this means their prefrontal circuits
missed the chance to learn alternate responses to
knee-jerk fear; instead, their tendency for unbridled
fearfulness may have been strengthened simply-through
In contrast, as Kagan told me, "Those children who had
become less timid by kindergarten seem to have had
parents who put gentle pressure on them to be more
outgoing. Although this temperamental trait seems
slightly harder than others to change—probably because
of its physiological basis—no human quality is beyond
Throughout childhood some timid children grow bolder as
experience continues to mold the key neural circuitry.
One of the signs that a timid child will be more likely
to overcome this natural inhibition is having a higher
level of social competence: being cooperative and
getting along with other chil¬dren; being empathic,
prone to giving and sharing, and considerate; and being
able to develop close friendships. These traits marked
a group of children first identified as having a timid
temperament at age four, who shook il off by the time
they were ten years old.5
By contrast, those timid four-year-olds whose
temperament changed little over the same six years
tended to be less able emotionally: crying and falling
apart under stress more easily: being emotionally
inappropriate; being fear¬ful, sulky, or whiny;
overreacting to minor frustration with anger; having
trouble delaying gratification; being overly sensitive
to criticism, or mistrust¬ful. These emotional lapses
are, of course, likely to mean their relationships with
other children will be troubled, should they be able to
overcome their initial reluctance to engage.
By contrast, it is easy to see why the more emotionally
competent— though shy by temperament—children
spontaneously outgrew their timid-it}'. Being more
socially skilled, they were far more likely to have a
succession of positive experiences with other children.
Even if they were tentative about, say, speaking to a
new playmate, once the ice was broken they were able to
shine socially. The regular repetition of such social
success over many years would naturally tend to make
the timid more sure of themselves.
These advances toward boldness are encouraging; they
suggest that even



Temperament Is Not Destiny


innate emotional patterns can change to some degree. A
child who into the world easily frightened can learn to
be calmer, or even outgoing m the face of the
unfamiliar. Fearfulness—or any other temperament—may be
part of the biological givens of our emotional lives,
but we are not necessarily limited to a specific
emotional menu by our inherited traits. There is a
range of possibility even within genetic constraints.
As behavioral geneticists ob¬serve, genes alone do not
determine behavior; our environment, especially what we
experience and learn as we grow, shapes how a
temperamental predisposition expresses itself as life
unfolds. Our emotional capacities are not a given; with
the right learning, they can be improved. The reasons
for this lie in how the human brain matures.

By nature?







221 ebullience

seems linked

people? -- adults, teens or childnren?

cheerful, bouncing back from setbacks

given to

negativity - sour moods

easily fazed by life's difficulties

they seem to suffer because they cannot turn off their worries and depressions.

alarmist - catastrophe - smallest thing

funks - moodiness

fraught with -- lurking

by contrast - he uses this a lot as if just black and white.

saw the world very differently


rewardingly engaged? (more easily controlled by rewards maybe?)

lower risk of depression and other emotional disorders adds to his image of them as superior, preferable human beings

Davidson speculuates

learned to increase the level of activity in their left prefrontal lobe (sounds very scientific; something desirable)


cheerful group

-- they are probably the ones who would be most invalidating of the others)

-- is showing no painful feelings really that good?


seem by temperament - environment has nothing to do with difference?

emotional register?


genetically determined or epigenetically?





"they would cry" - implies that those who did not cry are superior, preferable


very nearly from birth? is it still genetic if it is "laid down" after birth?


brooding and crotchety

amplfiying or muting -- muting could mean their inate sensitivity, which is a key part of both their individual evolutionary survival system and that of the human species, loses its value and potential contribution to the advancment of humanity

The great plasticity ... means that experiences ... can have a lasting impact ... for the rest of life. -- I agree.


By nature, some people's emotions seem, like my aunt's,
to gravitate toward the positive pole; these people are
naturally upbeat and easygoing, while others are dour
and melancholy. This dimension of temperament—
  The encouraging news from Kagan's studies is that not
all fearful infants grow up hanging back from life—