M y friend told me that all your life experiences up to the age of 26 make you who you are.
He says that for most people, who they are at 26 years old is who they remain forever. He has a business doing personality profiling for some of the largest organisations in Australia so he knows a thing or two about personality traits.
My friend’s personality profiling research shows that if you were to do the same personality profiling test on a person aged 26, then repeat the test at age 36 and then 46, the results would be almost identical. They would essentially be the same person.
I agree that early childhood and young adulthood experiences have a huge impact. I don’t think this comes as a surprise to any of us. But to be the same person at 36 or 46 as you were when you were 26?
Could that be true?
Do we not change?
Are they saying that it’s not possible to change your personality and your anxiety?
At 26 years old, I was anxious, self-absorbed and gave no thought to consequences. I really hope I’ve changed in quite a fundamental way over the past 15 years.
I also found the thought of being hard-wired as a particular person, never able to change, a little depressing. What person with anxiety wants to hear that?!
So I did some research of my own.
I found the thought of being hard-wired as a particular person, never able to change, a little depressing
I came across neuroplasticity.
There’s an entire arm of neuroscience devoted to the concept that it is possible to re-wire your brain (regardless of age). Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change continuously throughout a person’s life in response to new information, sensory stimulation, development, damage or dysfunction.
This idea of a changing brain has replaced the previously-held belief by the scientific community that the adult brain was a physiologically static organ, hard-wired after childhood. We now know through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) that the brain can indeed change.
Neuroplasticity show us that although some pathways are concrete (eg language), the brain has an ability to form new pathways. And these new pathways are also strengthened if we continue to practice these habits. What’s more, is that old pathways that are not used regularly, weaken. This means we can deliberately rewire our brains to move away from say, anxious behaviours, by directing our attention towards a desired change.
Experiencing new things, and flexing mental muscles (such as learning an instrument or even regularly turning your mind to look for things to be grateful for) will over time, form new neural connections in your brain. And the more you do it, the stronger those connections become, until they become habit and that habit turns into your personality.
At the same time, when you stop yourself from doing certain things (for example, you notice and stop negative thought patterns) you weaken the neural connections for that behaviour until they stop being a part of who you are.
So there’s no question our brains can change. In fact, changing our personalities and mindset is a pretty straightforward and “easy” change compared to what the brain is actually capable of. I found these amazing examples of neuroplasticity in action. If our brains can make these changes, then of course we can change to be less anxious, or more grateful or optimistic.
Examples of neuroplasticity in action
- Professor Ramachandran, of the Psychology Department and Neurosciences Program at the University of California, helps people manage their phantom pain and some forms of chronic pain. He believes these pains to be a construct of the brain that is projected on to the body and so he uses imagination and illusion to restructure brain maps. His invention of the mirror box helped many amputees get rid of the pain in the phantom limb.
- Improving performance through visualisation. When we need to learn a physical skill, rehearsing this skill mentally can produce the same physical changes in the motor system as the physical practice. This effect has been achieved in experiments that involved people learning to play the piano, as well as athletes in training.
- If you were to wear blindfolds for two days, your visual cortex would reorganise itself to process sound and touch. Once you take the blindfolds off, the visual cortex will stop responding to tactile or auditory signals within 12-24 hours.
- London taxi drivers have a larger hippocampus compared to bus drivers. That’s because this region of the brain is used for learning and using complex spatial information in order to navigate efficiently. Taxi drivers have to navigate around London whereas bus drivers follow a limited set of routes.
- Collaboration between the neuroscientist Richard Davidson and the Dalai Lama explored the effects of meditation on the brain. The researchers compared the trained minds of the monks and those of volunteers. The results showed much greater activation of powerful gamma oscillation in the monks than in the volunteers during meditation. These gamma waves indicate greater plasticity – meaning that those brains were more capable of change. For example, more capable of becoming more resilient. In fact, even when the participants were not meditating, the monks’ brains showed a large increase in the gamma signal.
So it is possible to make some incredible changes to your brain, to your abilities and to who you are.
So it is possible to make some incredible changes to your brain, to your abilities and to who you are
Most people don’t change
Despite that fact that change is possible, most people don’t change.
We do the same things day in and day out, react to the same experiences in the same way and of course this means that each day is more or less a repetition of the day before and nothing much changes.
When I went back to my friend and pressed him about change he agreed that sometimes there is a change in the personality profiles taken years apart – but only if there has been a significant life event.
That’s an experience that makes a profound change in a person’s life – a divorce, an accident, an illness, the death or illness of someone close, for example.
My question to you is: What if you didn’t wait for some adverse life event to happen to change?
Would you rather stay in the safety of your comfort zone, surviving through everyday routine, or take some risk in discovering the unknown, to what might lead to getting the most out of life?
Is it possible to deliberately change your mindset and change who you are?
Well yes, it is. You can rewire your brain to stimulate the process of neuroplasticity just by thinking.
Change doesn’t happen overnight of course. It takes practice, but it can be done.
Doing things differently and moving out of your comfort zone is difficult and will feel uncomfortable at first. This is because when we move into a totally new environment – a new way of living – we have to consciously choose at every moment how to act and react.
Instead of being able to conserve energy and simply operate “automatically” the brain is required to pay attention constantly. And it feels uncomfortable. We don’t know which habits to fall back on.
When we live outside of our comfort zone, we have to build new habits to help us in this new area. This requires that we develop new skills as well as resilience, flexibility and adaptability. We have to be mindful and conscious.
So how do we start to change?
1. Begin by setting realistic goals
2. Avoid old habits and triggers which cause a downward spiral
3. Make conscious decisions
4. Acknowledge that it will feel uncomfortable at first
5. Remember that every time you choose the new habit over the old one, you are strengthening the new neural pathways and weakening the old ones.