Popular Science Monthly/Volume 83/August 1913/The Genesis of Personal Traits

1580014Popular Science Monthly Volume 83 August 1913 — The Genesis of Personal Traits1913Simon Nelson Patten


By Professor S. N. PATTEN


AS a principle of evolutionary theory, it may be stated that the environment stands to the organisms within it in one group of relations during the long evolution of races and species. The part played by the environment in the development of an individual is equally important, but so unlike in character that it must be treated independently. Phylogeny and ontogeny are governed by their own laws; yet they are elements in one harmonious whole. If carefully studied, either will show the part objective conditions play in progress. I have already touched upon phylogenetic problems in earlier articles,[1] where I tried to show that while the inheritance of characters follows biologic laws, the release of characters takes place under the stimulus of environing conditions. The external environment is not active at conception or when characters are formed before birth. Each individual must be brought into contact with external conditions through his own experience to evoke the characters heredity has given him. He recapitulates the history of his ancestors with regularity; yet the biologic effects of this race experience may lie dormant within him, if external stimuli do not evoke them at the proper time. The individual in whom they are undeveloped is retarded, and shows in his conduct defects which in the contest of life put him behind other persons of like heredity but with a more stimulating environment.

The principles of ontogeny can not, however, be elucidated in this way. They are to be traced in the epochs of child development rather than in those of race evolution. If the environment has no influence, such studies are a waste of time; but if environing conditions have influence their power over the successive stages of child growth may be detected. The early stages will be less under environment control. But each later state would be more subject to the retardations and accelerations imposed by objective conditions. Each environmental shortcoming would be reflected in some personal defect; and every acceleration due to favorable conditions should be measurable in increased vigor. Men reflect their defects in appearance, their perfections are revealed in their activity not in their bodily structure.

In attempting to show the relation of environmental control to the various stages of child development I shall rely upon this principle. Biologic characters are positive and show themselves in normal persons. Defects, being negative, indicate the absence of characters or an feet development of them. A defective child goes through the stages of its development more slowly than the normal child, and fails to reach the later stages. Such a child has not a different heredity from the normal child, but simply a less complete expression of it. If this is true, defects measure environmental control. Every defect has some objective cause which acts as a check on normal growth. We make progress, therefore, in the study of defects as we connect them with bad environments.

We can thus detect physical defects. To ascertain and measure mental defects the needed criterion is found in the law of the association of ideas. If a mental defect has at its basis a harmful association of ideas, we may confidently affirm that its origin is environmental. AU ideas are postnatal, and hence all associations must be formed after birth. We do not need a biologic character to create a new association of ideas, but only some reorganization of experience. In harmony with these facts and principles there should be four stages of child development, which appear in the following order:

1. The elementary life stage.
2. The sensory stage.
3. The stage of bone formation.
4. The motor stage.

On the basis of this analysis, there should be a type of man who has the elementary vital functions, but lacks the later organic developments. That such a type exists can be shown, and its indices readily pointed out. This type has high cheek bones, a sloping forehead, a flat, broad nose, and a defective lower face and chin. The central part of the face is fully developed, while its upper and lower parts are imperfect. The people of this type are short in stature, broad at the hips, and round-headed. All the vital functions are normally developed, but the later stages of growth are defective. Such people thrive in a simple environment, especially if they have a pictorial religion and a conventionalized morality.

A second physical type is also easily described. Here the upper part of the head is fully developed, and the central part of the face is defective; the nose is peaked and narrow at the base; the teeth are bad; the mouth is small; and the chin is pointed. This physical description has a meaning that can be readily interpreted. The retardation has taken place late in pregnancy after the brain has passed through its initial development. A child's face lengthens downward as the child matures. A weak, short lower-face indicates, therefore, a stoppage of growi;h after the middle-face and upper-face have been formed. A person of this type is likely to be short and thin and have a poorly developed bone structure. The type is usually regarded as intellectual when contrasted with the first type, which is often designated as sexual.

