What, or um.. Why I Am What I Am?

It’s not me – it’s something else. I developed out of my own control, from forces that were pre-determined. I don’t really have to explore it, I just have to know it is that way – as a reason for being what I am. And yeah, it’s not my fault.

Or, um… I’m not limited! I’m free to be or become anything – I’m undefined and free-floating, cannot be pinned down, and have no limitations. Sure that’s all my doing, and what are you going to do about it? I’m just about everything – and can’t really find anything to put my finger on…

Well, two extreme sides of a coin, if you ask me. As someone who’s adopted, I have been able to see very clearly the influence of hard-coded genetics interplaying with the more subtle influences of environment.

Mike just wrote some interesting thoughts on a book he recently read.

Being gay, and not really fitting into the neat categorical definitions of in utero formative constructions where my mascuilinity and femininity – or domineering and submissive characteristics, can be neatly defined and sectioned off, I have to conclude that there might be something a little bit more going on than what Moir might be saying.

There is certainly something to research claiming that people are born gay or straight, or that women come pre-loaded with girly behaviour, and men with dumb macho crap. But does this hard-wiring explain the way people rigidly cling to these definitions even when they’re feeling otherwise?

Does this explain the slow blending of these differential behavioural constructs in recent times?

Or is it really some kind of celebration and glorification of “traditional” modes of behavior for us all? A scientifically-based set of off and on toggle switches for our souls?

I’m afraid this scientist is running into the familiar old problem that even still many people ignore. Applying observations upon the thing that we are is highly prone to error in that we cannot distance ourselves into the necessary objectivity away from ourselves to reach any absolute conclusions.

It is undeniable that genetics plays a part in our development. It is also undeniable that forces completely separate from genetics influence who we become.

To my mind, the hard-coded genetics is merely a framework from which the entirety of our experience can… well.. be experienced. And if we tinker with that, shaping it into some kind of ideal, the scope, bredth and depth of that larger experience becomes hugely diminished with even the tiniest of structural alterations toward the normative.

I haven’t read this book, but such studies make me nervous. Why devote so much effort to uncovering the impossible to uncover gender behaviour causes when we have diseases, deformations and horrific birth defects to worry about?

I suppose he can do what he likes with his time, and other people’s money.

Thinking back, I remember speaking with Koray Tanfer, a pioneer in studying a genetic basis for homosexuality. I was young and stupid, and basically gave him a very hard time about it because I knew that I was more than a hard-coded program running. And I had seen too many people crossing all kinds of lines and borders that was just well beyond the capacity for any genetic structure to account for.

He told me that really, it meant very little. It was just a trend – a noticable predisposition, if I’m remembering right. And that it certainly did not account for the entirety of our experience as human beings.

I have no idea how this meshes with studies showing that most people are bisexual, too.

But I do know that women who are true women are very boring and predicatable. And men who are true men are pretty much the same. In that respect, I suppose they could be hard-coded – because they are rather like computer programs.

Then again, I’m far more true to myself, steadfast in my doings and stronger in my resolve than many straight men are. And also more sensitive and giving, intutive and nurturing than many of the straight women I know.

Maybe I’m just hard-coded Superior. In that case, screw his normative definitions. Who needs them? Or, if I’m just delusional, at least I’d make a good Nazi.

  • Hi Mark,

    Way to find the upside!

    I agree with you about the “hard-coded” part. As I say on my blog, it’s too easy to say people are “naturally” this or that. For one thing, if you’re speaking statistically, you’re talking about an experience no one person can have — none of us interacts with the population at large. We interact one person at a time, and probability rules almost nothing out in that context. The improbable occurs every damn day.

    It’s also too easy to claim causal links on the basis of statistical correlation. Just because “most” heterosexual men act one way does not mean that genetics or hormone expression literally cause that behavior. We can’t really get outside our culture to view how we’d act otherwise, which I think is what I hear you saying.

    That said, what intrigues me about this kind of research is not the why of gay or straight, for instance, or male or female, for that matter, it’s the observable differences in morphology and hormonal expression that are causally linked to specific capabilities. It’s interesting to me that straight men as a population don’t have much crosstalk between right/left hemispheres via their corpus callosum, whereas as poets you and I make a practice of running back and forth.

    This is not to say that straight men don’t have feelings or aren’t aware of them, by the way. It’s to say that men have a more binary response, either thinking/doing or feeling/imagining. They inhabit one hemisphere at a time. Thus, if you want to get a man to talk about his feelings, you might ask him to draw a picture.

    Too many people are too happy accepting static definitions of themselves, and call it self-knowledge. Self-knowledge, to me, is knowing enough about yourself currently to affect how you behave in the future. Genetics = hard-wiring? I don’t know. Not as much as people seem to think. And certainly where hormonal expression is in play, we have a great deal more influence.

    Thanks for the trackback! That’s my first one!

