We all know that the human brain is a very complicated and ever-changing organ of our body. There is a sophisticated network of neurons present in our heads that forms and breaks connections with one another as we continue to learn new things and adapt to new environments. This ability of the brain to change its own structure to adapt to new circumstances is known as neuroplasticity. The brain is known to have more plasticity at a young age since the neural network in the head is just building itself at that time. As one moves from childhood into young adulthood, there are significant changes in a person’s personality. But does this mean that it is possible to change certain aspects of your personality at any age? Well, let’s take a look to find out if it is possible to change your personality with brain plasticity.
Plasticity of the Brain and Your Personality
The brain has a higher level of plasticity when you are younger since the neural network in the head is still building itself up. At the same time, people will undergo the biggest shifts in their personalities as they move from childhood to young adulthood.(1, 2) The more adaptable your neurons are, the easier it is to change certain personality traits.
At the same time, it is necessary to be aware that it is possible for you to change your personality even after the age of 30. In fact, your brain continues to grow and change as you age, the only difference being that this happens at a slower pace. So changing certain aspects of your personality may require a more conscious effort once you reach 40 years as compared to the effort it took when you were 14, but it is very much possible.(3, 4)
Your personality is unique to you. It is the unique way in which you feel, think, and behave in this world. And while you may express yourself in different ways depending on the situation, your personality remains in a default mode. For example, if you are more of an introverted person, you are going to be prone to enjoying spending time alone, and your social circle is also likely to be limited to just a few people. However, at a party, you might push yourself to mingle and socialize with other guests because it is the need of the situation. Your basic personality, though, will make you keep these interactions brief, and you are likely to keep stepping outside for fresh air throughout the duration of the party to get away from the crowd every now and then.
There are many ways that are there today to categorize various personalities. This includes the more professional Myers-Briggs questionnaire to the simpler ones like zodiac signs. One of the most commonly used methods for categorizing personalities is the five-factor model of personality, which measures the level of five prominent traits:(5, 6)
- Agreeableness: This is the willingness to trust others, go with the flow, and compromise as needed.
- Conscientiousness: This refers to your attention to detail and your overall sense of responsibility.
- Openness: This refers to your creativity and receptiveness toward new experiences in life.
- Extraversion or extroversion: This is the level of energy you take from social interactions.
- Neuroticism: The tendency to feel insecure, pessimistic, or stressed.
These personality traits are referred to as the ‘Big Five traits, and they tend to remain more or less fixed throughout a person’s lifetime. However, some of these traits may undergo some changes as you age, and evidence shows that some people tend to become more conscientious and agreeable as they become older.(7) Nevertheless, these changes are usually somewhat relative. For example, if you grew up being a ‘go with the glow’ kind of person, you are likely to become just a little bit more organized as you get older and gain more experience. You are unlikely to undergo a complete transformation and become a strict, deadline-following person.
The Brain and Your Personality
The brain definitely has an influence on your personality. However, there is no identifiable or specific portion of the brain that is known to be responsible for controlling these traits. According to a study from 2018, the same neural network is believed to regulate extroversion, emotion, and neuroticism.(8)
The specific neurons that activate and the order in which they get activated is what determines the part of your personality that shows up at any point in time. At the same time, imaging studies done on the brain have shown that these personality traits of a person can have an impact on the shape of the brain. Let’s take a look at how this is believed to work.
Trait of Agreeableness
The amygdala of the brain is known to regulate your emotions. The amygdala is connected to many different areas of the brain. Recent research from 2022 shows that people who have higher levels of agreeableness usually have been found to have more connectivity between the amygdala and those regions of the brain that is known to help perceive social cues.(9) Looking at these findings, it is believed that agreeableness gives rise to more positive emotions from social rewards, which helps motivate the brain to continue maintaining more positive relationships in your life.
Every person’s working memory makes it possible for them to hold various information in their head for a short time. For example, when you need to recall a password for long enough to type it in. According to research done in 2015, the neurons that are in charge of your working memory usually have greater plasticity when there are higher levels of conscientiousness.(10) This means that your neurons have an easier time forming the short-term connections that help you access your memories. This is believed to be the reason behind why conscientious people usually pay far greater attention to detail.
Studies have found evidence that suggests that people who have high levels of openness are more likely to have a better and more efficient network of neuron connections in their ‘default’ mode network.(11) This default mode network has an important role to play in your imagination and the ability to allow the mind to wander off. This makes the brain more open to new ideas.
Research carried out in 2013 found that people who have higher levels of neuroticism have a greater number of connections between the brain’s amygdala and the precuneus. The precuneus is involved in how you react to certain environmental cues. This is believed to be the reason why people with high neuroticism tend to react very strongly to certain stimuli.(12)
Extroverted people often have a higher number of neuron clusters in their brains.(13) This web of neurons is known to have more knots at the places where the neurons bunch together.
How Does Neuroplasticity Affect Your Personality?
Personality is derived from a mixture of nurture and nature, just like the many other psychology-related characteristics in humans. The genes you inherit from your parents are the first map for your neurons to start forming connections in particular patterns. These early connections are what make you prone to developing personality traits like agreeableness or neuroticism.
