Each of us comes to this life with biologically determined innate traits. Preloaded with these innate traits, we interact with our environment over many years, making innumerable choices along the way. It is through this interactive process that our core self is formed. Awareness of our innate traits can help us understand the nature of our core self, which is vital if we are to comprehend the thoughts and feelings to which we are disposed.
In this lesson, we will consider three biological aspects of our innate traits: our brains, our bodies, and our temperaments. Some men be¬lieve that we are more than biological beings. They believe we have a soul with timeless spiritual traits that were given to us by God. And so we will also consider the concept of spiritual innate traits. But let’s begin with biology.
The genetic code in our DNA contains a basic pattern for how our brains and bodies will form. Hormones act as chemical messengers, carrying out the instructions within the genetic code in the development of all our biological traits. This includes the characteristics of our brains and bodies, which in turn determine our temperaments.
The structure and functions of the brain have much to do with making us who we are. The original structure of our brains developed through the types of genetic and hormonal interactions described above. Although the brain develops and changes with age, experience, and choice, its basic structure is set and unchangeable.
Recent research suggests that the brains of some boys are structurally different from those of their male peers. These structural differences may lead to personality characteristics that could set these boys apart. For certain men, it is conceivable that this may be a factor underlying their SSA. Now, let us look more closely at this research.
In his book, The Essential Difference, Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen discusses his decade-long study of male and female brains, which he conducted using PET and MRI brain scans. His research showed substantial distinctions between typical male and female brains, but it also showed many exceptions to the general rules. In fact, it showed that one in five men have what Baron-Cohen classi¬fied as a “female” brain. Similarly, one in seven women have a brain that is “male.”
The main difference in these brains has to do with the corpus callosum, the broad, thick band of millions and millions of nerve fibers that attaches the two hemispheres of the brain. This band enables communication between the more logical left hemisphere of the brain and the more emotive and creative right hemisphere. In the typical male brain, the corpus callosum is thinner than that found in the typical female brain. Thus, women tend to have greater access to both sides of the brain, and they are more creative and emotionally expressive than men. Through the data compiled from Simon-Baron’s study, the 20% of males with a larger corpus callosum tend¬ed to be more self-expressive, creative, and sensitive than their male counterparts.
Simon-Baron’s study also discusses differing levels of the hormone oxytocin. It is believed that the brain uses oxytocin as an agent in developing social recognition and bonding. Oxytocin might very well be involved in the formation of trust between people. Some boys in the study showed higher-than-typical levels of oxytocin, which would presumably lead to relational be¬havior that is untypical of their male friends.
While it cannot be claimed that these brain differences cause SSA, or even that they necessarily set a boy up to develop SSA, such differences are a part of the entire picture of who you are and could contribute to your emotional and psychological makeup.
Just as the brain is strongly influenced by a person’s genetic code, our bodily charac¬teristics are also driven by genetics. Facial features; hair, eye, and skin color; skeletal and ligament qualities; metabolism; reflexes; body proportions; height potential; and muscle strength and mass potential are some of the bodily traits determined through genetics.
But our genes don’t always have the last word with many of these traits. Non-genetic factors like nutrition, exercise, learning, environmental toxins, and general health can influence how, and how much, our genetic code is manifested in actual traits. Many physical traits depend on these interactions, including body weight, coordination, athletic skills, physical energy, and stamina.
For men with same-sex attraction, the body is often is focal point of concern, both in developmental years and in adulthood. Some of the biologically determined body traits that are frequently—though not universally—of concern to men with same-sex attraction have to do with puberty and growth phases.
The timing of puberty can be particularly challenging for many. Some boys go through puberty in their early teens. Their voices change, their muscles thicken, their genitals enlarge, and they begin to grow body hair a year or more before most of their peers. Other boys go through puberty very late, experiencing the exact opposite effects. Being on either side of average can lead to feeling different and ashamed.
The timing, rates, and proportions of growth phases can also be challenging. Some boys gain their height very early and tower above their peers for years. Other boys seem to lag behind, gaining their height well after their peers. Some boys grow up and out proportionately, maintaining a relatively proportionate build throughout their development. Other boys seem to grow disproportionately, becoming either very tall and thin on one hand, or thick and chubby on the other hand. Often, these disproportions even out with later growth, but sometimes these may remain for many years or throughout their lives.
Many other body traits can create difficulty for men with SSA. Diseases, disorders, deformities, and illnesses—whether genetic or contracted—can impact self-esteem and relationships with peers. Feeling inadequate about your physical appearance, body shape, coordination, and athleticism can do the same. The beliefs and feelings we develop about our bodies influence the development of our core self.
