Gene-Environment Interactions Simplified
I have many theories about how to empower communities, but understanding the genetic-environmental interplay is key. Frameworks that simplify these complex interactions have powerful impacts. They are pivotal in disseminating the importance of early childhood development and education in building healthy foundations.
The first five years are the most crucial, the foundation for adulthood. At this stage, brain circuits develop (like roots of a tree); some remain dormant, and some die. The stronger brain circuits pervasively impact behaviors in very profound ways. The interplay and interactions with the surrounding social and physical environments are powerful determinants of many behavioral, mental, and physical issues in adulthood. One could say our adult identities are partly determined in the first five years by the delicate interactions of our biological and genetic environments with our social and physical environments. A supportive, nourishing and loving environment is a healthy start. It tremendously increases the odds of developing healthy foundations; while negative, desolate, and impoverished environments increase the odds of maladaptive (unhealthy) foundations.
Fortunately, there are many opportunities to intervene in early childhood, children, adolescents/teenagers. And the ability to learn continues into old age; re-wording the old adage to, “you can teach an old dog new tricks.”
Beginning at birth, as our brain develops, these formative first five years are the best and least costly opportunities to make the greatest positive impact. As children get older and become teenagers and then young adults, maladaptive foundations without counterbalancing healthy adaptive skills give way to high-risk behaviors. However, some of those high-risk behaviors are adaptive and necessary for survival in many disadvantaged communities.
Those behaviors are on the rise, especially for people living in poverty. Poverty is linked to many high-risk behaviors, poor health, and educational and economic outcomes. Lack of money leads to lack of access, leading to inequities resulting in environmentally toxic living conditions and discrimination from outside and within. Unabated stress of this sort, without mitigating support or relaxation strategies, produces toxic biochemical effects in our bodies. Stress is becoming a common denominator for many physical and mental conditions.
Our children are the future, making it paramount that our public policies align with those within the communities we serve. This is a start towards creating supportive, nurturing environments for our children.
The growing influence of social media is adding to the definition of communities. In the past, a traditional community was defined by proximity. That is old-school, but it served a useful purpose, and we need to bring it back. We can have both the real and digital world.
Feeling connected is important to the purpose.
The virtual world offers that confirmation,
but it is not an intimate world
where the utilization of all senses
create wonderful memories and close bonds.
Social media is making the world smaller and more anonymous. In many ways, it’s thrown accountability out the door.
Individualistic thinking of my accomplishments ignores living in a connected world, not a vacuüm. We are responsible for each other’s accomplishments and faults. There is a larger collective sense that we are all part of which should be tapped into more often.
Here is an example of Gene Environment Simplified by re-framing using nature and gardens as metaphors.
Society is composed of many smaller, dynamic communities, moving in and out of a variety of other communities.
The landscape surrounding my house is very similar to society. Individual sections represent communities, each group of plants represent neighborhoods, and each plant reflects race, culture and unique characteristics. There are clear differences between plants and humans, but early preventive interventions are most cost-effective for both.
The environment is very important to plants as it is to people. In the right environment, some flowers are stunning; Japanese maples become show pieces. In the right environment, children blossom and excel beyond expectations, such as children born in advantaged neighborhoods. The opposite is also true. In neglected gardens, plants wither away, making the ground ripe for weeds.
In nature, some plants have a long life cycle, death being part of that circle of life. Like humans, the quality of air, access to water, the sun, and resources for protection are vital to plants. These are the unplanned portions of my landscape and the areas where nature runs its course. It is tranquil, beautiful, and self-sustaining.
Weeds tend to proliferate in poorly maintained, neglected gardens. Every spring and throughout the summer, I go through a process of weeding to cut their numbers. It is not an easy process, which involves removing the weed from its root—a near impossible feat—or using chemicals to kill them without damaging neighboring plants and my well (water system).
Undesirable people with high-risk behaviors tend to proliferate in neglected or disadvantaged neighborhoods and communities. They are undesirable because their behavior is a threat to society. These are dangerous people. They grew up in a garden of poison ivy and prickly bushes. We have prisons, mental institutions, and medications to control violence, crime, and high-risk behaviors. But then we release them back into society where they can survive only among the weeds.
Seeds planted in the proper way—in the right soil with enough water and sunlight—have the best chance to germinate and become seedlings. Seedlings are very fragile; similar to newborns, they need consistent nurturing. Different species of seedlings have different requirements that, if unmet, will cause stunted growth and death. Fortunately, a knowledgeable gardener will immediately notice seedlings at risk and provide for those unmet needs.
Newborns, infants, toddlers, and pre-school children have similar, basic needs that, if unmet, the damage is pervasive and will profoundly affect their development. Many of these children that are scarred, filled with little hope, low expectations, and a sense of helplessness die young. Unfortunately in pre-school, children’s manifestations of unmet needs are subtle and nuanced. In the most neglected and disadvantaged communities, such ignored subtleties lead to adaptations. In our world, some of these adaptations become stereotypes, like weeds.
Every day, millions of children are born into a world where their needs are not met. This world not only lacks essential resources but also subjects them to toxic exposures. They are caught in a world where the odds are totally against them. The playing field is not remotely level.
Many try to help, and their good deeds are well-intentioned but not effective. In some ways, those deeds enable the process to continue by not empowering the community to care for itself. It is no wonder that communication is sparse and distrust is abundant between the disadvantaged and the advantaged well-intentioned.
The first step in empowering any community is to build trust. Trust is a process involving meaningful and honest interactions. These interactions lead to shared understanding, and from there, one can begin to engage the community to think about unmet needs and untapped resources.
This starts the inclusive collaborative process where the community, not just one representative group, is involved in strategic planning, as well as prioritizing the needs of children and their families within that community. The community learns to tap its resources and find ways of fulfilling and managing its needs by utilizing members within the community. This process expands the community’s tool and skills kit.
This approach is not novel and is well-supported in the literature but rarely used. Many well-intentioned people and policymakers discount the transformative abilities of disadvantaged communities to live healthy and productive lives, if equipped with the proper of tools, resources, and training.
Interestingly, after 3-5 years, my gardens required little maintenance. It’s been years since I watered my Fat Alberta spruce, which is now over 20 feet tall and over 5 feet wide.
Communities given the proper resources and skill sets will also thrive and, in time, be independent, requiring little help.
Our failure to listen to disadvantaged communities strip members of their dignity, breeds mistrust, and eventually backfires. You see, we are all part of the collective universe. One event can ripple through society, affecting those across the globe.