Before Twelve

I am grateful for the way my medical training has allowed me to develop a deeper understanding of the human experience. In a certain sense, it has given me tools that I have been able to use in my own search to figure out where I belong and how to better fit in a society where I am still trying to assimilate and find my way.

I spent two years working in Maryland at an inpatient correctional facility in downtown Baltimore. Most of the inmates were young Black men and women who look like me, like my family. Each time I set foot inside the facility, I couldn’t help thinking that I could have been one of them. I became curious and wanted to understand what led men and women to the revolving doors of crime and jail.

The difference, I discovered, was in our early environment, or the places and situations we lived in up until about twelve years old. I was lucky enough to have been raised in a stable community which valued nurturing and strong emotional attachments. Their environment did not give them that, and it adversely affected the way their brains developed behaviors and responses.

I am convinced that what happens in our lives before age twelve plays a large role in determining who we become later on. Most of our values are firmly cemented before we reach the teenage years, at which point I believe we have developed behaviors connected to human emotions—such as laughter, anger, anxiety, attachment, and the way we process frustration.

I am not saying that human behaviors cannot change over time or that we do not have tools to help us do this. But because most of the behaviors that are acquired early on are laid down subconsciously, it is very hard to modify them. The older we become, the harder it is to access our subconscious self in order to deal with the behaviors we have adopted without realizing it.

Our world’s fate rests on our ability to think critically; only human reason allows us to improve the condition of our lives and the lives of others. If we cannot think critically, how can we hope to solve problems like water shortages, dwindling resources for an exploding world population, climate change, and the need for new sources of clean, renewable energy? How can we resolve conflict and unrest?

There is no pill that will transform our maladaptive behaviors into adaptive ones. Technological advances will not save us from ourselves if we do not promote an environment that supports emotional stability and critical thinking. Nurturing the brain during its important developmental period will decide what kind of world the future will bring.

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