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  • Subject area(s): Science
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  • Published on: 15th October 2019
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    For centuries, humans have accepted the concept of free will. Free will as defined by Merriam-Webster is the idea that humans have the ability to make voluntary choices or decisions (free will, n.d.).  In modern times, humans have been able to study the cognitive functions of the brain and have come to a deeper understanding of free will. Neuroscientific advancements have enabled scientists to see the brain operating, and deeper study into human behavior has revealed that cognitive development during childhood can affect future actions. Neuroscientists such as Laurence R. Tancredi push for the belief that biology, or nature, controls actions while psychologists such as Paul Tough emphasize nurture, particularly the importance of establishing a healthy, trauma-free childhood. This nature versus nurture theory primarily plays a role in childhood, where genetic traits combined with lifestyle can determine how they act as adults. Although humans are born with biological processes that affect free will, neuroscience is discovering that treatment during childhood can rewire and alter these biological functions.


    Childhood is where a majority of the brain development occurs. The psychological theory of nature versus nurture is primarily based in childhood, where the upbringing, as well as the hereditary makeup of a human, can affect their adult life.  Neuroscience is showing that nurture may be able to take genetic and biological factors in the brain and alter them when a child is exposed to extreme stress. Childhood is the key because this is where the brain grows and the foundation for adult life is set.


 Nature refers to the biological and genetic processes that humans have. In terms of free will, humans make decisions that are often linked to these biological processes in the brain.  Laurence  Tancredi discusses a receptor in the brain that is commonly linked to novelty and a desire to travel. This receptor, called a D4 receptor, has been found in high amounts in the brains of people that come from migrant families. The decision to migrate may have been due to an abundance of these receptors. Tancredi and other neuroscientists have been discovering more and more connections to nature in free will,  however, most do not affect their choices until nurture is combined.  


    Nurture refers to how a child is treated in childhood. Dr. Nadine Burke Harris is a pediatrician who studies the effects of childhood trauma in adult life. She used a test that is called the Felitti-Anda ACE questionnaire. This questionnaire is used to measure ten types of trauma that are found in a person’s childhood. The higher the score, the higher the risk the child is for health problems later in life. Harris discovered that of the students she tested, those with the lowest test scores (meaning they had the least amount of trauma) also had the lowest amount of behavioral or learning difficulties. To be precise, of those with an ACE score of 0, 3% had learning/behavioral issues. 51% of the subjects with an ACE score of 4 or higher also had behavioral or learning problems (Tough, 2012). Psychologists took this finding and discovered that the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain most affected by early stress also is necessary for self-regulatory activities. In other words, if the prefrontal cortex is damaged by trauma in childhood, the child’s ability to follow directions and exercise other forms of self-control is impacted.  In this case, nurture can damage nature, and cause the brain to rewire itself. Stressful situations can also alter bodily responses. Paul Tough discusses the HPA axis, which is the system the human body uses to regulate stress. The HPA axis sets off a chain of hormonal reactions in response to a perceived danger that activates physical responses such as an elevated heart rate. In prehistoric times, this axis would keep humans alive when running from predators. In modern times, this system is activated for mental threats, rather than physical. These responses are not designed for threats that cause psychological stress. The axis cannot distinguish between dangers so every bodily response in the system will activate at once.  In children, when this response is overactivated during trauma, it can lead to major negative effects. Some of these long-term effects include anxiety and panic attacks during daily tasks. Children who face abuse and trauma have their axis activated constantly, and in situations where they get nervous, it will continue to activate. Nurture plays a monumental role in a child’s well being. If a child is not nurtured properly, he or she will struggle in school as well as life. Tancredi also discusses a gene that, when defective, increases violent tendencies in adult males. The trigger for this gene malfunction is abuse in childhood. In fact, when the MAO-A gene is defective and the carrier is abused, the chances of the male becoming sociopathic increase by up to 85%.  This represents the perfect combination of nature and nurture. Nature would be the inherited gene, while nurture is the abusive childhood that produces the sociopath. If that child had not been abused, the adult version of himself may not have become sociopathic.


    Nature and nurture affect free will because while nature is the biological prerequisite for a human’s behavior, nurture can alter the pathways and change the outcome of a decision. As humans, our free will is based on how we perceive our experiences.  If we are traumatized or otherwise altered with as children, we will not be able to see danger and perceive it clearly. Nature is what our free will would look like if we were unblemished, but because we are humans who are raised by humans, nurture steps in and alters our brains and cognitive perception. Nurture outweighs nature because it can twist a child’s life and make it better or worse. The beauty of nature and nurture working together means that no two humans will make the same choices, which is why the decisions we make vary in our lives. This can lead to the illusion that humans have free will.  Neuroscience is slowly but surely breaking down just how much humans affect each other, and is showing that nature versus nurture may not be just a theory and that free will may not be as black-and-white as we once thought.

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