Nature, nurture, luck: Why you are more than just genes and upbringing

Your genes and environment play a big part in forming you, but there is an unexplored third element at play too: luck. The chance events that shape your brain in the womb may influence who you become as much as your genetics, and perhaps even more than the effect of parenting

Humans 21 September 2022

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Chance events in the developing brain may be important for shaping who you become

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BATMAN became a vigilante after seeing his parents murdered. Wonder Woman’s crime-fighting abilities are thanks to her supernatural creation and childhood of athletic training. Many of us mortals have origin stories too, albeit less dramatic ones. You may feel, for instance, you have inherited cleverness from your mother or confidence from your father, or a love of cooking from fun times in the kitchen with grandparents.

One of the most fascinating questions about what makes us the way we are is how much of our personalities, abilities and interests is down to our genes and how much to our early environment – nature or nurture. But there is a third influence that has, until recently, gone under the radar: randomness. Specifically, chance events that affect nerve cells as the brain is developing. That is a colossal oversight. The latest research suggests that the role of this randomness in shaping who we are could be far greater than environmental factors, and in some cases as much as genetic ones. If so, we should really see ourselves as the product of nature, nurture and “noise”.

This isn’t just of interest to neuroscientists: it has profound implications for us all. We could stop fretting quite so much about our parenting choices and – sorry, Freud – we may also have to allocate less blame to our own parents for how we have turned out. “We have a tendency to develop narrative explanations for differences we see in people,” says Benjamin de Bivort

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