Older research on personality psychology claimed that our character stops changing at the age of 30 – after that, we are who we are and stay consistent in our character. Maybe this is where all the glorification of “experiment in your 20s…find yourself in your 30s!” comes from!
But recent long-term-studies show: our character can change and develop throughout our entire lifetime, with even people in their 60s being able to undergo significant personality changes. Our brain’s capacity to change cognitive and emotional traits holds many opportunities if we dare to change.
This capacity is called Neuroplasticity – the ability of our brain to change in response to new experiences, environmental influences, as well as changes resulting from changes in our body. Whereas earlier studies assumed that the interaction between our brain and the outer world is a one way street, i.e: our brain gives the impulses for creativity, thoughts and influences our attitudes and behaviour, the science of neuroplasticity proves that it is a two-way street. Our environment, experiences and thoughts are just as powerful to change our brain and even reshape it physically.
Among the most popular tests to measure and describe different personalities is the Big 5 Personality Dimensions Model, which can show very different results in the course of a persons life. The 5 character traits are: Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness (level of reliableness and being organized), Neuroticism (emotional stability) and Openness (to new experiences & ideas). Based on research conducted throughout many different cultures and in the course of a lifetime, similar results were observed: The older we get, the more reliable, sociable and emotionally stable we become. On the other hand we become less open to new experiences. But this is something that often happens without our effort as a result of most people living in a community and following a conventional path, i.e. going to work, building a family, raising children, retire.
When our personality changes, it stems often from new tasks we have to accomplish. For example, when you enter work life you have to be reliable and keep the promisses you make, when you move to a different country, you have to be more open and sociable in order to adjust to the new culture and make friends. Researchers say that about 50% of our personality is determined by our genetics. The rest is prescribed by the culture and society we live in/were raised in, our environment and the different experiences we make in life.
A remarkable example of the power of our brain to change: Stroke patients recover some lost abilities when the brain reorganizes itself to move functions from the damaged location to a healthy one. What is also remarkable: It was shown that we can improve performance through visualizations since action and imagination often activate the same parts of the brain. When we need to learn a physical skill, for example skiing, mental practice of this skill can produce the same physical changes in the motor system as the physical practice.
Need more proof? London taxi drivers possess a larger hippocampus compared to bus drivers, because the hippocampus is specialized in acquiring and using complex spatial information in order to navigate efficiently. Taxi drivers have to remember an incredible amount of streets in this big city and navigate around London whereas bus drivers follow a limited set of routes.
Psychology Professor Staudinger explains two ways that are distinguished in the personality psychology and why some people change more throughout life than others:
Some people prefer “comfort” while others prefer “wisdom”. While the first aspire stability, keeping the status quo and making sure that the people they care about feel good and are happy, the latter tend to see things from a more holistic perspective and develop things, including themselves, to serve a greater good.
What are the reasons to choose either the one or the other way? According to Staudinger, especially crisis, difficult life situations and major external changes motivate people to find new ways to deal with the new circumstances and develop as a person along the way. People on the other hand who are content, experience less trouble in life, have little incentive to change anything about the status quo or even question their current situation and life. After all, change requires energy and I don’t know if I will be successful. This is why most people stay where they are…as a person and in terms of life situations.
Neither the one nor the other way is right…but its important to know that the power to change lies within us and that our brain has all the capacities to do so.