However, your environment also has an influence on your personality. Your cultural values, how your parents treat you, and other such factors have a role to play in influencing your personality traits, including becoming more conscientious.
When we look at the rules of neuroplasticity, they play a role in determining which personality traits will stay and which ones will disappear as you age. This means that when you engage in a certain behavior regularly, the neurons involved in that behavior get activated. And when those neurons fire together numerous times, they start to form connections with one another.(14)
In the same way, when you stop pursuing or displaying a certain trait, the associated neural pathways with that trait start to weaken over a period of time.
Is It Possible to Change Who You Are?
There are many people who want to change some aspects of themselves that they believe to be problematic or damaging to their growth. Some of the most commonly sought-after goals for personality change that people run after include increasing their extroversion and conscientiousness while decreasing their neuroticism. Studies have found that there are some things that successful personality interventions have in common. These include:
- Strengths: Use your existing relationships and talents to help you reach a goal. For example, if you want to get better at making small talk with others, you can try to practice this skill with animals.
- Awareness: There should be a strong need to be aware of what you want to change about yourself. If you simply say that you want to be more extroverted, it is too vague and too broad to have any impact on your personality. Instead of this, you should try to have a clearer picture of what trait it is that you want to change about yourself.
- Reflect: You have to reflect on why your personality has become the way it has and why you feel so strongly about those traits that you want to change. Explore what you find challenging about the new characteristics that you want to absorb and how you can go about changing yourself to adopt these new, more positive traits.
- Action: The best way to help adopt a new personality trait is by acting like you already have that trait. Acknowledge what you are grateful for in life to activate those neurons in your brain that are connected to positive emotions. And as you build up these positive neural pathways, you will find yourself noticing more positive things in your life.
Of course, all this is easier said than done, and there is a lot of work involved as well. If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed and unsure of where to start, seeking help from a therapist can help you get guidance and support. Psychotherapy can help bring about personality changes that last longer and also help improve emotional stability.(15)
Your personality is believed to influence the shape of your brain, and the changes in your brain’s structure are, in turn, believed to influence your personality. While the brain tends to have more plasticity when you are young, but this does not mean that as you age, you are not able to change yourself. With patience and hard work, it is possible to change many personality traits, habits, and even behaviors throughout your life, no matter what age you are at.
- Hopwood, C.J., Donnellan, M.B., Blonigen, D.M., Krueger, R.F., McGue, M., Iacono, W.G. and Burt, S.A., 2011. Genetic and environmental influences on personality trait stability and growth during the transition to adulthood: a three-wave longitudinal study. Journal of personality and social psychology, 100(3), p.545.
- Johnson, W., McGue, M. and Krueger, R.F., 2005. Personality stability in late adulthood: A behavioral genetic analysis. Journal of personality, 73(2), pp.523-552.
- McGue, M., Bacon, S. and Lykken, D.T., 1993. Personality stability and change in early adulthood: A behavioral genetic analysis. Developmental psychology, 29(1), p.96.
- Donnellan, M.B., Conger, R.D. and Burzette, R.G., 2007. Personality development from late adolescence to young adulthood: Differential stability, normative maturity, and evidence for the maturity‐stability hypothesis. Journal of personality, 75(2), pp.237-264.
- McCrae, R.R. and John, O.P., 1992. An introduction to the five‐factor model and its applications. Journal of personality, 60(2), pp.175-215.
- Wiggins, J.S. ed., 1996. The five-factor model of personality: Theoretical perspectives. Guilford Press.
- Hudson, N.W., 2021. Does successfully changing personality traits via intervention require that participants be autonomously motivated to change?. Journal of Research in Personality, 95, p.104160.
- Markett, S., Montag, C. and Reuter, M., 2018. Network neuroscience and personality. Personality Neuroscience, 1.
- Yoon, L., Carranza, A.F. and Swartz, J.R., 2022. Resting-State Functional Connectivity Associated With Extraversion and Agreeableness in Adolescence. Frontiers in behavioral neuroscience, p.342.
- Dima, D., Friston, K.J., Stephan, K.E. and Frangou, S., 2015. Neuroticism and conscientiousness respectively constrain and facilitate short‐term plasticity within the working memory neural network. Human Brain Mapping, 36(10), pp.4158-4163.
- Beaty, R.E., Kaufman, S.B., Benedek, M., Jung, R.E., Kenett, Y.N., Jauk, E., Neubauer, A.C. and Silvia, P.J., 2016. Personality and complex brain networks: The role of openness to experience in default network efficiency. Human brain mapping, 37(2), pp.773-779.
- Ormel, J., Bastiaansen, A., Riese, H., Bos, E.H., Servaas, M., Ellenbogen, M., Rosmalen, J.G. and Aleman, A., 2013. The biological and psychological basis of neuroticism: current status and future directions. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 37(1), pp.59-72.
- Markett, S., Montag, C. and Reuter, M., 2018. Network neuroscience and personality. Personality Neuroscience, 1.
- Power, J.D. and Schlaggar, B.L., 2017. Neural plasticity across the lifespan. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Developmental Biology, 6(1), p.e216.
- Allemand, M. and Flückiger, C., 2022. Personality change through digital-coaching interventions. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 31(1), pp.41-48.