Emotional intelligence: Innate or Learned?


Watching videos of highly emotionally intelligent children, like this six-year old girl talking about the dangers of being mean to her recently separated mother, highlights the problem with the Tabula rasa theory that humans are born without built-in knowledge. Chomsky’s innateness hypothesis did away with the idea that infants can only speak what they themselves have heard with their own two ears – so why then do we still subscribe to the blank slate theory for social and emotional behaviour?

This isn’t a case of nature versus nurture. The field of epigenetics is now discovering how outdated this duality is in explaining human behaviour, especially when nature can be nurtured to be more nurturing in nature. That’s right. Epigenetics argues that our experiences – be they a harrowing childhood or the love and attention of consistently nurturing parents – can be passed onto future generations for better or worse.

As Dan Hurley explains:

Like silt deposited on the cogs of a finely tuned machine after the seawater of a tsunami recedes, our experiences, and those of our forebears, are never gone, even if they have been forgotten. They become a part of us, a molecular residue holding fast to our genetic scaffolding. The DNA remains the same, but psychological and behavioural tendencies are inherited. You might have inherited not just your grandmother’s knobby knees, but also her predisposition toward depression caused by the neglect she suffered as a newborn. Or not. If your grandmother was adopted by nurturing parents, you might be enjoying the boost she received thanks to their love and support. The mechanisms of behavioural epigenetics underlie not only deficits and weaknesses but strengths and resiliencies, too.

In theory then, when you’re dealing with the social, emotional and behavioural difficulties of a student in today’s classrooms, you’re not only dealing with that child’s nightmare conditions at home, but that of her mother’s, her mother’s mother and far beyond.

So too then that small child – like the one in the video above – who have become a repository of knowledge accumulated by generations perfecting the craft of empathy, active listening, self-worth, coping skills and problem solving, among many other social and emotional aptitudes.

What do you think? Are some children more innately emotionally intelligent than others?

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