  • The morphology is interesting. I think we have a tendency to want to attribute quite a lot to it. I’m certain it plays a large role in who we are. But I don’t believe that it’s the largest role.

    How easy it is to say, I’m just wired that way. Or, I was drunk so I did it – and wouldn’t have normally. Something exists within us that is more fundamental – something that hormones, whose balances can be greatly altered by even foods – does not touch, yet covers over – altering, like a distorting lens.

    If we look at various pathological states – say a stroke. An entire region of the brain wiped out. So often we hear of people who, over time, biologically compensate by re-wiring their own brains. If such a thing is possible, how valid is the justification that iconic male or female behaviour is a function of wiring, or chemical process?

    Also, is there some ideal that exists of male and female that our biology fixes us upon a course toward?

    I watched a documentary some time ago on epilepsy where, in extreme life threatening cases, doctors sever the connection between the brain hemispheres. No crosstalk exists at all. It was particularly interesting how factual memory became disjointed from emotion.

    So, in the case of males whose corpus callosum “muscle” is under-used – is this because it’s just weak? Or is it because they’re lazy?

    In a society where men are encouraged to disassociate objectives from emotion – does the society exist that way because of genetic wiring, or socially-based psychological imprinting?

    In other words, are these observations seeing the cause, or a symptom?

    I think if it were causal, things like irrational anger, angst and fear associated with observing differences in others would not be so prevalent. It’s only when you touch upon the more abstract psychological that such things come into play. However, if it’s psychologically based, it makes perfect sense that the physiological would adapt – from the sheer preponderance of the specific paths and uses.

    Of course, I’m sure it’s more of an interplay between the two – but I think the psychological is by far the more dominant force. There is no other explanation for the rapid changes in male and female definitions recently, and the radical transformations that can occur within people when they overcome some type of psychological issue. Biology simply does not evolve quickly enough to offer an explanitory basis.

    Besides, it seems to me that when we adopt a static definition of ourselves, based upon some Thing that is separate from ourselves, we transform yet another part of ourselves to that ultimate static state which we all, eventually, will come to anyway.

  • Hi, “Mich” again,

    Certainly you can’t understand the systemic interaction of environment and neurobiology by pointing to a single thing and saying, “That’s it! That’s why I am the way I am.” As you point out, we’re always “in the loop” in terms of feedback.

    But certain things are constrained, observably. For one thing not many people’s brains fully recover from a stroke. Alternate pathways are invoked if they exist, but the construction of new neural pathways is minimal — very little “rewiring” occurs, if any, ever. Our brain’s plasticity is related to a fairly short window of development (prior to 3 years of age). What appears to be plasticity in an adult is the appropriation and repurposing of existing neural connections (if a sighted person blindfolds themselves, in about a week, hearing and touch will start to use the neuronal connections for sight — but again, these connections already exist).

    Also, women are more likely to recover faster than men from a stroke, especially if the stroke has damaged a language center. Women’s brains (fMRI studies show) distribute language processing in both hemispheres; men’s brains don’t. It’s suspected that this is due in large part to the measurable difference in the thickness and structure of the corpus callosum in women and men. Men don’t have the inter-hemispherical bandwidth to make that kind of distributed function work.

    In contrast, this compartmentalization has its own rewards; men in general find it easier to focus (obsessively even) on a task at the expense of social interaction.

    Is this laziness or cultural? I find it very hard to ascribe functional limitations to psychosocial factors. Taking the long view, evolutionary biologists might say that a culture of sex-differentiation has emphasized those differences through a feedback loop of its own. But let me make it very clear that I am not talking about observable one-on-one behavior. Culture sits on top of our physical make-up and seeks to direct our strengths to some purpose, survival, pleasure-seeking, what-have-you. We are sexual creatures. Culture creates sex roles. (You can’t discuss something like “sex roles” without cultural context, I don’t think.)

    People say, Ah well, testosterone is why little Johnny plays with guns. No. Little Johnny plays with guns because our culture created guns, and they’re congruent with the emotional expression of the effects of testosterone (they unite immediate action and aggression). But so is taking things apart to see how they work. So is building things. So is exploring something new and testing boundaries. So is the samurai disrespect for mechanized aggression.

    I do think that saying “Men don’t want to talk about their feelings” (as the book authors do) is a cultural statement, not a scientific one. It’s an inter-sexual comparison. Men have long said women talk about them too much. All that’s being noted is that there is a difference of frequency. It’s not evidence that men don’t have feelings, but evidence that neurobiology does not usually over-privilege them with the verbal means to talk about feelings as they feel them, only later, in recollection, which is where poetry comes in.

    (Often when a man does talk about his feelings he does so with an intensity and focus that disturbs a woman, who’s used to an apparently unfeeling facade. There is a cultural feedback loop for you, because not being expert in feeling, without positive reinforcement, men will avoid developing their own manner of expression.)

