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Nature or Nurture

8th January 2020

Happy New year to you all, wishing you a healthy and happy 2021. Lockdown 3 was expected but never the less it brings worrying times for many. During these unprecedented, doubtful times we all need a bit of emotional support. The feeling that someone is there for you, understands how you are feeling and is ready to listen. Having ’empathy’ is a skill not all are able to accomplish. If its a skill which you possess then embrace it, celebrate it and use it as your super power!

RobinStyle photos

Nature versus Nurture! Is a well known phrase which describes the age old debate of whether genetics or experience have the greater influence on all our individual behaviours and traits. In other words, were you born with the ability to empathise or has this developed due to your environment and social interactions? I am not here to provide an answer to the debate just to discuss.

Hodges and Myers in the Encyclopedia of Social Psychology, explains “Empathy is often defined as understanding another person’s experience by imagining oneself in that other person’s situation: One understands the other person’s experience as if it were being experienced by the self, but without the self actually experiencing it. A distinction is maintained between self and other. Sympathy, in contrast, involves the experience of being moved by, or responding in tune with, another person.”

poster by Decoding Dyslexia

This is an interesting discussion with Professor Rod Nicolson about ‘positive dyslexia’. Some interesting quotes:

“It might be that they had those strengths anyway, and they also happen to be dyslexic.”

“So it has always been controversial whether the strengths that are being found are characteristic of dyslexic people or not.”

“School is not a place where dyslexic people develop their strengths, they are forced to work with their weaknesses. But, when they get out, that is where the strengths can come.”

The Social Strengths Pillar – “Empathy, obviously acquired through experience”

“When you show the ‘dyslexia hall of fame’, the child may say ‘Well, I don’t have any of those strengths, so I have all the weaknesses’. Everyone has their own personal strengths, whether they’re world-leading or not. So the mantra is ……”

“Find your own personal strengths, and try to develop those and live your life by those.”

The Professor goes on to address the issue of anxiety and stress caused by possible toxic learning environments in school. As soon as the child has negative emotions attached to learning then they are forced to fight, flight of freeze. Aggression, truancy and switch off = no learning at all.

I agree with his philosophy, that the first step is to get a diagnosis but (importantly) not just in terms of weaknesses, what the child struggles with, but their strengths too! Then you have to inspire the individual to develop those strengths!

Professor Nicolson obviously is of the opinion that ’empathy’ is acquired by nurture? Do you agree?

Just a little more information on Empathy. There are two primary forms of empathy which are cognitive and emotional empathy. Basically, Cognitive is where you can see another persons perspective, imagine how they are feeling and can image yourself living their life. Emotional is where you can feel the distress as a response to that persons pain or joy. And experience the feeling of wanting to help them. It is ideal to have a balance of the both types of empathy. Also, not to have too much empathy that it effects your own well being leaving you emotionally overloaded. Or to have too little that there’s no social connection.

Having the super power of empathy can help in enhanced emotional connections, help to feel safe, developing trust, being able to identify and meet needs. It could develop skills in creativity, problem solving and negotiations.

This article gives the ‘genetic’ argument in relation to empathy. However, it also concludes by recognising, while the study offers important insight into genetic influences on empathy, there are other important influences that go beyond biology.“We should not lose sight of other important social factors such as early upbringing and postnatal experience,” said Professor Bourgeron.

We often hear about the effects of dyslexia in academic terms but it is important to consider the emotional side.

‘Intelligence’! There is an argument that there is only one general intelligence but Howard Gardner’s theory proposes that there are 8 different types, called ‘Multiple Intelligences’. This was first introduced in his book ‘Frames of mind’ in 1983. Gardner suggests that we all have the 8 types but at different levels and that our profile of intelligences may differ based on genetics or experience.

8 types: Verbal/Linguistic, Logical/mathematical, Visual/spatial, bodily/kinesthetic, musical/rhythmic, interpersonal, interpersonal and Naturalist

Important to note that Multiple Intelligences is not the same as an individuals preferred Learning Style.

Each of the 8 intelligences can be incorporated into teaching and the curriculum, a multi intelligences based curriculum is an advantage to dyslexic learners. Dyslexia is often associated with hidden Interpersonal strengths.

Interpersonal intelligence involves social skills. This can be integrated into a learning environment by the inclusion of time for discussions/debates, group tasks and allowing children to work together collaboratively. Developing and utilising social/emotional connection skills.

It is sometimes written that dyslexic individuals are more sensitive emotionally. As the above highlights the debate of nature and nature continues. Also whether certain traits are due to dyslexia or not. I do not wish to enter that debate as I do not have an answer I just listen to both sides. Some say that dyslexic individuals can have difficulties reading body and facial cues. Is that dyslexia or maybe a co occurring difficulty or maybe due to effects of their environment? Hopefully research will continue to try to fathom these issues out.

If a person has grown up with injustice and difficulties, had to be persistent in their learning which did not come easy, does this make them the person they become? Do they have more empathy towards others that struggle? Does nature or nurture influence what career they follow?

Looking at a couple of notable dyslexics for which a high level of empathy and fight for injustice may have directed their life choices:

  • Erin Brockovich – You may have seen the 2000 film starring Julia Roberts which details Erin’s life and career? Erin Brockovich recently has said “Challenges continue to fuel her activism.”
  • George Washington- First U.S President

Within ‘The bigger picture book of amazing dyslexics and the jobs that they do’; they feature a Judge, detective sergeant, journalist, social worker and documentary writer.

  • Anuja Dhir QC – “Being dyslexic has helped me to understand that some people have difficulty with language. In court I prefer to use simple words and phrases.”
  • Chad Choudhury – “Dyslexics make great police officers because we are good communicators, we have empathy and intuitively know where to look for evidence.”
  • Obi Ohaka Daniel (social worker) – “I empathise and connect.
  • Oliver Wright (journalist) – “I have always been interested in journalism and have always asked questions.”
  • Richard Macer (documentary maker) – “It is the rapport I have with the people I am interviewing.

This recent research was with children between 8 and 12 years of old. With one group who were diagnosed with ‘the classic phonological form of dyslexia’ and a group of peers who were not. Found that dyslexics had a greater emotional facial reaction to video clips than non dyslexics. During MRI scans it was found that these children also had stronger connectivity within brain structures that support emotion generation and self awareness.

“This ability to make social connections, often interpreted as a purely compensatory strategy, could instead be a sign of enhance emotional abilities at a neurological level”

This was a study on emotional reactivity not empathy but the researchers hope to do more work in the field to see whether “emotional reactivity leads to increased empathy”. Watch this space ….

Everybody is different; with brains with their own strengths and weaknesses, and having different life stories and experiences. Whether you are dyslexic or not!

So, I still do not know the answer to the question ‘Nature or Nurture’! We human beings are complex characters and always will be so. Maybe it’s time to accept that and be kind to ourselves as well as to others. Especially through these worrying times; be kind, understand, listen and offer any help needed.

Stay safe and see you next week.

Any ideas for future topics are very welcome just leave a comment below or if not done already press ‘follow’.

Thank you


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