These differences among men are too plainly marked to be overlooked. The usual judgment is, however, that they are due to heredity. This claim I will not argue; I shall merely show that the differences lend themselves to another interpretation. As the mind goes through successive stages in its development after conception, may not each stage have an environmental complement which reacts on it and helps or hinders its growth? In any case, when we examine the two contrasted physical types from this point of view, some claims may be made as to their genetic meaning. The first type has been retarded early in pregnancy; the other at a later period. The retardation in the one case may be due to defective nutrition or excessive sex excitation; in the other it is perhaps the result of irritants in the mother's system. Facts that make satisfactory evidence in support of these suppositions are hard to obtain, but a justifiable theoretical position is taken by assuming that, in the one case, the child is carried an abnormally long time in the womb, while in the other birth is premature.

To render my classification clear it is important to contrast the stages in a child's development that occur before and after birth. The prenatal stages are physical, and physical defects are cases either of prenatal retardation or acceleration before birth. Postnatal development, on the other hand, is mainly mental, and mental defects have their origin in the association of ideas, which comes necessarily after birth. This simple distinction students of development fail to make; consequently, they confuse relations which would otherwise be obvious.

Let me carry my contrast one step further. The sensory development of a child is prenatal; the motor development is postnatal. The delay of motor development is due to the fact that bones are needed to serve as fulcrums on which the muscles act. These bones can not harden until after birth. The head is formed before birth; the bones solidify after birth. It is, of course, the difficulty of child-bearing that causes the delay of motor development. The sensory stage precedes the motor stage of growth by several years, and from this fact important consequences follow. At birth the sensory powers are fairly complete. The stomach is ready for food, and the circulatory system is active. The early impressions of the child come from these sources alone; it lacks the motor coordinations which make adjustment to the environment effective. Immediately after birth, all impressions are sensory, and are bound together by mental associations in which there are no motor elements. Such associations may easily become disjustive.

The mental life of a child should be pictured as arising from the activity of a number of partially organized psychic centers. Each center has stored up some latent energy which becomes active when adjacent centers are aroused. A stimulus started by any external disturbance excites these centers to activity with the result that a mental impression is formed. A succession of these arousals fix definite grooves along which mental excitation moves. Trains of sensations thus arise which can not be called either adjustive nor disjustive. They move through the brain along the line of greatest surplus energy and of themselves yield results of neither value nor detriment. The child would live, think, remember and forget; he would neither gain nor suffer by this automatic thought. Only after bones grow can it make the motor coordinations on which adjustment depends.

Very different effects follow strong, vivid impressions to which the motor powers are not ready to respond. These strong stimuli passing over into action prematurely tax the motor organs and disarrange them. Such effects are permanent, and motor strains are brought on that render future development abnormal. When a child walks too soon, the strains are readily seen, and it is generally recognized that the ill effects endure. If this is true of a child a year old, would not strong mental excitement in a child four weeks old produce even greater disorders, disturb motor development, and, reacting on the mental life, make it abnormal? Mental disorders are usually interpreted as wrong association of ideas bound together by strong sensory connections. The derangement is thought to be confined to the sensory system. The disorders are, however, not sensory, but motor. The premature activity of motor powers caused by sensory excitement produces strains that persist. The abnormal parts when excited arouse trains of thought that are disjustive. A strong person can repress them; he can even exclude them from consciousness; but when he sleeps or is weakened in any way, they intrude into his consciousness and disturb the normal flow of ideas.

Another way of presenting this thought is to contrast it with the theory of a subconscious mind. Here it is assumed that a sensory underworld exists in which ideas are stored. From this mental cavern, they break forth to disturb the normal consciousness on which adjustment depends. The connection between thoughts should not be associations, but movements. Subconscious trains of thought are in reality movements. They are, however, morbid disjustive movements, performed beyond the realm of consciousness. Could we really see what takes place, their motor origin would become apparent. The subconscious is a disjustive motor realm deprived of normal external connections.

