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Nature's Great Experiment

Narrated by Lisa Cant

Research Worker

Twins Early Development Study - Environment

Institute of Psychiatry, London


You know when you have those moments when you're kind of listening to yourself, and you think God, how, how can I do this? How can I ask people, that I don't know, really personal questions? It just tells you something about human nature because people want to trust other people, and if you give anybody I think, the slightest inclination that they can trust you, then they'll tell you anything. And that, that's awesome in the true sense of the word, they are trusting you with their lives. They are giving you a piece of their lives and then you just walk away, and they don't know what you do with that, but they trust you that you'll do the right thing.

From a research perspective it places you in a fantastic position to wheedle out what's the environment and what's genetics. You know you've got two children of exactly the same age, living in the same circumstances, but again, I think people can put too much emphasis on that being the perfect experiment of nature because you can never control for everything. And we all have our own perspective on what happens in our lives, and children brought up in the most similar of circumstances will end up very different.

The first thing we do is something called a life history calendar, which can seem fairly innocuous, you know, How many times have you moved house? Have you lived with the twin's dad over the last five years? Or whatever. How many children have you given birth to? Well you know, I've had mum's start crying at that point because they've had a stillborn child. You've been in the house maybe ten/fifteen minutes, it's the first time you've ever met the person and you're giving them a tissue because they're crying. You know that really forces you straight into the middle of life. This isn't, this isn't ticking boxes.

And then you ask health questions about the twins, so chronic illnesses, accidents, injuries, and then the life events are things like major renovations, loosing a job, right down to has anyone been sexually assaulted? Has anyone been physically assaulted or mugged? Deaths of family members or friends. Have you experienced problems because of race or religion? Have you had an abortion or a miscarriage? You know, just straight off, and this is within the first kind of twenty minutes of being in somebody's house. And it's hard for people when you write it all down on this chart, and they look at it and they'll say, God that was a horrible year wasn't it? You know three family members died, and you've just got this list of things that have happened to the family. And that's quite hard for people sometimes. That can be quite emotional for them. It can be... They haven't realised everything their family's been through.

Some of the hardships that you see. Some of the difficult circumstances people are living in. You know and you go to a house that there are sanitary towels on a bathroom floor, and you think, how long have they been there? There are dirty nappies and, dirty washing in mounds and a toddler eating out of a bin bag, you know? I've seen these things. I've seen, I've seen things that I wish I hadn't seen. But that's that hardest thing, is seeing living in circumstances that you wouldn't want your pets to live in.

Sometimes the hardest thing about that, is looking at the parent and thinking, You are responsible for this. And then having to be polite and courteous and make them feel at ease, and listen to how hard their life has been and you know, empathise and then leave. When actually you are thinking, Get off your arse and do something to improve these kids circumstances because what do you think their future is gonna be? They smell, they're dirty, they've got lice, you know, how are they gonna make friends at school? What is their future gonna be? And then when you go back and visit them again and again, and you can see what their future is gonna be. And then I went to work in the prison service and I saw again, what their future's gonna be. And it's just... you just... that's the side that can drag you down when you just see this whole vicious cycle, this perpetuation of negativity. And it's gonna take somebody, in one generation of that family, really strong, to stand up and turn that all around for themselves and their children.

From the first few minutes of being in a home, you can tell who has been kinda designated good twin/designated bad twin. Parents will tell you they don't what to compare their twins but spend their whole time comparing these two children. What pressure does that put on the children, constantly being compared to a, to a peer? And in our study of the same sex as well as the same age, it's hard enough isn't it, growing up comparing yourself to your friends and siblings if you've got them, but to have somebody who is so closely compared with you, probably you know even in the same class at school as you, who you share a bedroom with, who's always there, I just think that's just... I think that's really tough.

And even, even those parents that don't do it overtly, it's there, it's in the subtleties of their tone, a smile for one child but not for the other, impatience with one child, where the other can't do anything wrong... it's just... you see subtleties and you can see, especially with families that you've visited more than once, you can see the progression of the impact that that has, on the children, sort of within themselves and the relationship with that parent, and their relationship with each other, and no doubt their peers and wider society. And it can start from birth, you know. When we were talking to parents first time around, we'd ask them what their whole experience had been of having twins and they'll talk about them from being hours old. One of them always cried and the other didn't.   So right from hours old they've setup, they given a personality to that child. Which came first? Is it the mother's emotion for the child or the child's behaviour? Which promotes which and what's the kind of snowballing effect?