    That’s why I’m find this kind of research worthwhile, actually, because you can get away from the judgment of sexual perspective and come to an understanding of sexual perspectives, rather than a monolithic viewpoint on the shortcomings of the other sex. The research on sex hormones and brain development indicate that sexual preference is distinct from almost anything else we associate with sexual identity. It’s a stereotype destroyer, but it means that there’s absolutely nothing inherently manly or feminine tied to sexual preference. It’s just what you prefer.

  • Took a while to look at this more – it’s interesting. But I’m very suspicious of using a physical characteristic to justify or explain a broad behavioural state.

    I’ve done a bit of digging today. It seems that nobody really knows what “bandwidth” means in the corpus callosum – and even less is know about what it means to even have any bandwidth there at all.

    The size difference between genders of the CC, when a given study can indicate it, is usually found only markedly in the minimum size of the CC. Much more correlation can be found when looking at age or the size of the cortex itself, which has a disproportionately smaller ratio of CC “size”. In other words, a smaller cortex usually has a larger CC.

    There seems to be a growing trend in research that is saying brain plasticity is not so static as was previously thought. Physical re-wiring actually does occur, even in adults. It’s known that if skills or behaviors are not used, brain areas become “weak” or disused. Such is the case with kids and language skills.

    But they can come back. Adults just don’t have the incredible growth rate that allows for very fast re-wiring. Studies in stroke victims at Oxford have shown language abilities in both men and women can be dramatically effected by focused training. I suspect that stroke victims who don’t improve either have far too massive destruction, or their disorientation is a factor working against them to re-focus and re-train, or their “coaches” are not doing something right when re-focusing/re-training through new pathways.

    Language seems to be distributed across the brain in both hemispheres. There are strong correlations to left or right handedness that determine which side of the brain is more dominant. Music seems to be the most widly distributed of all – utilizing a very diverse landscape of the brain – in both men and women. Musical training, even a little, can cause a dramatic intensification of activity as well. Music hits the visual, auditory, language, and even pleasure centers.

    It seems the notion of “centers” is not really considered canonical, either. More research is showing that centers shift over the span of our lives.

    However, it is known that the brain, like a muscle, increases and decreases its capacity for one thing or another through training and actual use.

    In all of this wild, transitioning stuff that is the very fabric of our peceptions, it seems to me that if people want to have gender biases and slam each other for being a bad dumb man, or a bad dumb woman, they’re really just being silly. They’re setting themselves in their own static little world when their brains are capable of so much more.

    And I think that using a physical, hard-coded structure as the basis for an exuse to behave like a man is supposed to behave, or a woman to behave as a woman is supposed to behave, is really just an excuse. Male and Female are iconic absolutes, and reality is always in between.

    And when people are different, why do they focus on the shortcomings? In an effort to make things better? And if so, isn’t it impossible to be better if we’re hard-wired to be less? And if that’s the case, isn’t a perpetual “war” inevitable? Or do we just become happy and complacent even with shortcomings?

    Not that I mind being happy and complacent! And I’m kinda into shortcomings, strangely.

    Differences I think are rapidly trending downwards. But there will always be differences, if even just one creature to another.

    I’ve sometimes thought that het men and women fight so much because it gives them something in common, other than a child or a shared house or income. Something just between them.

    I think men adopt “male behaviour” and women adobpt “female behaviour” not so much because they want to, or because the just love it, but because they feel they must. Is that genetically influenced? Perhaps – but then how are the rapid changes toward a less differences happening? Are they hormonally caused? Perhaps, but again, are we just getting a lot more hormones that “blend” us lately?

    We’ve got very complicated brains. And our brains are the structure from which we enter the world – a shell, like our body, perhaps, to speak metaphysically. I do not believe it is so limited, though I am open to the possibility if something can convince me.

    I think what we’re seeing here, and talking about, is sociological and psychological, far more than genetic or hormonal.

    For example, if we have a big club, from when we were little kids, and use it to smash our way to whatever we want, we might end up a little callous. It can be said, like your gun example, that having the club is not what made us callous. But who handed us the club? How tightly did we hold onto it, even when someone almost got us to put it down? How much do we love the expressions on other people’s faces when we walk into their presence with our big club – how some cower, how some move closer. How we wake in terror at night from our nightmares of losing our club. And who wants a club just like ours?

    I think this might be a little more powerful than normal hormones.

    Recently I saw this documentary where dyslexia was being practically cured by a computer program that allowed people to focus on the visual and auditory elements at the speeds they needed to, going back to a point in their development that was somehow skipped over, and now focused intently upon until their brain’s plasticity connected them up.

    Some few links:

    Society for Neuroscience on Brain Plasticity
    Scientific American on Music and the Brain
    The relationship between corpus callosum size and forebrain volume
    Variations in Human Corpus Callosum Do Not Predict Gender: A Study Using MRI
    Training-induced brain plasticity in aphasia
    “Brain Basics” for the Teaching Professional