Sensory excitement in an infant starts premature motor reactions which strains the unformed parts. It thus leaves permanent effects that appear in consciousness as disjustive trains of thought. There is thus a disjustive world in the background of every individual who has experienced sensory storms in infancy. The shock he then felt was not a shock to his mental associations, but to his motor coordinations. The child should live in his present sense impressions, and forget them when other agencies start new trains of thought. The lasting impressions have another origin. Strong stimuli, whether coming from the external world or from internal disorders, arouse the partly formed motor centers and create in them an abnormal activity. Motor strains, bone displacements, muscular irregularities and undue local sensitiveness are thus caused, which force disjustive trains of thought into consciousness with each renewed activity. All such thinking must be suppressed before adjustment is effected.

Motor domination begins about the fourth year and ends ten years later. It is the means by which adjustment is secured. Sensory trains of thought are adjustive only when they help men to foresee the elements of future adjustment. Their usefulness comes after the motor adjustments are formed. Any reversal of this order produces a disjustment which is intensified if motor strains have been produced by the premature activity. These disjustments are due to the abnormalities of the child's environment and to wrong notions of education. Parents not only fail to guard their children against sensory storms, but they introduce artificial trains of thought under the mistaken notion that vivid concepts and well-organized memories are an aid in a child's development.

Environmental maladjustments thus have three leading causes: defective nutrition, poisons formed within the system, and premature motor activity. The first two are prenatal, the third is due to the later development of the motor than of the sensory powers. In their genetic manifestations these maladjustments show themselves as retardations, accelerations and motor strains. Their pathological effects become sex morbidness, senility and motor morbidness. As mental phenomena, they become egotism, dogmatism and mysticism.

Symbolism is an intense form of mysticism and beyond it are visions, hallucinations, subconsciousness and finally double personality. The essence of them all is the same. Some of the motor powers do not readily come under the control of the will. The amount of this disruption of personality varies, but its presence is always a manifestation of motor disorder.

The important facts to be recognized are the difference between senility and morbidness and the two distinct sources of morbidness, the one in sex disorders and the other in motor strains. Senility is a sensory condition making mental associations difficult or impossible to alter. The causes of morbidness lie not in the brain but in the body. It is thus a pathological, not a mental disorder. Morbid parts are easily excited to action and act apart from, or in opposition to, the dominant personality as expressed in the will.

To simplify this argument still more I shall divide mental reactions into three groups, visual, motor and senile. Visual reactions involve no movement of thought beyond itself. Motor reactions create thought movements which end in activity. Senile reactions create a sequence with no elements not found in antecedent mental concept. Colored areas pass before us in visual thought. Limiting sequences follow one another in senile thought. The dominance of spatial concepts indicate premature sensory associations preventing the outward movement of thought to unexplored regions. The dominance of fixed sequences in thought reveals a lack of energy and of objective adjustment. Motor thought begins not in established mental associations but in bodily movements, aroused by external contacts. If movement precedes thought, action is adjustive; when thought determines movement abnormal mental states or senile limitations cause thought to flow on without any adjustive tests of its truth. Normally each thought should start a train of muscular activity leading to adjustment. Thought should be transformed into movement, and movement into thought. The morbid intensity of particular centers prevents this by forming a series of related ideas instead of transforming thought into movement. Visual or word repetitions are thus the marks of morbidness due to motor strains. This dance of sensory ideas with no accompanying activity is, however, regarded not as a defect but as an excellence. Such abnormalities are regarded as native powers when they should be recognized as acquired disjustments. Few readers will be willing to admit this. To do so would call into question conventional standards and strike at cherished literary and artistic concepts.

