Case Study on the nature vs nurture debate

Is a child’s development influenced by genetics or could the majority of influence be found in the child’s environment? The nature vs. nurture debate has been at the forefront of psychology for many decades. The purpose of this essay is to try and answer this question using the case study of Genie. The essay shall also look at some of the roles that a multidisciplinary team would play in a case like Genies and if there was any hope of rehabilitation. The big question that had to be answered is whether or not it was too late for her to develop into a normal adult.

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Lenneberg (1957) (cited in Hayes, 1998) asserted that the critical period, in development for children is before puberty and if a child had not learnt how to speak, they would never pass the 2-3 word telegraphic stage. Lenneberg felt that after the critical stage has passed language would not be achieved normally after puberty. Chomsky (1957) (cited in Cardwell et al, 2010) stated that all human language has the same basic rules when it comes to grammar and structure.

For most individuals development of language comes naturally as they grow. According to Chomsky (cited in Hayes, 1998), language is foremost a product of the brain and children have an innate acquisition device. The Chomskyan view supports the nature theory as he believed that infants are born with an idea of how language works and this inborn knowledge must be activated through exposure to language at the appropriate time.

It is commonly known that behaviour is affected by consequences. Skinners’ (1935) (cited in Cardwell 1996) theory of operant conditioning states that the process does not require repeated efforts but an immediate reaction to a familiar stimulus.

In the case of Genie, she was raised in isolation where she spent most of her childhood locked up in a bedroom. It is argued that her lack of language was due to the physical abuse from her father when she made a noise. It is noted that her father never spoke to her even when beating her. He was said to have barked and growled at her like a dog. In the following months after her discovery Genie’s mother reported that just after Genies’ isolation that she heard her saying words (Pines, 1997). This would show that Genie was on course to learn language. This would prove the theory of Chomsky, but would be against Lenneberg as he had theorised that the brain of a child before the age of two has not matured enough for the acquisition of language (Pines, 1997). However, throughout her life Genie failed to learn the grammar and sentence structure that according to Chomsky separates the language of human beings from other species. This could prove that she had passed the critical period for language acquisition. With her history of operant conditioning, it can be argued that the behaviourist approach would be the best way to rehabilitate Genie. This would mean that the team dealing with Genie would have to change the consequences of an action. If Genie had been in the care of a modern day multidisciplinary team she would have been referred to several specialists.

It can be assumed that Genie had expressive and receptive language disorders due to her isolation. It is possible that part of her language issue may have related to the fact that her oral muscles had not developed enough for her to produce the correct sounds. During her years of isolation Genie was fed on baby food and soft foods. It has been documented that she would leave food in her mouth until the enzymes in her saliva started to digest the food (Pines, 1997). Genie would receive one to one attention from a speech and language therapist to try and overcome her speech and feeding difficulties. Language intervention activities would be effective with Genie as the therapist would interact and built a therapeutic relationship by appropriately playing and talking with her. The therapist would demonstrate how sounds are made and how to move the tongue to make certain sounds and use a variety of exercises to strengthen the muscles of the mouth.

Genie could be sent to an occupational therapist (OT) in order to assess her needs and develop a care intervention plan. OTs’ believe that behaviour is learned and that poor or non advantageous behaviours can be unlearned and replaced by lasting habits (Turner et al). The OT could design a program for Genie that incorporates social skill training, anxiety management and behaviour modification. The use of the Canadian Occupational Performance Measure (COPM) (appendix 1) would measure Genies progress and ensure that a humanistic approach is taken regarding her care and rehabilitation. The COPM put Genie at the centre of her care plan and seeks to help her find meaning to her life in her everyday activities.

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As the months progressed Genie showed numerous breakthroughs. One such break through was noticed when Dr James Kent left Genie and she showed a change of facial expression. Genie had treated everyone the same and showed no emotional reaction to anyone or anything, however Dr Kent noticed her expression changed from happy to sad. She had always shown the ability to explore her environment but had never shown emotion. This showed that she could develop emotional attachments therefore she was able to learn. Bowlby (1969, 1973) (cited in Cardwell et al, 1996) stated that the importance of emotional attachment to a caregiver ensures that the child will be fed, protected from harm and educated. There is evidence to say that an infants’ need to form attachments is innate. This would also suggest that the parent also has an innate tendency to form attachments with their children. From an evolutionary point of view it is in the mothers’ best interest to see her children grow up and produce children of their own. Through research, Klaus and Kennel (1976) (cited in found that mothers that were allowed constant contact with their newborn babies developed stronger bonds that mothers that only had contact for feeding. This has lead to the skin to skin hypothesis that has been implemented in hospitals. Fathers are also encouraged to be present at the birth to develop an early attachment. In the case of Genie little is known about her birth, however since she was born pre 1976 it is assumed that the father was not present at the birth and that mother and child were separated soon after the birthing process. This could have played a part in the inability to form an emotional attachment to Genie that lead to her years of abuse. David Rigler had advised that he felt that it was important for Genie to develop strong emotional attachments as part of her development. David Rigler and his wife Marilyn ended up fostering Genie. The Riglers took on the roles of Genies’ therapy, teacher, principle investigator, and foster parents. While living with the Riglers Genie showed improvements in her therapy sessions. This could be due to her being in a nurturing environment were she was praised for making progress. This theory on learning is support by behaviourists’ Skinner (1957) (cited in Hayes, 1998) and Thorndyke (1911) (cited in Cardwell, 1996), who saw learning as happening mainly through the law of (positive) effect. This was demonstrated in the Skinner box experiment (Cardwell, 1996), which rewarded rats with food for a positive action. Initially the trap animal would demonstrate escape seeking behaviour; however one of the actions would provide the subject with a food reinforcer. This would result in the subject changing its behaviour to seek the reward. So in Genies’ case, every time she received praise for a positive action, she was more likely to repeat the action.

While Genie was in isolation, her physiological needs were not completely met. According to Maslow’s (1954) (cited in Turner, 2007) hierarchy of needs (appendix 2), there are two sets of human needs. One set concerns basic survival needs such as physiological and basic safety needs. The other set concerns self-actualisation, the realisation of an individual’s full potential as shown in creativity and the use of intellect. Since her physiological needs were not met Maslows’ theory states that she would not have been able to ascend the hierarchy and begin to satisfy her creative and intellectual drives.

Dr. J. Shirley the psychiatrist, wanted to determine her mental capabilities. The sleep test that was carried out showed Genie had patterns that indicated mental retardation. It is not known if Genie was born this way or if the severe neglect contributed in her mental health. It is documented that at 14 months, Genie was diagnosed as being mentally retarded. It can be argued that Genie was not born mentally retarded but was handicapped due to lack of normal childhood development during her early years. Further test results showed that Genie did not display any left brain activity because it appeared not to have developed during her pre-pubescent years. The left part of the brain is the area that is responsible for language acquisition and development. Psychological tests showed that her mental age increased by one year, every year since her discovery. This is not characteristic of mental retardation. It can be argued that because the critical stage was missed, the biological ability for the brain to fully develop was therefore impaired.

There are several flaws in the nature versus nurture debate. The flaw in the use of Skinners rats is that breeding within a family, as rats do, is known to cause genetic problems that can impair intelligence. There is also the question relating to Genies’ mental retardation. If she was born retarded then her ability to develop at the relevant critical periods was impaired from birth by nature. In Genie’s case it can be argued that nurture seemed to play a greater role than nature. She suffered from an environment were she was not nurtured positively. Most present day researchers agree that human traits are determined by both nature and nurture. They may disagree on which part has the greater influence.



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