The Human Spark: The Science of Human Development by Jerome Kagan

Again I have finished a very revealing book.  The Human Spark focuses on human development, ranging from the first months of life all the way to the development of moralities and emotions.  The actual writing of this book is superb.  He has actually taught me some things about grammar!  As usual authors of this caliber are very avid readers, citing countless studies on the issues that he is talking about.

The book starts with the first months of life.  Infants develop what are termed schema and semantic networks.  Schema as I understand it, is an occurrence or event that is anticipated by the infant.  So for example, a mother’s greeting with a smile after waking up or the excitement of the father seeing his child after a long day of work.  Semantic networks are formed by grouping words into various categories.  The earliest semantic networks tend to be more general compared to the semantic networks that are further developed later in life.  So for example, a semantic network of living things can include units such as people, bugs, birds, and fish.  As the child develop their specificity enhances.  So the birds semantic network would consist of bald eagle, raven, or hawk–and sub-networks can span multiple networks.  The point of this, is that the development of schema and semantic networks allows the brain to develop other regions of the brain.  Human development coincides with the biological changes in the brain.  A general trend is that when an individual ages, the connection of used circuits become strengthened and sensitized.  The connection between the two hemispheres, the corpus collosum, becomes strengthened as well as the connection between the prefrontal cortex and other regions of the brain.  This has to do with the construction and maturation of various cognitive processes as well as the brain’s ability to inhibit urges.  But more specifically, after the maturation of schema and semantic networks, three important processes are developed.  Inference, morality, and consciousness.  Inference entails that children are able to deal with the hypothetical and make conclusions based on previous knowledge.  Morality is growing a perception of what is right and wrong.  The factors of morality has to do with semantic networks, personal feelings of certain events, as well as the praise or punishment of certain actions (either by parents or society at large).  With these core factors, morality progresses.  Consciousness is the next component that emerges.  A child grows more aware of their feelings, thoughts, actions, or traits, and is able to inhibit actions and redirect their attention.  Again, this is due to more regions of the brain connecting with one another.  There is an interesting source of inhibition of these regions, and that has to do with social class.  As relative wealth decreases, the growth of these regions responsible to these traits decreases.  Admittedly, there is not much known as to why this happens, just theory backed with no empirical evidence.  In fact increased stimulation of the brain has a physical effect on neurons.  There are actually more “ribs” that are present on the dendrites of neurons, the section of the neuron that is responsible for receiving electrical impulses.

Another important concept that Kagan talks about is “temperamental biases.”  This basically means how infants biologically tend to react to stressors.  People can generally be placed into two groups:  high reactive and low reactive.  High reactive means that when an event conflicts with the child’s or infant’s schema, the baby or child cries, wales the arms, and basically has a loosely defined tantrum.  Low reactive means that the child is able to handle these stressors well.  These general reactions to events is the product of the child’s biology.  Kagan worked on a longitudinal study where these children were tracked over time.  Children that were highly reactive tend to be shy, timid, and socially anxious whereas low reactives we generally more successful in our society.  It was also found, that high reactives have a more sensitized amygdala which is responsible for certain emotions, most notably fear.  It is important to note however that this temperamental bias does not solely determine the individual’s outcome.  Environment, culture, and historic era also contribute to the development of the individual.  At the very beginning of the book, Kagan relived his experiences with longitudinal studies on a wide variety of cultures, ranging from the Western countries to remote villages in South America.  What he and his colleagues were studying was the growth of children in different cultures.  What he found was that humans can develop a seemingly limitless amounts of ways, but the culture inhibits other avenues, and guides the individual toward a certain path.  It seems, that Eric Fromm’s assertions about human development was backed by science!  These individuals had a different sense of morality, emotions, and the like.

Kagan talks a great deal about the problems and limits of the current science of human development.  What is moral?  Every person has a different sense and philosophers over the ages have had different definitions through the era of time.  One school of thought places what is right on actions of the majority of the community.  Western ideals says to follow individual morals regardless of society’s.  And, since there is no universal what is right and what is wrong, how do you measure morality?  The same situation can be applied to emotions.  The primary source of data with regards to emotions are questionnaires, which have their problems.  The main arguments that are construed against questionnaires has to do with the vocabulary used.  Usually, when psychologists and the like record their findings, they do not define key words–then let people figure it out themselves.

Mental illnesses can be broken down into four different categories:

  1. Compensation in logic, affect, or social behavior.
  2. Severe depression and/or anxiety due to biological factors.
  3. Impulse control problems that is due to biological factors.
  4. Groups two and three based on life life experience.

There is a great point he makes on the current state of psychiatry.  Psychiatry aims to treat the symptoms of an illness; not the cause of it.  There are known methods to deduce causes of symptoms but usually any two psychiatrists would conclude two different things.  So the general trend is to group symptoms into illnesses that can be treated through medication.  However, if doctors are refusing to heal at the source, there will always be a battle fought in the mind.  (I must add, drug companies love this school of thought)  If however the medical field worked on a more concrete and specific methodology in determining the cause of symptoms, actions could be taken in finding a treatment and possible cure of those symptoms.

The main theme I took from this book, is that there is actually different brains in people who live in different social class.  But why do some people live a life of success, where others do not?  Surprisingly, science knows very little for there hasn’t been many studies in this field.  Part of this has to do with financial reasons.  Longitudinal studies of this caliber could stretch in the millions of dollars.  The government is willing to sponsor studies of the physical world, but when it comes to the extremely fast pace of psychological concepts and ideas–with loose methods in measuring certain phenomena–psychologists in the field of human development have to take on problems of smaller scale.  If the field could come up with more concrete methods, then it would be possible to study why difference in class affects an individual to the extreme that it does.

Kagan is great in deducing what is wrong, but for the most part he does not propose a solution.  He puts that responsibility on the rest of the community.  It is true that finding out what is the source of discrepancy among scientist is the first step, but not taking the time to think of a solution regardless of the state of technology seems to be inconsistent.  It is true that technology needs time to develop, but it would not hurt to strategize what would need to be accomplished in order to be able to provide accurate measurements on concepts like emotions and moralities.

It was a good read.  Concepts and evidence in this book solidifies my current views on what a new society would do to the overall population.  Literally, different brains would be developed, and the core concepts of morality, emotions, and consciousness would be changed.  Considering that constructive stimulation of the mind physically changes the neuron, getting rid of poverty would create a humanity teeming with constructive ways to express themselves.  The clear and fair distribution of resources to all through a Resource Based Economy would bring about values of working for the greater good.  In fact, in forums on this concept if this concept were to be enacted people already would devote their time to huge projects that had to be constructed in order for this society to work.  And, as young people see the majority of society working together, they would value this trait as well.

If anything, this book has taught me that the mind is extremely malleable, that decrease in its plasticity the more you age.  And, as sites develop early in the brain, this emerges sites dependent upon the previous sites’ development.  This would create strikingly different brains.  Everything from a stronger connected prefrontal cortex to the rest of the brain to the desensitization of the flight or response system.  And, the environment would change the expression of the genome!  New proteins creating a new biological profile.  Therefore, I believe the argument that says, “Capitalism works because it is our human nature,” have not read into the world of human development.  Different cultures and historical eras breed different people.



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