I can make my meaning clear by example better than by argument. When the American Academy of Political and Social Science was formed. President James and I had a discussion as to the title of the organization. He contended that the title should contain an "and," and I was equally firm in the opinion that the "and" should be omitted. He argued that without the "and" the scope of the society would not be regarded as comprehensive, while I asserted that with it the title would lack a definiteness in aim. It was a long time before I realized what was the real difference between President James and myself. I found that I, myself, was constantly tending to put "ands" in sentences and to pile adjectives on top of one another. When I made a short, crisp sentence I came back to it, thinking that I had left something out. This feeling was often so strong that I could not get away from the sentence until I had added something, or balanced it, as a rhetorician would say. I finally hit on the cause of my feeling, or at least an explanation that seemed satisfactory. The place where this tendency was strong was where the word had some closely related synonym, which, stored in my subconscious memory, strove to express itself and troubled me until I dragged it forth and made it a companion of the word I had used. If I had no double associations of words I wrote easily, but the flow of thought was checked at points where double associations existed. There I either expressed my thought twice or underwent a mental conflict until I drove the related word out of consciousness. The title to which I have called attention is an illustration of this. One group of our societary associations is with Greece and another with Rome. Political Science brings up the one group of associations, Social Science the other. If a writer has but one set of associations, a single word will fully express his meaning; but if he knows two languages and has a double set of words, each must find expression to relieve the subconscious memory. A style of this nature is called literary. With the single set of expressions the writer seems abrupt. A complaint is often made that I am elliptical in expression. I doubt not that many a reader has said this already in reading this article. If, however, he will go back to the places where I seem to have left out some step in the sequence of the thought, he may find that at that point he has some double association of words that I have disregarded. A fluent writer says in each sentence, or at least in each paragraph, "my thought is so in Greek, it is so in Latin, and finally so and so in English." The good writer in this sense uses all the synonyms in his own or the reader's mind before he passes along to the next topic. He brings up the whole range of his reader's sensory associations instead of calling for will power to suppress them. Concise, straightforward construction demands will power to follow. Every idea is then expressed once and only once. Those who are dominated by sensory associations can not readily follow such a writer. Like birds they fly several times around a spot before lighting.

This means that an ornate style is a defect and not a mark of genius. The study of languages weakens the will, or, to state the thought in another way, it prevents the growth of motor coordinations. If so, children should not be taught two languages. Moreover, they should be corrected when they use many adjectives or words of more than two syllables. Only short, concise expressions can come quickly enough to aid a child in his decisions. Any delay in the formation of trains of thought retards action and prevents the growth of will power. Only the child who thinks more quickly than he acts can develop adjustive reactions and thus escape from the domination of sex and sensory associations. The effects of these double word associations are everywhere visible.

I shall offer additional illustrations from the field of art, where sex and sensory dominance also has a crushing power. Time and space can not be directly pictured in art; nor can rest and motion be portrayed. These relations are brought into consciousness only through associations with surfaces and lines. Pictures are either color masses, or perspectives taking the thought beyond the visualized surfaces to the real world back of them. Most pictures combine these two factors, surfaces and lines. The differences among pictures is in the proportion and relation of these factors. If the color masses are in the foreground, and the lines creating the perspective in the background, the picture indicates a sensory dominance on the part of its maker. If the lines are in the foreground, and the surfaces are thrown into the distance by the perspective, the picture creates a motor impression and is admired by those with a motor dominance.

Colored surfaces stop the movement of the eyes and give relief to those with weak muscular adjustments. Lines keep up the muscular tension and give pleasure to those who because of strong eye muscles really enjoy eye tension. The movement and strain force the thought from the line into the indefinite background. "We think of what we do not see instead of the surfaces in sight. This gives the basis of clear thought and of idealism.

