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Chance And Generational Trauma Pandemic Settles Nature Vs. Nature Debate

Uploaded 10/14/2022, approx. 21 minute read

I am in Budapest, Hungary, and not by chance.

My name is Sam Vaknin, and I am the author of Malignant Self-Love, Narcissism Revisited, and I am also a professor of psychology.

And today we are going to discuss two new components in how we all become who we are.

Now you know the very famous age-old debate about nature versus nurture, about your biology, your genetics as determining factors versus your upbringing, your family background, peer interactions, role models, society at large, via the process of socialization, in short, your environment.

What determines who you become? The hereditary load that you are born with or what others do to you and to this hereditary load?

In other words, are you born with a predisposition to become someone or are you totally shaped by external forces?

So nurture, nature versus nurture.

But two new factors are emerging as even more important than nurture, as even more important than the environment.

One of them is chance or randomness, and the other one is generational trauma.

You know, scholars of personality disorders, myself included, we tend to attribute personality disorders and other mental health issues to abuse in early childhood. It's as if you were born a kind of clay and you were sculpted and shaped and formed by torsion and forces outside your control as a child.

But new studies are disputing all of this. They actually imply that the two most or the three most important things in your life are genetics, your biology.

In the second place, randomness or chance, we'll discuss it in a minute. And in the third place, trauma handed out from one generation to the next, intergenerational trauma, which starts usually as a generational trauma.

So collective trauma actually, not only individual trauma. Somewhere between randomness and generational trauma is the place of the environment, for example, abuse in early childhood.

Now this much more nuanced view of human development and growth would account for the fact that people are exposed as children to the same set of parents and the same types of abusive behavior or the same types of neglect and abandonment and physical abuse and verbal abuse and sexual abuse and so on and so forth. And only a small minority of them develop mental illness.

It seems that other factors are at play.

And so let's delve right in and start with the issue of chance.

Latest research in Harvard University and elsewhere on anything but on everything but including flies and rats and humans ultimately. This latest research suggests that we are overlooking a very critical part, a very critical piece of the jigsaw puzzle that each one of us is.

And that third factor is pure chance. Random molecular fluctuations in developing brain cells, especially in utero, in the womb. And these random fluctuations can influence the brain's wiring and they can have lifelong consequences.

And so chance is starting with mutations in genetic material but even more importantly effects on the brain.

For example, we know that hormonal imbalance in the womb leads to the emergence of homosexuality later in life. That's a totally random thing. It has nothing to do with nurture. It has nothing to do with genetics. It has nothing to do with your biology. It has to do with events around you which are totally chaotic and stochastic and which could and do affect major dimensions of your personality and of your identity.

And this ties very intimately with the question of mental illness such as depression or anxiety or even schizophrenia, psychotic disorder or bipolar disorder. We don't have good treatments for these diseases because we don't understand them well. And many things we thought we knew were recently exposed as wrong. We have drugs but these drugs don't help everyone. And even when they do work, we don't know why they work. We don't know what mechanisms are at play.

The level of ignorance in neuroscience, psychopharmacology is astounding.

Had people known how little we know, they would have run for the hills. They would have been terrified.

For example, anti-depressants. I have a video dedicated to this.

Antidepressants, for 40 years we've been told that serotonin in the brain causes depression or actually fluctuations in serotonin, cause depression, the inability to reabsorb or absorb serotonin.

And then in July, a mega study actually a meta analysis of several dozen studies showed that although they do help some users, the common idea that it has something to do with a chemical imbalance, a lack of serotonin in the brain is almost certainly completely wrong.

And so if they do help some people, the most likely explanation is that it is a placebo effect. We don't know. We don't know a lot.

We classify and identify mental illness in a very questionable way.

We cannot yet diagnose mental health conditions as clinical entities. We cannot administer a blood test. We cannot do a brain scan. We cannot analyze DNA.

Don't believe any of the nonsensical hype spewed out by self-interested and fame-seeking or celebrity-seeking scientists. None of it is true.

The research is flimsy, dubious, questionable, deadly design.

Doctors ask people about symptoms, severity and frequency. And then they try to match this with lists, for example, in the diagnostic and statistical manual. And of course, it doesn't work. Different doctors diagnose you with different disorders.

Our current way of understanding mental health and mental illness is deficient.

Plato called it carving nature at its joints. That's nearly what we're doing.

It's been almost a decade since the head of the US National Institutes of Mental Health, Thomas Insel, a courageous man, said that it was time to overall psychiatry or discard it. Instead of existing symptom-based diagnosis, Insel argued that we need to start understanding the root causes of mental illness based on, for example, a genetic basis or the way they affect the brain.

