Saturday, December 14, 2019

Can You Change Your Personality? Scientists Say ‘Maybe’

Certain personality traits represent an important target for policy interventions designed to improve human welfare and life outcomes, UC Davis researchers suggest.

It has long been believed that people can’t change their personalities, which are largely stable and inherited. But a review of recent research in personality science points to the possibility that personality traits can change through persistent intervention and major life events.

Personality traits, identified as neuroticism, extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness and conscientiousness, can predict a wide range of important outcomes such as health, happiness and income. Because of this, these traits might represent an important target for policy interventions designed to improve human welfare.

File:Personality disorders.jpg
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The research, published in the December issue of American Psychologist, is the product of the Personality Change Consortium, an international group of researchers committed to advancing understanding of personality change. The consortium was initiated by Wiebke Bleidorn and Christopher Hopwood, University of California, Davis, professors of psychology who are also co-authors of the latest paper, “The Policy Relevance of Personality Traits.” The paper has 13 other co-authors.

Policy change could be more effective

“In this paper, we present the case that traits can serve both as relatively stable predictors of success and actionable targets for policy changes and interventions,” Bleidorn said.

“Parents, teachers, employers and others have been trying to change personality forever because of their implicit awareness that it is good to make people better people,” Hopwood added.

But now, he said, strong evidence suggests that personality traits are broad enough to account for a wide range of socially important behaviors at levels that surpass known predictors, and that they can change, especially if you catch people at the right age and exert sustained effort. However, these traits also remain relatively stable; thus while they can change, they are not easy to change.

Resources are often invested in costly interventions that are unlikely to work because they are not informed by evidence about personality traits. “For that reason, it would be helpful for public policymakers to think more explicitly about what it takes to change personality to improve personal and public welfare, the costs and benefits of such interventions, and the resources needed to achieve the best outcomes by both being informed by evidence about personality traits and investing more sustained resources and attention toward better understanding personality change,” researchers said.

Why focus on personality traits?

Research has found that a relatively small number of personality traits can account for most of the ways in which people differ from one another. Thus, they are related to a wide range of important life outcomes. These traits are also relatively stable, but changeable with effort and good timing. This combination — broad and enduring, yet changeable — makes them particularly promising targets for large-scale interventions. Both neuroticism and conscientiousness, for example, may represent good intervention targets in young adulthood. And certain interventions — especially those that require persistence and long-term commitment — may be more effective among conscientious, emotionally stable people. It is also important to consider motivational factors, as success is more likely if people are motivated and think change is feasible, researchers said.

Bleidorn and Hopwood said examples of important questions that could be more informed by personality science include: What is the long-term impact of social media and video games? How do we get children to be kinder and work harder at school? How do we help people acculturate to new environments? And, what is the best way to help people age with grace and dignity?




Contacts and sources:
Karen Nikos-Rose
University of California - Davis
Citation: The policy relevance of personality traits. Wiebke Bleidorn, Patrick L. Hill, Mitja D. Back, Jaap J. A. Denissen, Marie Hennecke, Christopher J. Hopwood, Markus Jokela, Christian Kandler, Richard E. Lucas, Maike Luhmann, Ulrich Orth, Jenny Wagner, Cornelia Wrzus, Johannes Zimmermann, Brent Roberts. American Psychologist, 2019; 74 (9): 1056 DOI: 10.1037/amp0000503




Evidence Yoga Is Good for the Brain



Scientists have known for decades that aerobic exercise strengthens the brain and contributes to the growth of new neurons, but few studies have examined how yoga affects the brain. A review of the science finds evidence that yoga enhances many of the same brain structures and functions that benefit from aerobic exercise.

The review, published in the journal Brain Plasticity, focused on 11 studies of the relationship between yoga practice and brain health. Five of the studies engaged individuals with no background in yoga practice in one or more yoga sessions per week over a period of 10-24 weeks, comparing brain health at the beginning and end of the intervention. The other studies measured brain differences between individuals who regularly practice yoga and those who don’t.