The love of color masses may therefore be considered like ornate word expressions, an indication of physical defect. Such people have weak eyes and a shortage, not a surplus, of character. Movement aids motor dominance. An arrest of movement divides up the attention and gives to the disjustive elements of personality a chance for expression. The repressed elements in a motor personality are sex and fear. Surfaces are pleasurable that excite sex feelings or repress sensations of fear. The dominant surface associations are therefore related to either sex or safety. Rich, deep colors have a sex association, while regularity of outline gives a sense of security. Design might be defined as the art of making timid people feel safe. This end is accomplished by the endless repetition of some elementary figure. If on approaching a building the observer sees a mass of accurate details, he assumes that the floors have been carefully constructed and that the elevator has been recently inspected. Domes always give the same sense of relief. A building with no visible roof gives to timid people a feeling of instability. Regular fences likewise arouse a feeling of safety. Banks seem to remove the fear of their depositors by supplying a multitude of bars and posts, ostensibly to protect the deposits; but any observant person realizes that the real protection lies in the vaults and not in these shams.

As I was walking by Columbia University with one of its professors, he said, "Look at that fence. Is not it beautiful?" "Yes," I replied, "the chickens are safe. But you should remember that farmers now guard their property from sneak thieves by barb wire. Some generations hence your successor will be making the same exclamation you are making, as he gazes at the imitation barb-wire fence which will then surround Columbia." Was he artistic, or was I?

The same question of natural artistic appreciation arises when a person from a flat country compares his ideas of beauty with the inhabitant of a mountainous region. I was reared in a part of the "West so flat that measurements were needed to find which way the water would run. There were no domed hills to evoke the feeling of safety, or wooded backgrounds to furnish protection from the unknown beyond. The sweep of the eye reached to eternity; parallel lines came together in the dim distance. Such a picture—all lines and no surfaces—makes the beholder think not of the present reality, but of its unseen complement. The sensualist of the wooded mountains divides the real into its parts, gets beauty out of the contrasted zones and is satisfied. The idealist blends the real into one unit and creates for himself a complement out of the unseen. Beauty is thus a relation between the seen, contrasting element with element, or it is the force that drives the beholder from the seen to the hidden background.

When I came into contact with conventional art, it took me a long time to see what made it attractive. I disliked the contrasted surfaces and the obtrusiveness of its sex and safety associations. New pictures gave me pleasure, because they evoked in me a realization of the beyond. Sculpture was even more satisfying, because the absence of a background forces the artist to rely for his effect wholly on lines, instead of on contrasted surfaces.

Furniture also has its motor and sensory effects. A chair elaborately designed makes one think of the pleasure of sitting in it; a chair with lines arouses the thought of some one you would like to have in it. A table with surfaces makes the beholder think of gorging the richly-colored food that should be on it. A table in which lines dominate arouses the thought of company and serious conversation. Lines bring in the absent. Surfaces eject from their folds a rich content. The bareness of the one and the completeness of the other give beauty.

The essence of my position is the conflict of the motor powers with the earlier formed sex and sensory centers. Adjustment at adolescence is motor; disadjustment is sexual and sensory. The normal child fights its way into motor dominance and by the struggle makes its character. The abnormal remain under sex and sensory control. This would be readily admitted in cases where the abnormalities are so marked as to unbalance the mind. The milder cases, where sex and sensory impressions exert a disjustive pressure, are viewed as natural traits. Those who exhibit them are often regarded as superior to those with complete motor control. The real test of a natural trait is its tendency to strengthen the personality of its possessor. Evolution creates unity of control. Mechanisms for expression are organic: mechanisms for repression are due to the association of ideas, and hence postnatal in origin. There are no organic repressions. They all have a social origin.

In the case of a child all repression is bad. Conscious morality should begin with maturity, and then should be a relative pressure, not an absolute prohibition. The child should be protected by an environment that prevents the formation of premature sensory associations. A man with a strong personality would result. With the change would come a simpler language and a morality that evokes character. The longer childhood and the delayed education bring compensation in a longer working period and in new forms of social activity from which would come a better art, a higher morality and a purer religion.

  1. "The Laws of Environmental Influence," October, 1911, and "Types of Men," March, 1912.