Temperament, Neurogenesis, and Fitness

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The goal of this project is to capture a conversation with as many as possible of the influential Psychologists who have changed the field in the last 30-40 years. Fortunately, I’m finding more and more a feeling of collegiality and support as I reach out to these brilliant psychologists.  We are strangers, and their contributions to the field of Psychology make them impressive in a way that could make them inaccessible. But also I am  finding partners and supporters on this journey to better understand human thoughts and behaviors.  Ultimately the conversations I capture should be useful for our historical record  and to provide more context and understanding of the great Psychological scholars of our time, the people themselves, and their capacity to produce the findings that they have. These conversations I hope  can serve  as a repository of stories that show something of who they are and how they approached their scholarship.

In  preparation I feel a bit like a student in grad school. Most of the people I plan to speak with have hundreds of articles, some books, maybe a thousand or more conference presentations, talks, media write-ups, and a variety of other publicly available materials.  To prepare I’m often reading more 1000 pages of published works, watching videos (thank you YouTube for providing playback at 1.5x and 2x speeds!) and diving deeply into the literature of my intended conversant, generally within the few days I have between these meetings.

In  preparation this week I’m diving into works on executive attention, the lifespan, neurogenesis, and the relationship these might have to fitness. The prevailing  belief in the earlier  part of the 20th century was that the brain had little or no capacity for neurogenesis after reaching adulthood. In utero, infancy, and through childhood there was a good deal of change, with new neurons springing up and building new structures. But that was it. You get what you get, you don’t get upset. Your brain is done. It’s all downhill from here.

One can debate the exact moment of change in this belief, but often Michael Kaplan (see Kaplan & Hinds, 1977 in Science) is credited with the brilliant work that demonstrated neurogenesis not only continues into adulthood in mammals, but where/how such neural growth might occur. That initial research prompted several really critical studies that effectively expanded our understanding of neurogenesis, its mechanisms,  and how/where those ideas might be applied. That got us  to some beautiful studies  from Art Kramer and his colleagues at the Beckman Institute (U of Illinois). They found that fitness, or more specifically aerobic fitness from walking, benefited older adults in late life by improving the allocation of attention  and executive function, and later found that aerobic activity also helps developing children in cognitive tasks. Furthermore, they found  neurogenesis in the hippocampus for aerobically active children and older adults (i.e., growth in the part of the brain associated with forming new memories) and changes in neural activation  patterns across the network (e.g., Churchill et al., 2002; Kramer et al., 2006).

It’s great research and the finding is so clear: be active, be  healthy and the benefits help you think more effectively and live longer.

I remember speaking with one of the researchers with the Swedish National Study on Aging and Care (SNAC — really,  Sweden, you wanted your prestigious national study to have the acronym SNAC?? Oh, the woes of monarchy!)  who had   a similar recommendation. He said, “The most important thing is to exercise during the last 20 years of your life, that’s when the benefits are the greatest! Of course, you never know when your last 20 years will start…”

Message received. Exercise. Walk. Run. Be healthier and help inhibit the negative changes associated with aging.

Alright, so here I am almost 20 years after that conversation and diving into research that makes the point again, now for the health of my brain. To be candid, for many years I have been committed to exercising 6-7 days a week. Occasionally I feel fit, mostly I feel like a work in progress, and everyday it is a little bit of a motivational challenge. Bonus! Now I am trying to exercise everyday while constantly traveling is tricky (and we’ve been traveling now for about a month and a half, with plans to continue for another 10 months, or so).

For me it means two things: (1) Exercise early in the day,  first thing before I feel totally awake. I’m too tired to debate doing it, have nothing in my stomach to make me want to vomit if I do something challenging, and, it’ll wake me up for other things that occur later. (2)  I use workout videos on youtube. I use relentless workouts and HASfits, Millionaire Hoy (respect, Hoy, sorry to see you off youtube, but much luck on your new site) and Boho beautiful pilates, Adriene’s yoga, fitness blender, and Keiara’s hip hop routines. I do everything and anything from those video that seems in any way interesting, challenging, and accessible to the many constraints I’ve got (a rented space, creaky floors, no hand weights/barbells).

Exercising, to me at least, is kind of a painful and intense habit. If you love doing it, more power to you! Much as I enjoy being active, the act of exercising has always been unpleasant for me.  That is probably why it took me to adulthood before I committed to doing it regularly. And the change is clear, people who only knew me when I was young, like 1s mos – 2 years old, hardly recognize me at all anymore!

In any case, in forcing myself to endure this self-chosen pain for all these years I feel more equipped to endure the high stress aspects of this project and the many challenges and rigors of living this year on the road. The pattern of extensively studying, going through nerve-wracking meetings with strangers, cold emailing people with a high chance of rejection, and  all the rest: these are the pains I choose.  The pains that are well within my tolerance. In overcoming them it will help me to successfully complete this project, to once again traverse and experience many parts of the United States (I’ve been across country and back two previous times),  to visit the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand (first time to each of those) — all while talking to amazing Psychological researchers!

Alright, that’s a long aside, but I really want those last 20 years of my life to be as healthy in bodily and cognitive function as possible. The research is just so clear: commit to walking/aerobic exercise regularly and the benefits are, well, beneficial.

The other part of the literature I am diving into for later this week relates to temperament.  More specifically, how temperament at a very young age (infancy, toddlerhood) is predictive  of personality in adults. Or put another way, there is longstanding, seminal research that shows the biological predisposition to developing personality traits (see Kagan & Moss, 1983 and their wonderful book From Birth to Maturity). The genetic factors seem to set the stage, prompting where certain proteins are built, in what combinations. Those proteins develop into the neural and related biological structures over the course of a lifetime that constrain personality and from  which a personality must emerge. As Jerome Kagan has often noted in previous writings, a biological  disposition is only a small part of the influence on personality, albeit a persistent one.

One’s community and the enrichment  available within, the persisting influences from  family, social circle, and culture all have important influence. But, the thing is, socially, we seem to be biased to want to see the biological parts as being more prominent. Why? Because, what if a depressive personality is caused by poverty and inconsistent, poor nutrition?  What if shyness is related to social acculturation relating to how we treat and what we expect from girls and boys?

If the problem is bigger than the individual, then how do you treat that? Does a physician need to prescribe a monthly allowance to an impoverished parent struggling to feed her family? Would that physician prescribe an equality law to promote greater gender equity and support to a town that is showing shyness discrepancies between girls and boys? My thoughts are not new — Kagan and many others have been pondering these big issues for years. Often the response is that we seem to lack the cultural/political will and/or resources to address the major social predispositions to negative influences on  personality and development. Since we can’t or won’t fix the social problems, maybe there’s just an individual component that we can address. Sure it won’t fix the whole issue, but perhaps, it will be enough? Won’t it?

Well, luckily I’m talking to Drs. Art Kramer (Northereastern University) and Jerome Kagan (Harvard University) this week. Both are amazing and will have  insights on these big ideas.


(*Pictured at the top is  an image from Dan Gilbert‘s lab in the William James building at Harvard. His students and collaborators see the quotes and faces of some of the brilliant Psychologists who have made Harvard their home. If they can’t appreciate being “inside” William James, then seeing the words of Bruner, Stumpf, et al can help one appreciate the real history of where they find themselves).

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