Pathogenic Experiential History

In the previous section, we stressed the view that biological functions play an active role in regulating what, when, and how events will be experienced; the nervous and endocrine systems do not accept passively what is fed into them. This active process means that unusual biological sensitivities or defects may result in perceptual distortions, thought disorders, and pathological behaviors.

Although behavior pathology may be triggered by biogenic abnormalities, the mere specification of a biogenic cause is not sufficient for an adequate etiological analysis. Even in cases where clear-cut biogenic factors can be identified, it is necessary to trace the developmental sequence of experiences that transform these defects into a manifest form of psychopathology; the need for this more extensive developmental analysis is evident by the fact that some individuals with biological defects function effectively, whereas other, similarly afflicted individuals succumb to maladaptation and psycho-pathology (Davidson, 1986). The biological defect, in itself, cannot account for such divergences in development. Pathological behaviors that are precipitated initially by biological abnormalities are not simple or direct products of these defects; rather, they emerge through a complex sequence of interactions, which include environmental experience and learning.

A major theme of this chapter is that psychopathology develops as a result of an intimate interplay of intraorganismic and environmental forces; such interactions start at the time of conception and continue throughout life. Individuals with similar biological potentials emerge with different personality patterns depending on the environmental conditions to which they were exposed. These patterns unfold and change as new biological maturations interweave within the context of new environmental encounters. In time, these patterns stabilize into a distinctive hierarchy of behaviors that remain relatively consistent through the ever-changing stream of experience.

That biological factors and environmental experiences interact is a truism; we must be more specific and ask how, exactly, these interactions take place.

Before we begin, let us discount questions about the proportionate contribution of biological factors as contrasted to environmental learning. The search to answer such questions is not only impossible from a methodological point of view but also logically misleading. We could not, given our present state of technical skill, begin to tease out the relative contribution of these two sources of variance. Furthermore, a search such as this would be based on a misconception of the nature of interaction. The character and degree of contribution of either biogenic or psychogenic factors are inextricably linked to the character and degree of the contribution of the other. For example, biological influences are not uniform from one situation to the next but vary as a function of the environmental conditions within which they arise. The position we take, then, is that both factors contribute to all behavior patterns and their respective contributions are determined by reciprocal and changing combinations of interdependence.

We return now to the question of how, exactly, biogenic and psychogenic factors interact in the development of personality and psychopathology.

In the previous section, we examined a number of ways in which biological factors shape, facilitate, or limit the nature of the individual's experiences and learning. For example, the same objective environment is perceived as different by individuals who possess different biological sensibilities; people register different stimuli at varying intensities in accord with their unique pattern of alertness and sensory acuity. From this fact, we should see that experience itself is shaped at the outset by the biological equipment of the person. Furthermore, the constitutional structure of individuals strengthens the probability that they will learn certain forms of behavior. Their body build, strength, energy, neurological makeup, and autonomic system reactivity not only influence the stimuli individuals will seek or be exposed to but also determine, in large measure, types of behaviors individuals find are successful for them in dealing with these encounters.

We must recognize further that the interaction between biological and psychological factors is not unidirectional such that biological determinants always precede and influence the course of learning and experience; the order of effects can be reversed, especially in the early stages of development. From recent research, we learn that biological maturation is largely dependent on favorable environmental experience; the development of the biological substrate itself, therefore, can be disrupted, even completely arrested, by depriving the maturing organism of stimulation at sensitive periods of rapid neurological growth. The profound effect of these experiences on biological capacities is a central theme in personality development; we contend that the sheer quantity as well as the quality of these early experiences is a crucial aspect in the development of several pathological patterns of personality.

Beyond the crucial role of these early experiences, we argue further that there is a circularity of interaction in which initial biological dispositions in young children evoke counterreactions from others that accentuate their disposition. The notion that the child plays an active role in creating environmental conditions, which, in turn, serve as a basis for reinforcing his or her biological tendencies, is illustrated well in this early observation by Cameron and Margaret (1951):

. . . the apathy that characterizes an unreactive infant may deprive him of many of the reactions from others which are essential to his biosocial maturation. His unresponsiveness may discourage his parents and other adults from fondling him, talking to him or providing him with new and challenging toys, so that the poverty of his social environment sustains his passivity and social isolation. If such a child develops behavior pathology, he is likely to show an exaggeration or distortion of his own characteristic reactions in the form of retardation, chronic fatigue or desocialization.

This thesis suggests, then, that the normally distributed continuum of biological dispositions that exists among young children is widened gradually because initial dispositions give rise to experiences that feed back and accentuate these dispositions. Thus, biological tendencies are not only perpetuated but also intensified as a consequence of their interaction with experience.

The argument that biogenic and psychogenic factors are intimately connected does not mean that psychogenic events cannot produce personality pathology of their own accord. Geneticists refer to the concept of phenocopies, that is, characteristics arising entirely from the action of environmental events that simulate those produced by genes. In a like fashion, psychogenic experiences may lead to pathological behaviors that are indistinguishable from those generated by the interplay of biological and psychological forces. Severe personal trauma, social upheaval, or other more insidious pressures can reverse an individual's normal pattern and prompt a pathological reaction. Thus, not only are there exceptions to the general rule that biological dispositions and experiences interact to shape the course of adjustment, but a promising beginning may be upset by unusual or unfortunate circumstances.

Despite the fact that there are cases in which later experience can reverse early behavior patterns, we cannot understand these cases fully without reference to the historical background of events that precede them. We assert that there is an intrinsic continuity throughout life of personality functioning; thus, this chapter follows the sequence of natural development. Furthermore, we contend that not only are childhood events more significant to personality formation than later events but also later behaviors are related in a determinant way to early experience. Despite an occasional and dramatic disjunctive-ness in development, there is an orderly and sequential continuity, engendered by mechanisms of self-perpetuation and social reinforcement that link the past to the present. The format for this chapter demonstrates this theme of developmental continuity.

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Anxiety and Depression 101

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