Certain personality traits seem so basic to individuals—and begin to manifest themselves so early in life—that scientists hypothesize they may be in-born and therefore biological. These traits are often called temperaments. No one is certain what determines temperaments. They may be acquired genetically, hormonally, or through interactions between genes and hormones. Or they may be acquired from other sources of which we are not yet aware.
As a baby, we have certain sensitivities, interests, and emotional reactions that were unique to us. For example, some babies are very irritable, while others are easily soothed. Some babies have a high tolerance for pain and boredom while other babies are very sensitive to these. Some children want more physical comfort than do other children. Some children are extremely active while others are content just being still. And some children are very sensitive to the sights, sounds, tastes, and smells that surround them, while others are less sensitive or aware.
In the late 1990’s, Dr. Robert Cloninger wrote about three temperaments that are of particular interest to understanding distinctions in personalities. These temperaments are:
- Novelty seeking: interest in new things vs. disinterest or aversion to new things
- Harm avoidance: enjoyment in taking risks vs. aversion to the potential of risk and harm
- Reward dependence: being highly motivated by the possibility of reward vs. being fully self-motivated
Each of us manifests these temperaments in in one direction or another, leading to great variety in our personalities.
Many people believe that humans are not merely biological organisms, but also have some kind of spiritual component—something within us that is metaphysical and perhaps divine. This component could be called the “spirit” or “soul.” Some believe our spiritual self has always existed and many would say that it is the most basic element of who we are. Those of us who have such beliefs might also believe that our soul comes with its own characteristics, which become manifested in our core self.
Take the concepts presented in this module to a deeper level in your life through action. Consider the ideas below, then come up with an activity that will stretch you.
Some of the topics in this lesson will be explored in greater depth in other parts of the curriculum. The impact of our bodies on our gender concept and self-concept will be explored in later in Track 2. And temperaments will be explored in greater depth in the series on Gender Congruity, also in Track 2.
- Consider what this lesson presented about innate traits in our brains and temperaments. Then make an inventory of your own thinking and temperament traits that you believe could be innate to you. Notice and journal how you feel about each trait.
- Journal your beliefs and feelings about your own body traits. Notice whether you have positive beliefs and feelings or negative ones. Notice whether your beliefs and feelings about your body enhance or detract from your self-esteem.
- Write a few paragraphs about what you consider to be your spiritual innate traits, or the traits of your eternal soul. Consider, for example, connection with a higher power, goodness or faith, intuition, or a spiritual “calling” you feel you have.
- Write about the way in which your innate traits may have impacted the way you think and feel. Here are some examples:
- Some men’s temperaments and body traits might create feelings physical insecurity and might cause them to think non-assertively.
- Other men’s temperaments and body traits might cause them to feel physically bold and to think in aggressive ways.
- Make an inventory of innate traits that you don’t like about yourself. Organize it into two lists: 1) traits that you might be able to improve through effort, and 2) traits that cannot be changed. Then, set a plan for working on one of the traits that could be improved. And set a plan for working on accepting one of the traits that is unchangeable. If you are working with a therapist, discuss this inventory with him or her. Otherwise, you might want to discuss it with a trusted friend.
- Write about the concept of innate traits regarding your homosexuality. Do you believe some of your innate traits may have contributed to you being homosexual? Do you believe homosexuality itself is in innate part of your core self? Do you believe some of your innate traits can help with your intention to handle your SSA in ways that are congruent with your values?
Ideas for Groups
All of the activities described above can be adapted for group use. Below are suggestions for how to adapt them.
- Activities 1 through 4: Invite group members to write something about any of these three suggestions. Then invite them to share what they wrote in the next group meeting.
- Activity 5: Discuss these inventories in group. Help each other be realistic about which traits can be improved and which ones are unchangeable. Support each other in making and carrying out plans to improve what can be changed and to accept what can’t be.
- Activity 6: Be aware that discussing this activity in your group could bring up diverse opinions about whether or not homosexuality is innate. This topic could be divisive in a group.
(Men with lengthy experience regarding this topic)
If you are aware of additional research on the topics discussed in this lesson, share it with GWX.
Sharing our life experiences is a powerful way to more deeply integrate what we learn. You are invited to share your experience with this lesson with anyone close to you whom you trust. And you are especially invited to share your experience back to the GWX community by writing a post of up to 400 words.