In other words, we need to get a hell of a lot more serious about all this. And progress on the genetic front hasn't been good.

The news are not good. We're still unable to identify any particular individual mutations that predispose people to any mental health condition, for example, depression or even schizophrenia.

Genetic tests that would help with early diagnosis and treatment or even provide prevention, these genetic tests are a very long way off, if ever.

So we're not making good progress. We are not getting there.

And it seems that one of the reasons is chance, the fact that a lot of this is determined randomly, stochastically, chaotically, unpredictably, arbitrarily, capriciously, in the womb.

And then when you emerge, you already have proclivities or predispositions to certain mental illnesses or to a certain state of mental health.

And throughout life, you're still exposed to all kinds of random events. Pollution, air pollution has been recently linked to anxiety, stress, and so on. A stressful environment, which is essentially random, none of your making, also affects you.

So the studies are flawed, not only because of poor research methods, not only because of problems in replication and, frankly, in the scientific publication system, because in science, when you reach negative results, forget about it. No one will publish your work.

Only when you reach positive results.

So there is a massive crisis with science, especially pseudosciences such as psychology.

Early studies are in all likelihood very wrong.

And we are not embarking on large scale research to show or to test the likelihood of developing common mental illnesses, such as even depression. It is very likely that mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression and let alone personality disorders are somehow caused by hundreds if not thousands of genetic variations and mutations. Each one of them contributing an incremental tiny effect.

How are we going to map all this?

The headlines that scream, we found the gene that predisposes you to gambling or to shopaholism, this is called artistry. Even if the person interviewed is a neuroscientist, it's a bad scientist and, you know, likely with a bad person. It's a narcissist or a psychopath.

So we are losing trust in science because there is all pervasive, ubiquitous dishonesty baked into the process. The same genes seem to be implicated in several different conditions.

For instance, we know that the same genes are implicated in schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. It's a bloody mess.

And now we are beginning to realize that randomness and chance play such a crucial role in all this, even much more important than abuse in early childhood or your upbringing or your parents or your peers. Much more crucial than all this is have you been exposed to a toxic cocktail in your mother's womb that you've been smoking, drinking, the ditch you have a hormonal imbalance, a faulty transmission mechanism in the womb. Were you born, were you conceived with an identical twin who preyed on you? A condition described in the literature.

This is all random.

And so we need to get rid of the paradigm that it's either nature or nurture. And if we study genetics and we study pharmacology, we're going to solve this.

Or if we study early childhood abuse, we're going to solve this.

These things are not working. They've been tried for well over a hundred years. It's not working.

Hello, it's not working. We need to get off the high horse. We need to eat humble pie. And we need to admit that there is a lot we don't know.

Actually we don't know anything.

I mentioned that hundreds of genetic variants push the developing brain into various states. Some of these states are vulnerable and something tips the brain to develop a predisposition for this or that mental health condition. That something is very often randomness.

And so it's a new view of mental illness development.

And it's hard to stomach. It's hard to fathom. And it's hard to accept because it requires scientists to be humble. It requires them to develop humility. It requires them to admit the limitations of their craft and trade.

And scientists are vinglorious and grandiose, the vast majority of them. They believe that science has all the answers and well up to a point, but not beyond it. Not beyond it.

And this is the crucial insight of the latest research. There is a lot that we don't know, but there is also a lot we can never know. We can never gauge or quantify or predict random developments or random processes in the womb. Never, ever in principle.

So this something else that is in the environment is out of our hands and inaccessible to our minds. If the mother has an infection during pregnancy or she's had some traumatic experience or she's a drug abuser or an alcoholic, etc. She introduces into the game so many variables and parameters that no supercomputer can ever put together.

So random molecular events that happen during brain development are more crucial than anything that happens to you after your bone. Random events that affect your growing brain after your bone are more crucial, far more crucial than any abuse you may suffer.

You may have suffered.

So we are beginning to reconceive of what's happening. The way our brains turn out is this seems to be the critical trajectory, critical path.

And we need to begin to investigate this and put, make this a priority over the study of, over the studies of trauma and over the studies of genetics.

So chance, randomness is the first component.

But there is another one, much neglected, rarely mentioned, trauma, generational trauma, not individual trauma, collective trauma. And we have been handed a golden opportunity by the God of history, COVID-19.

COVID-19 is the largest collective trauma in the past 100 years at least. So it's a unique prism, it's a unique lens through which we can observe effects on mental illness in longitudinal studies across decades.