Brain changes seen in individuals who practice yoga are associated with better performance on cognitive tests and measures of emotional regulation.

Photo by Neha Gothe

Each of the studies used brain-imaging techniques such as MRI, functional MRI or single-photon emission computerized tomography. All involved Hatha yoga, which includes body movements, meditation and breathing exercises.

“From these 11 studies, we identified some brain regions that consistently come up, and they are surprisingly not very different from what we see with exercise research,” said University of Illinois kinesiology and community health professor Neha Gothe, who led the research with Wayne State University psychology professor Jessica Damoiseaux.

“For example, we see increases in the volume of the hippocampus with yoga practice,” Gothe said. Many studies looking at the brain effects of aerobic exercise have shown a similar increase in hippocampus size over time, she said.

The hippocampus is involved in memory processing and is known to shrink with age, Gothe said. “It is also the structure that is first affected in dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.”

Though many of the studies are exploratory and not conclusive, the research points to other important brain changes associated with regular yoga practice, Damoiseaux said. The amygdala, a brain structure that contributes to emotional regulation, tends to be larger in yoga practitioners than in their peers who do not practice yoga. The prefrontal cortex, cingulate cortex and brain networks such as the default mode network also tend to be larger or more efficient in those who regularly practice yoga.

U. of I. kinesiology and community health professor Neha Gothe explores the relationship between physical activity and cognitive aging.
U. of I. kinesiology and community health professor Neha Gothe explores the relationship between physical activity and cognitive aging.
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

“The prefrontal cortex, a brain region just behind the forehead, is essential to planning, decision-making, multitasking, thinking about your options and picking the right option,” Damoiseaux said. “The default mode network is a set of brain regions involved in thinking about the self, planning and memory.”

Like the amygdala, the cingulate cortex is part of the limbic system, a circuit of structures that plays a key role in emotional regulation, learning and memory, she said.

The studies also find that the brain changes seen in individuals practicing yoga are associated with better performance on cognitive tests or measures of emotional regulation.

The discovery that yoga may have similar effects on the brain to aerobic exercise is intriguing and warrants more study, Gothe said.

“Yoga is not aerobic in nature, so there must be other mechanisms leading to these brain changes,” she said. “So far, we don’t have the evidence to identify what those mechanisms are.”

She suspects that enhancing emotional regulation is a key to yoga’s positive effects on the brain. Studies link stress in humans and animals to shrinkage of the hippocampus and poorer performance on tests of memory, for example, she said.

A review of the science finds evidence that yoga enhances many of the same brain structures and functions that benefit from aerobic exercise.

Photo by Neha Gothe

“In one of my previous studies, we were looking at how yoga changes the cortisol stress response,” Gothe said. “We found that those who had done yoga for eight weeks had an attenuated cortisol response to stress that was associated with better performance on tests of decision-making, task-switching and attention.”

Yoga helps people with or without anxiety disorders manage their stress, Gothe said.

“The practice of yoga helps improve emotional regulation to reduce stress, anxiety and depression,” she said. “And that seems to improve brain functioning.”

The researchers say there is a need for more – and more rigorous – research into yoga’s effects on the brain. They recommend large intervention studies that engage participants in yoga for months, match yoga groups with active control groups, and measure changes in the brain and performance on cognitive tests using standard approaches that allow for easy comparisons with other types of exercise.

“The science is pointing to yoga being beneficial for healthy brain function, but we need more rigorous and well-controlled intervention studies to confirm these initial findings,” Damoiseaux said.

Gothe is an affiliate of the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the U. of I. Damoiseaux is an affiliate of the Institute of Gerontology at WSU.

The paper “Yoga effects on brain health: A systematic review of the current literature” is available online


Contacts and sources:
Diana Yates
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


Citation: Yoga Effects on Brain Health: A Systematic Review of the Current Literature. Neha P. Gothe, Imadh Khan, Jessica Hayes, Emily Erlenbach, Jessica S. Damoiseaux. Brain Plasticity, 2019; 1 DOI: 10.3233/BPL-190084