Generation "snowflake" - fact or fiction?

We're teasing apart some of the latest neuroscience news with our local experts...
20 January 2020

Interview with 

Helen Keyes, ARU; Duncan Astle, Cambridge University


Brain schematic


Are youngsters really getting more hypersensitive? And what's going on in the brain when you chat with your baby? We're teasing apart some of the latest neuroscience news with our local experts. First up, Helen Keyes from Anglia Ruskin University spoke to Katie Haylor about a paper that wanted to find out if adult's and baby's brains sync up when they're directly communicating with each other...

Helen - Functional near infrared spectroscopy, which records levels of oxygenation in the brain, so we're able to get a good proxy for areas of the brain that are activated in kind of real time. What was interesting for this study is that the authors were looking at infants, 9 to 15 months old, and they recruited 42 infants initially. Half of those straight away were too wriggly and had to be excluded. And another 3 of those just refused flat out to wear the caps, so the authors ended up with 18 infants in this study.

And they had the same adult, the one researcher, interacted with these infants individually for five minutes. So they were reading with them, singing songs, directly interacting, and then in the control condition with the same infant, the adult would be turned away, engaging in stories with another adult. So the infant was still hearing the adult's voice, but wasn't directly interacting with them. They found that in the face to face sessions, the babies and adults brains synchronised in several areas, but most interestingly, they synchronised in the prefrontal cortex in areas involved in language processing, perspective taking, and even in prediction of what their behaviour is. So this area involved in a mutual understanding, it was highly synchronised. And when the adult was turned away, this synchronisation disappeared almost entirely.

Another interesting finding was that the infant brain often led here. So it wasn't just that the infant was passively following what the adult was doing. Often the infant's brain activity would predict by a few seconds what the adult's brain was going to do. So there is this really active feedback loop, anticipation and predicting, of the other person's behaviour.

Katie - It sounds very sensible and it's what I would expect to happen when you're directly communicating with a kid. But is this particularly surprising?

Helen - It's not surprising in that it's what we would often observe in natural interaction between parents and children. We get in sync with each other. But this may well turn out to be a nice prediction of things, like language development. Hopefully, as an extension of this study, the authors might be able to show that this early interactive, social communication may well be predictive of language ability in the ways that other observable things are. So a child following pointing behaviour for example, following where it is you're pointing to, does predict later language development. So it is likely that something like this can be used, hopefully, to stimulate that type of development in the brain.

Katie - Duncan?

Duncan - If we took two people and put them in totally separate rooms, and made them watch the same video of a facial expression reacting, and we looked at what happened in their brains, they would start to do similar things and we might conclude from that, that their brains are in sync, but it's because they're really watching the same sort of visual input. So in this case, you could imagine that if there's general mirroring of behaviour, then you could start to get what looks like syncing of the brain. That's one way of characterising it. But really it's about the kind of mimicking and the mirroring of physical behaviour.

Katie - So the kids might just be copying, is that what you're saying?

Duncan - Yeah, and vice versa, that the parents then copying the kid and vice versa, and that then gives the appearance in the brain activity of a syncing. But it's really just each person's brain responding says something quite similar that they're seeing.

Katie - Do you think, Helen, that could be the case in this study?

Helen - So firstly, the idea that two people watching something in two different rooms and their brains having similar response, they're not really in sync are they? They're just both responding to the same thing. So there's a huge literature around this showing that those kind of shared responses are really special. They're not shared with each other, but the similar response you and I might have when we understand a situation in a similar way is different from if you and I just heard some random noises playing. So it's not just that your brain is being stimulated, it's that the understanding part of your brain is being stimulated in a similar way to mine. So what this study is getting at is how that develops. So we're not saying that there's something about you and I being in the same room as each other that is necessarily syncing up our brains together. It's how do we develop that shared understanding so that when we do grow up, we might respond in a similar way to each other. Kind of across the spectrum, where we have a similar understanding to each other.

According to the Collins English dictionary, “snowflake generation” is termed as “the generation of people who became adults in the 2010s, viewed as being less resilient and more prone to taking offence than previous generations”. But is it really true? That’s the question that the paper cognitive neuroscientist Duncan Astle's been looking into for us this month has set out to answer.