The youth, the young of today have been so adversely scarred, wounded and affected by the pandemic that this is not going away. The youth of today is damaged for life, is broken for life, and is going to hand over this trauma to their ever decreasing number of children.

We need to observe this process because it introduces the missing link in understanding the etiology of mental illness, why people become mentally ill.

We know about nature. We know about nurture. We know about randomness.

And now we need to add the missing link, the last component in the picture. And that would be generational trauma.

So let us have a look, a closer look at COVID.

During the pandemic, according to recent studies, during the pandemic, there has been a shift in the personalities of everyone affected, including the personalities of adults.

Now, this sounds like a bland statement. Of course, a pandemic or any collective trauma would have an effect on people, but personalities are supposed to be immutable. They're supposed to be unchangeable throughout the lifespan. They're fixed entities. They're core identities.

And yet the personalities of adults exposed to this pandemic have changed, actually, have been in flux. Adults became less extroverted, less open, less agreeable, and less conscientious during the pandemic.

The results were published in a journal article in PLOS One. It's an archive, an online archive of studies.

And so the study shows that the degree of change in personalities, in personality was roughly equivalent to a decade's worth, a decade's worth of impact.

So the blow of COVID transformed people so dramatically. It's as if they've aged 10 years in two, but adults were spared the worst.

Young people, especially adolescents and young adults, they are finished. They're ruined for life. Most young adults grew moodier, more emotional, dysregulated, and more sensitive to stress.

The researchers in the study analyzed survey results from 7,100 adults from January 2021 to February 2022, and compared these responses to earlier responses at the beginning of a pandemic, March to December 2020, and to responses in earlier years.

So they had like responses before the pandemic, response in the early phase of the pandemic and response after the pandemic, so to speak, or in the late phase of the pandemic.

And they, the scholars, the researchers, they use what they call the big five traits. Big five traits is how we evaluate personalities, one way of evaluating personalities.

So we score people or according to their levels of neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness.

During the early phase of the pandemic 2020, the responses were consistent with the responses before the pandemic emerged.

So people remained stable in the first two or three months, but then they fell apart. They were transformed beyond belief within months.

The collective stress of the pandemic simply broke people to pieces and put them together in new ways.

The disposition has changed pretty dramatically.

And this goes to prove that the very construct of personality is very problematic and in all likelihood counterfactual, something that I've been saying for decades.

Ideas such as individual, self, personality, these are late 19th century and early 20th century German ideas. They do not reflect reality. They are rigid. They are hierarchical. There's no such thing in reality.

Personalities can change as we age. We do develop new habits, of course, like exercising. As people get older, they become all in all less neurotic, less extroverted and open, but more agreeable and more conscientious.

So this is the normal development.

Yet the pandemic reversed all this. Instead of becoming more agreeable and conscientious, there were declines in extroversion, in openness, but also in agreeableness and conscientiousness.

Adults under 30 saw an increase in neuroticism in that period.

So it seems that personalities were molded like so much clay by the global generational trauma.

One of the study, one of the researchers sitting from Florida, Florida State University said becoming more mature is declining in neuroticism and increasing in agreeableness and conscientiousness. Yet we see the opposite for younger adults in the second year of the pandemic.

People under age 65, there was no significant personality change relative to pre-pandemic years. So this is the only group where the personality hasn't changed.

And Dr. Rodica Damien, associate professor of social psychology at the University of Houston, she wasn't involved in the research, but she said, the older you get, the more of a sense of identity you have, the more entrenched you are in your social roles. You know more who you are, so things are going to affect you less in some ways.

It is important to point out that the observed personality changes in the study stemmed from the pandemic, but there were other social and political events which happened during this time period and prior to this time period.

There was an election, there was a riot, there were major shootings, protests all over the worldand so on and so forth.

But a lot of it was the pandemic. It seems that COVID was one of the major stressors hitting everyone.

There was a main thing that kept people home.

So what will happen to these people? Will these personality changes last somehow?

In the past, in research we've done, we found no association between exposure to, for example, natural disasters and personality changes.

One study suggested that New Zealand residents were relatively stable after the Christchurch earthquakes.

But the COVID pandemic has not been a single natural, pinpointed natural disaster. It's been an ongoing threat to life, limb and property. It has lasted more than two and a half years. It's still ongoing.

So it seems that protracted or prolonged generational trauma does change the personality. And it remains to be seen if it will be lifelong, but I bet it would be. I bet it would be because studies of Holocaust survivors have demonstrated that their personalities were altered for life.

Same with people who had lived through the First World War, in the Second World Warand the Spanish Flu.

So here we are with another factor which determines our identity life-long.

