16 November 2009

Can your personality change?

I have always been dismayed by personality tests that claim that a person’s personality is fixed for the duration of their adult life; as in my opinion, a person’s personality can and sometimes does change.

This view is supported by evidence from Brain Dominance profiles. Where people have completed the questionnaire more than once over a period of time, we do sometimes notice a change in their profile. When questioned as to why this might be, those people generally provide plausible explanations. For example, in one case a person’s profile had changed implying that their preference for “big picture thinking” had increased while their preference for detail had decreased. This took place over a three year period and coincided with promotion from a relatively “hands-on” job to a more managerial role.

Possibly the reason why some people claim that a person’s personality is fixed and stable comes from the mistaken belief that, since a person’s physical features do not change much beyond adolescence, neither will their brain. However, recent research suggests that the brain’s ability to “rewire” itself is much more extensive than previously thought.

In the past, research on “neural plasticity” (aka the brain’s ability to rewire itself) has centred on using slices of tissue taken from the hippocampus, the region of the brain responsible for short-term memory. Findings from these studies suggested that plasticity did occur but was limited. However, because the research used on a tiny portion of the brain, it was not possible to measure the impact of new learning on the whole of the brain.

Now, a team in Alicante in Spain have developed a means of inserting tiny electrodes into the brains of living rats. The electrodes stimulate certain neural pathways in much the same way as occurs when we experience new things. If the strength of the signals along those neural pathways increases over time, then the brain is “rewiring” itself.

As a result they have found that plasticity is not exclusive to the individual neurons and synapses concerned, but it has implications that are far more widespread than previously thought.

If the whole of the brain is capable of rewiring itself in the light of new experiences, it naturally follows that preferences and personality traits will also be capable of being modified through time.

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