Emory Report

January 31, 2000

 Volume 52, No. 19

Harvard's Kagan to give 'temperamental' talk

By Michael Terrazas

Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan will speak at a Feb. 2 event honoring the appointment of Emory's new distinguished chairholders. "In Celebration of Scholarship" will be held in the Cox Hall ballroom at 4 p.m. with a reception to follow.

It is quite fitting that we have a scholar of Dr. Kagan's stature to honor University faculty named to distinguished chairs in the last year," said Susan Frost, vice provost for institutional planning and research. "We hope for celebrations like this to be a regular part of life at Emory."

Kagan is the Daniel and Amy Starch Professor of Psychology at Harvard and for the past 20 years has studied the temperamental dispositions inherited by infants. His lecture, "Galen's Prophecy: The Origins of Melancholic and Sanguine Profiles," will focus on a 10-year study of temperamental traits and brain physiology in young children. The study began with a sample of some 500 infants Kagan used to test for brain differences and how they are related to the subjects' personalities, first as infants, then as 5-year-olds and now as 10-year-olds.

Kagan said the children's brain chemistry is directly tied to two general behavioral patterns: first is the "reactive" group, whose members demonstrate a low threshold for response to social stimuli. These children tended to be more shy, introverted and took longer to socialize. The other, "relaxed" group proved more resilient when handling social stimuli and demonstrated less tension and easier sociability.

"We're talking about pure introverts and pure extroverts here," Kagan said. "For example, an example of an introvert would be T.S. Eliot, and an extrovert would be someone like Ernest Hemingway."

Kagan said he accounted for differences in family environments by selecting children from white, middle-class families whose upbringing is largely free of major, "traumatic" events that might influence development. From the original sample of 500, about 200 will be surveyed in this latest, 10-year round of observation.

But the idea that basic traits such as introversion and extroversion can be traced to physiological difference dates back a lot longer than a decade. Both Kagan's lecture and his book Galen's Prop-hecy are named for Galen of Pergamon, an ancient Greek philosopher who questioned the degree to which anyone could be expected to control his or her deepest emotions.

"The ancients said these things; it goes back 2,500 years," Kagan said. "Hippo-crates said there are melancholic people and there are sanguine people, and he thought they each had a special body fluid or chemistry. It turns out that that guess was pretty good."

As far as the study's subjects and their families, Kagan said he has told curious parents into which temperament group their children fall. And the kids themselves seem more than willing to have electrodes attached to their heads in the name of science.

"Their reaction is, 'Wow, that's pretty interesting,'" Kagan said. "There's a healthy inquisitiveness, maybe a feeling of specialness. I think it makes them feel important to be participating in something that symbolically has some significance."

Kagan said another book will follow once the study concludes its 10-year observations.

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