We mentioned nature, we mentioned nurture, we mentioned chance, and now we have generational trauma.

The coronavirus pandemic, wrote to the authors, has affected the entire globe in nearly every aspect of life.

Early on in the pandemic, says Sootin, there was this emphasis on coming together and working together and supporting each other.

And this may have made people feel more emotionally stable. That's something that kind of fell apart in the second year.

Personalities don't change overnight. That's all that I'm saying.

But I am saying that personalities are rivers. They're not ponds. They flow. They're in flux. They change. It's a kind of epigenetic thing, kind of. They're handed over.

The trauma is handed over from one generation to the next.

Suddenly, says Damien, another scholar, suddenly your self-image has changed. Your sense of identity has changed because you have just not gone to a party for so long that you're not sure if you can do it anymore.

So we don't know whether adults will revert to old formbut it seems that these changes are lifelong.

Now, these are adults. When it comes to the young, it's a mega disaster.


Mega disaster. Rates of suicide, a peaking, climbing, rates of anxiety and depression are off the charts. They are less extroverted, more neurotic, way more moody and suicidal, totally dysfunctional in many areas of life.

This is a generational trauma that's not going away. Many of them are angry and resentful for having lost critical years of their lives. They're under educated. This is not going away.

They can hand this over to their children, their transmission mechanisms are well known.

Sootin says, I'm worried about young adults since their scores indicate that they could be at a higher risk of mental health struggles, unhealthy exercise or eating habits or heightened challenges at school or work.

Neuroticism is a very consistent predictor of mental health outcomes like depression and anxiety and conscientiousness which declined among the young is very important for educational and work outcomes as well as relationships and physical health.

So the most dramatic shifts in personality happened between the ages of 18 and 25. And these people were exposed the most, actually, at an age range where they should have taken on new responsibilities and they should have shifted their lifestyle.

When they go to college or find their first jobs at that age range, they were paralyzed at home, cowering, furious, frustrated, angry, falling apart.

Damien says if the changes in personality that they experience have some kind of snowball effect because it's a critical developmental period, then they might still see disadvantages later on.

And of course, I'm adding hand over the trauma.


So the article is titled differential personality change earlier and later in the coronavirus pandemic in a longitudinal sample of adults in the United States. The authors are Sootin, Stefan and others. And he was published, as I said, in PLOS 1, which is a repository of academic papers. It was published in September 28, 2022.

I'll read to you the abstract.

As is my habit, five-factor model personality traits, neuroticism, extroversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness are thought to be relatively impervious to environmental demands in adulthood.

The coronavirus pandemic is an unprecedented opportunity to examine whether personality change during a stressful global event.

surprisingly, two previous studies found that neuroticism decreased early in the pandemic, whereas there was less evidence for change in the other four traits during this period.

The present research used longitudinal assessments of personality from the understanding America study to examine personality changes relatively earlier and later in the pandemic compared to pre-pandemic levels.

Replicating the two previous studies, neuroticism declined very slightly in 2020 compared to pre-pandemic levels. There were no changes in the other four traits.

But when personality was measured in 2021 and 2022, there was no significant change in neuroticism compared to pre-pandemic levels, but there were significant small declines in extroversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. The changes were about one-tenth of a standard deviation, which is equivalent to about one decade of normative personality change.

These changes were moderated by age and ethnicity, but not by race and education.

Strikingly, younger adults showed disrupted maturity in that they increased in neuroticism and declined in agreeableness and conscientiousness.

Current evidence suggests the slight decrease in neuroticism early in the pandemic was short-lived and detrimental changes in other traits emerged over time.

If these changes are enduring, this evidence suggests population-wide stressful events can slightly bend the trajectory of personality, especially in younger adults.

An excellent study, and the introduction of this study is a great introduction to personality, five-factor model, previous studies about personality changes, and so on and so forth.

So I recommend that you go and find the study and read at the very least the introduction. It's a great piece of work.

To sum up, it seems that we are far less stable across the lifespan than we have thought. It seems that we are shaped and formed, mostly in the womb, where genetics and random events on a molecular level play an enormous role in determining who we are later on in life by shaping our brains.

And then much later, environmental influences, nurture, education, abuse, early childhood adverse experiences, all these come into play, but they actually play a minor role.

The major role is reserved to chance, randomness, and genetics, and generational traumas can affect everyone regardless of biological, social, family background.

It seems the generational trauma is a trump card.

Sorry for the pun, and a way to affect whole populations and alter their personalities in enduring ways.

This is a totally new way of looking at psychology, personality psychology, and mental health.

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