Always the big alarm bells that goes off with psychiatrists is killing family pets. And I remember being in a house with twins and I was doing the child testing, this is back sort of quite a while ago when we used to go in pairs when they were five, so they just...possibly even four, you know it was around their fifth birthday, with children that had been difficult, and their behaviour was bad, and it was just... just a case of getting through, just get through the child tasks and leave and it would be OK. In a taxi with the research worker I'd been working with and she says, you know, she's been interviewing the mum and the mum said when this child was three or something, really young, it had killed a family pet with like a shovel, like whacked it over the head. And you just get this chill, because you think, God that just puts into context all of that behaviour in that child, just the complete... Because with children, children are usually, the vast majority of them are really open and really responsive, and there was just something about this child, there just wasn't that connection, and there was almost like a kind of, you know, the empty eyes, kind of not really any humanness there. And then you hear that story and you just think whoooaaah, I can understand that now.

Parents will report, one child gets hurt, the other child starts crying or feels it or have a tummy ache when the other ones in hospital having an appendix removed or that kind of thing. So you get lots of reports of physical symptoms, sharing, which I think it quite interesting, because that does kind of lean towards the genetic. If it's physical then you think it's biological and it's genetic and is their some sort of connection their because you came from the same genetic material so you are kind of each other?

Parents have said that they will talk to each other in a different way, so it's either you know, they talk to each other very quickly to each other or they don't finish their sentences, or they, you know, seem to be able to communicate with each other a lot more quickly and effectively than we do through language. So they will be able to skip words, skip part of words, and sometimes the freakiest things that happen are when you do the sketchy task, when they draw together, and they are having to co-operate, and know whose doing what, but some twins will sit and do it in complete silence.

I think that twins struggle a lot with the sense of self, but then I see that in lots of sibling in general, just this struggle. This idea that you don't have to necessarily look in a mirror, you know you've just got somebody their as a constant reminder, and I think that has got to have an impact on your concept of self, because who of us has a constant... you don't carry a picture of yourself around with you and have to look at it all the time. I can't imagine anything worse than having to look at my own face all day, but twins, identical twins have to do that. So that's got to have an impact, because if you've got a crooked nose, or you've got something about your face or body that you don't like, you don't have to look at it, but if you're twin has got the same thing, you've got to see that over and over again.

Mums will often say, Twin A is like me, so we clash, and Twin B is like their dad, so we get on really well. So is there something about... because the person that you hate the most is yourself, isn't it? You know yourself the best, therefore you know all of your flaws, you've got no secrets from yourself, if somebody really reminds you of you, they've got to carry all of that as well, so they've got a tough time at kind of I'm not you .

It's almost a joke that it's Nature's Great Experiment , because you know, what's the hypothesis? What is it... (laughs) What is it there for? And does it really matter? And I don't know, it's just this whole thing for me about Nature's Great Experiment , well... I guess that my kinda, my evil side is kind of thinking, you know, what if one day we actually discover there is no great experiment there and there's nothing that studying twins can teach us that just tudying singletons couldn't teach us. Why does it have to be just this fantastic thing? Why does it have to be a good thing and a special thing and where's it gonna lead from here?

Is there anything really natural about what we're doing here at this institute, you know, it's nature's great experiment, but how natural is it to have somebody come into your home every three years, to send you out a booklet asking you to scrutinise your child's behaviour. What impact is that having on people's parenting? Is it nature's great experiment? Are we interfering with that? Is that gonna fuck it all up? You know? Was it on its path to run its nice course and now we've just gone in every so often, we say we're not interfering, but we're doing something different, and it's very different and that's got to have an impact. That's about your childhood experience. That makes you different from other twins who aren't in our experiment, so if you want to know about nature's great experiment, which are the twins who are naturally born and just live the natural course of their life, you can't interfere with that so you'll never know so it's kind of... yeah...