Saturday, December 09, 2006
Adolescent pruning and sexual orientation
The recent research into the growth and biological maturation of the brains of teenagers might be interesting in considering sexual orientation. The November 2006 issue of The Walrus (a Canadian magazine) has an article “Your Teenager’s Mind” by Nora Underwood, and it bears reading. The maturation process goes beyond the legal ages, to about 25.
I was aware of being “different” at around age 8, when I suddenly had conformity problems in elementary school. A somewhat moralistic third grade teacher kept pushing me to behave like a boy, and learn to play sports and stand up for myself at “recess.” About the same time I became quite aware of my musical talent. The music would provide a world of emotion and feeling but would abstract it in such a way that ongoing and complementary social contacts were not as necessary. So, while neurons in my brain grew (and before much pruning and “tuneup” could start), certain skills and processes became more important internally than others, and the physical competitiveness expected of young boys did not develop. I was becoming what some people would see as a “sissy” or “chicken.” Peter Wyden, in his infamous 1968 book "Growing Up Straight" would have later characterized me as the stereotyped "pre-homosexual child," needing special pressures to return to the path of growing up "sexually normal." Understandly, there were many efforts to "train" (or "socialize") me to perform physical and manual chores to please the expectations of others, even when these "tareas" served no logical purpose.
What caused this differentiation? I could say that it is a random occurrence, producing psychological diversity that any society needs. I had the measles around my seventh birthday, and measles is known to produce lasting and subtle neurological or developmental damage or at least changes. There could be a genetic influence. Maybe there is a congenital. My feet were in braces when I was very young and I did not run as early. We really don’t know. But the process of being “different” – for better or for worse – got started early and could not really be prevented. There was no abuse as people normally understand that kind of problem today.
I became more aware of erotic interests in “attractive young men” by about age 12. The details of fantasy don’t matter here, but the timeline does. That is about when the pruning starts. Boys start the neural pruning process about age 12 or 13, roughly as puberty starts to be reached. From my point of view, normal social interaction, responsiveness and ordinary everyday empathy and the competitiveness that could later be expressed in heterosexuality – girl friends, dating, wife, children, lineage, “pedigree” – all of this was superfluous. I had what I needed, but others did not what from me what they felt they needed or were entitled to in return, reciprocally.
The pruning process makes the personality focused and efficient on its “core business” – it is very much analogous to a company’s shedding workers when it downsizes and focuses more narrowly on its strengths. This sort of thing is always morally controversial, whenever done by either individuals or institutions. It is indeed ruthless. Perhaps this is related to what we recognize in medical and development circles as Asperger Syndrome, and what in more extreme forms becomes outright autism, especially in boys. Even so, my own experience with sexual orientation suggests that orientation starts during the brain growth process, when the initial wires are growing, and even before pruning.
By early adulthood, the seats of passion were well established. There was no real emotional tie to women or to the idea of being a parent. (I did try dating women for a while briefly around 1971, and if anyone who remembers this about me stumbles upon this blog, she will probably agree that it was better for me not to try something that would end up in consumatory failure and divorce or even annulment.) The heterosexual world then did seem to include a lot of superficial manipulation, doting and pampering that put me off. I had plenty of feeling in music, ideas, and persons who could be idealized (“upward affiliation”) to take its place. I remember a girl friend saying that one time in my apartment as an inexpensive recording of Beethoven’s Pastorale symphony (not my favorite) played.
I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I had pursued my piano abilities even more vigorously. When I entered William and Mary in that forlorn Fall Semester of 1961 (details here), I was a chemistry major and had earned advanced placement, starting with qualitative analysis. It would have taken even more practice, intensity, and teenage recital performance than I did, but it could have happened. One reason that I didn’t was the Cold War, and the feeling that a science career could protect me from becoming cannon fodder. This takes on a moral dimension (of playing chicken) and that makes it painful. (It’s easy, of course, to blame History for moral choices.) I wonder if I had negotiated a music career (and I recall admonitions at age nine or so from my private piano teacher that I grow up as a “normal boy”), if I would have developed different emotions about women, family, and parentage. Maybe, but that assertion seems to contradict the “pruning” theory. An interesting comparison occurs with the program “Everwood” where the prodigy Ephram blows away his chance to get into Julliard by trying to prove himself a “man” at sixteen and getting a college-age girl (Madison) pregnant.
Christianity (especially in its Catholic forms – even as I was raised Baptist) seems to be trying to address this by saying, neglect of the everyday needs of others, even through one’s own intrinsic nature, is sin (the actual sin of “Sodom and Gomorrah”) and some people are less inclined to respond socially than others, and are thus victims of an “objective disorder” (however offensive this sounds). That is why they need God, why they need Jesus, and why there is salvation by Grace. But then, because of his own demons, whatever they are, anyone needs God. Is this the message of someone like Mel Gibson?
I’m struck by the fact that some of us need a “moral” interpretation of all of this, and that is probably because these differentiations of ability and performance do have downstream consequences for others, sometimes for other family members -- but that in turn is partly because of long-standing external prejudicial thinking of others about family and bloodline matters.
When the William and Mary debacle occurred in 1961 (mentioned above), I was struck by how my presence in a dormitory could be perceived as "contagious" to other less than fully mature men, and now the same concept undergirds the "don't ask don't tell" policy for gays in the military.
I have a related posting about pruning and COPA here.