Why We Are The Way We Are: Our Environmental Genome  

A child’s development actually begins long before they are conceived. It begins with how their parents, grandparents, great grandparents, and ancestors even farther back than that, were nurtured when they were children as well.

That paragraph makes it sound as though we are hopelessly doomed, as individuals, couples, families, cultures, and as a species. Well, if we don’t change how we take care of ourselves, each other, and our children, we are.

For centuries, experts have argued which is more important, “Nature,” or “Nurture.” Which has more effect on our development they wonder; what we are born with, or what happens to us after we get here?

Consider these facts.

  • The socioeconomic status, mood, and nutrition of the parents, from conception on, have life-long effects on the health, behavior, relationships, and mental stability of the child and, through them, future generations.
  • Most of who we will be as an adult is determined by age three.
  • Our brain and personality are basically mature by age five.
  • Our most advanced Life Skills, our executive functions, will not change significantly after we are seven.

The inescapable conclusion is that how we are nurtured is most important. How we are treated in the womb and as a very young child determines the kind of adult we will eventually become.

Nurture dictates so much we did not know before, down to switching on, or off, gene systems that may have life-long health or behavior consequences. Our mental and emotional development is finished before we have the thinking skills to evaluate what happened to us.

At the moment of conception, we not only inherit our physical genome, our physical characteristics, we inherit the environment into which we will be born, and in which, we will be raised. As a fetus, helpless baby, and developing child, we are completely subject to the levels of life skills, nurturing, nutrition, coping, and perspective present in our family members, their friends, their religion, and their diet.

Considering the impact it will have on us, and through us to future generations, I have come to think of it as our Environmental Genome.

Children are the product of their environment. As tiny children, we use a very simple technique for learning, called Watch & Copy. We watched our parents, friends, family, teachers, preachers, and television celebrities, examples in our Environmental Genome, and we copied their behaviors. We figured out what we could do, what we couldn’t do, and what we could probably get away with.

Then we made up our own rules and we then practiced the rules we made up until they became our subconscious habits.

What we know about the world, our place in it, our limitations in it, our expectations of it, our coping skills, our attitudes, our biases, and our prejudices, have become subconscious habits before we were five years of age, learned from the people in our Environmental Genome. These subconscious habits will dictate nearly all our choices and manage our relationships for the rest of our lives.

Obviously, we learn a lot of good things as young children, but at that time we are also unable to defend ourselves from the errors being programmed into our brains by the people in our environment. We become a composite of who those people were.

Remember this though, they too are doing the best they can with the skills they learned from their Environmental Genomes.

None of us ever reach school age with our potential intact.

By the time our brain has developed the capacity to recognize the errors, the errors have already also become deeply ingrained habits and we don’t even question them, we just accept them as facts.

Even if we did question the errors, we had no idea how to change them. It is not really possible to recall, let alone evaluate the correctness of, what was done to us in those early years because the connections to those memories is physically severed in our brains by sixteen to seventeen years of age. (Synaptic Pruning)

Since our memories about our early memories are terribly inaccurate, we need to give up the idea that understanding experiences from our past will somehow empower us to create a better future.

Instead, we should focus on what we can do differently, starting right now, to transform our lives. Our desire to change is the best evidence that we did not learn better skills.

In the process of transformation, either our own or assisting others, understanding the processes we used for learning during our early childhood, and how they shaped who we are today, will give us jump start on empowering ourselves and others to create a very different future.

We need to embrace the facts, not the fantasy, of our identity. Who we are is the expression of skills we learned as tiny children. We can re-learn, upgrade, practice, and master better versions of those skills as adults.

In doing so, we will not only repair much of the inadvertent damage done to us, so our lives are significantly better, we can begin to nurture our children in ways that will allow them to realize more and more of the amazing potential humans have.

Our children will be the ultimate beneficiary of our personal transformation because they will be raised in a much more emotionally stable and peaceful Environmental Genome.

When we significantly improve the environment in which they develop, they will have the tools to figure out how to avoid repeating the same mistakes that have ruined countless lives and destroyed every civilization for the last 10 thousand years.

Our subconscious was programmed by the same brain processes we use to learn any skill. The toddler had no basis to understand what was happening, but, as adults, we can understand it very well and use it to update the programming we got in our first 1000 days.

Thankfully, the ability to change our mind instantly is built in, and the way our modern brain works can make updating our subconscious a lot easier than we ever believed possible.

Douglas McKee © 2018

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