Duncan - Hypersensitivity is part of a particular personality trait called narcissism. And so using some large cohort studies, we can start to ask the question whether indeed is the case that our level of hypersensitivity changes as we age, and whether there have been intergenerational changes in the level of hypersensitivity.

Katie - I'm conscious that narcissism and hypersensitivity can be quite loaded terms. Can you give us the scientific definition of what they mean?

Duncan - So in this case, the measure was taken from an in-depth interview, after which the interviewer completed something called the California Adult Q-sort, which is a personality questionnaire. And in it there were items like "is thin-skinned, sensitive to anything that can be constrained as criticism or a personal slight". And so they have individuals who are aged between 13 and 77 years old and these are the same individuals that are tracked over time. So it's not massive numbers of people. It's just over 700 in total. But the exciting thing is that they've tracked them over the life span. And because these are taken from different cohorts at different points in time, they can then start to ask their intergenerational question.

Katie - Oh, I see. So would a 21 year old in one decade show similar results to a 21 year old in another decade?

Duncan - Yeah, two separate questions. What is the impact of getting older on your narcissism and, have there been intergenerational changes in the level of narcissism? So the results are in. Firstly, men are more hypersensitive than women. You may or may not find that surprising. And people generally get less hypersensitive as they get older, especially when they get past 40. So you, as an individual, can expect to get less hypersensitive the older you get. But crucially, hypersensitivity is decreasing across successive generations.

Katie - That's so interesting. That's not what I thought you were going to say.

Duncan - No, exactly. So counter to the prevailing view of our young people today, they're so sensitive and blah, blah, blah and snowflake generation. Actually the data show that the opposite trend is happening.

Katie - And it's also interesting that you said 40 was the cutoff. Because anecdotally I've heard people say, as I get older, I care less if people think I'm such and such, or the opinions of others about me matters less.

Duncan - That's true. But if you look at the data, there's a particular inflection point at 40. And what happens at 40? I don't know why you suddenly stopped caring. I don't know. But that seems to be the critical age in the data. But it's also really interesting to think why is that? Maybe it's that we gradually have more control over our own lives as time goes on. You know, we adjust our own social circles, who we follow on social media, the bubbles that we enter ourselves into, so gradually over time maybe we are less exposed to views that we find irritating and personally offensive or maybe it's that we generally care less, the older we get. We have more perspective. We have a bit of a broader view on things and we're less bothered about individual comments.

Katie - Do we know anything about whether it correlates with life stressors, those like really big events, having children or the death of a parent or you know, something really monumental?

Duncan - No, we don't. So these data was so hard to come by that it means that there's not a lot else in there that we know about these individuals. The other interesting finding, I guess, is that the fact that across generations people are getting less hypersensitive and the authors actually don't really provide much of an account for why that could be. But we can all imagine, maybe it's for instance the advent of the internet, being exposed much more regularly to people who might say something to you that's slightly offensive, and gradually over time you become sort of slightly desensitized to all of that.

Katie - What do you make of these overall?

Duncan - A really interesting thing is why it contrasts so much with the story that's present in the popular media, and that's present in Collins English dictionary, which is that young adults are gradually becoming more and more sensitive and people weren't like that in the olden days because the data actually say the opposite. And I just wonder whether that's because it's easy to dismiss arguments if you can easily dismiss the individual as being too hypersensitive. So we're living through a period of immense change in terms of things like climate change, all sorts of social and demographic changes, and I wonder whether it's easier to dismiss some of the controversies and arguments surrounding that if you can just characterize the people who are espousing those views as being snowflakes.

Katie - Helen?

Helen - I think in the context of what you're saying about the popular media and its portrayal of young people as a snowflake generation and why this might be almost a useful way of dismissing people, I think that's really also interesting in terms of the gender findings. That certainly the popular media would portray at women as being more hypersensitive or thin skinned when indeed this study shows quite the opposite. And it may link in well there as an easy way to dismiss legitimate points that people are raising.

Duncan - I think one encouraging thing is that the data suggests that people are gradually becoming more accommodating of each other's perspectives, and ironically, probably the people who are most likely to use the term snowflake, according to the data, are the people who are probably the least accommodating or the most hypersensitive.


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