We are who we are: the neuroscience of personality

Footbridge with graffiti saying HAPPINESS IS FOUND IN YOUR KINDNESS

During my career, I have had the opportunity to participate in workshops focusing on personality and leadership – the most notable of these were delivered by Human Synergistics (Life Styles Inventory [LSI]) and Neuropower. Both systems work to identify personality ‘types’ – LSI via a detailed questionnaire and Neuropower by learning about the neuroscience behind the concepts and then self reflection to establish which types are most dominant.

Some see this negatively as personality profiling – restricting individuality into a few personality traits and simply labeling people with categories of behaviour. But in my experience this is far from the truth. The analysis tends to identify many areas of personality nuanced within each of us – but some that are more dominant than others, or characteristics that are manifest when under stress, for example. Building awareness of these hardwired (yet malleable over time) tendencies is fascinating and learning to be aware of and reflect on the behaviours when they are in action can help us lead more stable, fulfilling and productive lives.

…[in] the past, this mind of mine roamed freely as it liked, as it desired, at its own pleasure. But today, I shall fully keep it in check, even as the elephant driver with the point of a goad controls an unruly elephant in rut.

Our brains develop individuality in a million wonderful ways and have got that way for many, many reasons – via inheritance through our genetic make-up, through environmental or social factors, or through trauma. Depending on the part of the brain in which loss of blood flow has caused a stroke, personality can be changed – positively or negatively. Transient ischemic attacks (TIA’s) are a common, more minor form of stroke, some of which can occur even without us knowing – while we are sleeping for example, combining to influence our physiology, anatomy and psychology.

Studying personalities helps us recognise dominant character traits so we can learn not only how to unleash the positive, but also control those behaviours that hold us back or cause harm. This understanding goes back a long way. In Canto 23 of Dhammapada, Buddha (so, dating back to around 400 BCE) describes it as ‘…[in] the past, this mind of mine roamed freely as it liked, as it desired, at its own pleasure. But today, I shall fully keep it in check, even as the elephant driver with the point of a goad controls an unruly elephant in rut.

More recently, this metaphor of the mind is extended by Jonathan Haidt in the book The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom’, where thoughts about happiness from historical figures are examined. Understanding the neurological basis and the types of Elephant and Rider forms the backbone to Neuropower workshops.

So what are the Elephant and Rider? Who are the Elephant and Rider? They in fact are intrinsically us. They are our brain. But they are more than that – they are our brain and our mind – various parts of neurological hardware and memories combined.

When relaxed, some people are outgoing and gregarious; but under stress can retreat and withdraw. Others can be quite different – when under stress, some people become confrontational, aggressive and angry. The basis of this type of reaction lies in the fight-flight response of the brain, where the fast-acting amygdala in the limbic system (the ‘Elephant’) reacts to a perceived threatening stimulus and controls our physical and emotional state – readying senses and muscles to act and save our lives.

This type of response developed in the early primate brain when threatening stimuli used to be provoked by actually dangerous situations, but modern brains now also experience the same physiological response in times of more ‘everyday’ stresses – work, domestic and other non life threatening triggers can initiate fight-flight. How we behave when we are in this state is based on previous experience – the brain searches for memories of similar situations and responds quickly based on the recalled events. If there is no matching memory, we have to spend time thinking about how to respond, engaging a different, newer part of the brain: the ‘Rider’.

So in times of stress, whether being approached by a tiger, or maybe challenged by a feisty colleague at work, these neurological pathways are invoked. After the ‘fast’ amygdala response, the brain’s more ‘rational’ prefrontal cortex is activated to temper the initial ‘flare’ and produce a more measured reaction. Parts of the prefrontal cortex are only found in primates, and are involved in planning, decision making and moderating social behaviour.

This is all fascinating neuropsychology and can be helpful when looking inwards, working on self awareness to try and be the best that we can be. It’s hard to try and change our hard-wired responses, but if we are aware of our tendencies then we can adjust our ‘measured’ response or at least recognise when we are in our triggered fight-flight state and climb down from the ‘high alert’ more quickly.

Meditation can help tame the emotional response by training ourselves to be more present when a trigger occurs (more appropriate in the work-stress scenario, less so for a tiger attack) and instead of allowing the evolutionarily ancient limbic system to flare, to invoke the prefrontal cortex and exhibit our more positive personality traits.

We are who we are, but with awareness we can be the best that we can be

We are who we are. There are many benefits in learning about ourselves mindfully, without being afraid to explore the less good as well as the wholesome, raising self awareness of which ‘types’ we revert to when comfortable or under stress and how these traits can be utilised for increased well-being.

It was after the Neuropower workshop that I walked onto a Sydney street and into a bookshop looking for something to read on an upcoming journey. After about 2 minutes in the shop I found the book ‘Ten Types of Human: Who We Are and Who We Can Be’, by Dexter Dias. But that’s another story…