The Power of Personality

Using brain science to reveal your best self

Posted Oct 27, 2016

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

When Dave entered early adolescence, he was suddenly hit with an extreme form of social anxiety. He feared speaking in class, didn't come to school when he was supposed to present in class, his grades dropped. Slowly his friends disappeared. He had become not only socially anxious but also lonely and extremely introverted.

 "I remember feeling completely shitty most of the time on top of my fear of being around people," Dave told me when first speaking to me in my lab at University of Miami. 

As Dave went through the teen years his anxiety and introversion grew and grew and grew. He told me it was as if he was standing behind a thick glass window when speaking to others, not being heard, not even being able to hear what others said, simply being inside himself. His answers to other people's questions were brief and dismissive. His voice was monotone.

As Dave entered young adulthood he decided he couldn't stand his isolation anymore. Something had to change. But what? Can one simply change one's personality? Dave didn't think so, but he tried to do everything he could to behave in ways that would counter his personality. Despite his low GPA he managed to get into a college—a college that happened to be far far away from his hometown Seattle: Miami-Dade Community College. He purposely sought out people and every party he could find. He also started drinking heavily. 

The partying and drinking didn't make things better. They made them far worse. But Dave kept trying to force himself outside of his introversion, tried to appear to be the person he wanted to be but wasn't: a fun, talkative extroverted young man.

But he wasn't that person. He never felt like himself when he was acting his role. He felt that he was failing, thought about dropping out of college. He thought that perhaps he was born the way he was: an introvert with no feeling of life satisfaction, always seeing the glass as half empty.

He didn't give up, though. He gave up on the drinking and partying, and started working out and living a healthier lifestyle. After reading numerous self-help and psychology books, he also began meditating. He started feeling less anxious but still felt unhappy and dissatisfied with his life.

When he first came to our lab, he entered as a control subject for a study of personality. The only problem was that we couldn't use him. We were looking for a control subject. Control subjects in personality studies are people who score average on personality measures. Dave didn't score average. He scored very high on the pessimism measure. The good news was that we could use him as a research participant rather than as a control subject.

In our study we were looking at whether one can change one's outlook on life, using a simple computer test that requires you to seek out happy faces among negative faces. Dave was to continue the exercise on a daily basis.

Eight weeks later Dave returned with his notes on his exercises for a personality check. At first we hardly recognized him. His personality seemed completely changed. For the first time in his life he looked at life with rose-tinted glasses. For the first time since childhood he felt that he was finally the person he had always wanted to be. He had even started dating a girl from his class. His grades were rising.

Dave had changed his personality. The personality tests revealed it.

 "I really didn't think it was possible," Dave grinned. "Now I guess I have objective proof."

What Dave referred to as “objective proof” was a psychology questionnaire. They are based on self-reporting. The questionnaires are not aimed at identifying how you behave in particular situations . They are aimed at determining features of your personality. In psychology, the standard model of personality types is the Big Five model. It classifies people in terms of their degrees of extroversion (or introversion), neuroticism, openness, agreeableness and conscientiousness. Each of these five traits comprises a number of other more specific traits.[1] For example, the dimension of neuroticism is made up of facets such as anxiety, depression, self-consciousness, and vulnerability to stress. You can score high or low on any of these facets, based on your answers to a large number of questions that assess how likely you are to behave in particular ways in particular situations.

Personality disorders, such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and antisocial personality disorder, can be explained on the Big Five model as cases of personality that fall on the extreme end of the spectrum on a number of facets. Individuals with antisocial personality disorder, for example, are people who score low on agreeableness and conscientiousness.

We normally only discover personality disorders when peoples’ behavior fall so far off the charts that they are a danger to others, have difficulties co-existing with others or are unable to function.

Dave did not really have a personality disorder. Most of us don’t—certainly not to a  degree that would require professional, clinical diagnosis and treatment. We simply fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum on the five dimensions. However, sometimes small deviations can have an enormous impact on how we get along with others, whether we manage to be in successful relationships and whether we are able to climb up the career-ladder. And indeed, most of us have entertained the idea of having a different personality at some point in our lives. Like Dave, we might wish that we were more outgoing, more resistant to criticism, more optimistic, or less impulsive, less socially awkward. For most of us, it remains just that—a wish—because most theories of personality tell us that our essential personality type is fixed for life. Sure, we can tweak some habits and modify our behavior, but we can’t change who we really are on the inside. Once our brains reach maturity after the teen years, the prevailing belief goes, that’s it—our essential identity is set. As Dave’s story testifies to, this belief, however, turns out to be firmly rooted in old ways of thinking.

The Plastic Brain

Recent findings about neuroplasticity show how the brain can modify its structure and functioning as a result of changes in the body or the external environment.

 An amazing testimony to the brain’s ability to change and recover is the case of Jody Miller.[2] After her third birthday, Jody started having intense seizures that made her body jerk for hours. All the seizures came from the right hemisphere, spreading to the whole brain. It didn’t take many months before she lost nearly all control of her left leg and arm. Each day she would convulse and fall over, risking serious brain injury.

At this point the doctors offered her parents a startling option. The only way for Jody to survive with some normalcy of life would be to surgically remove half her brain.

The operation was long and complicated, as the doctors worked on separating the two hemispheres without damaging the brainstem that is in charge of maintaining basic life functions, such as breathing and sleeping and waking cycles. The procedure took seven hours. But it went as well as anyone could hope.

After the surgeons had removed the right hemisphere of Jody’s brain, the space filled with spinal fluid. Her brain started reorganizing immediately after the surgery. Although the right hemisphere had been in charge of the left side of Jody’s body prior to the hemispherectomy, what remained of her brain quickly learned to control both sides of her body. Four weeks later Jody was able to walk out of the hospital by herself. Her left brain was performing all the functions that a normal brain does, and in only four weeks!

It would be exceedingly odd if personality were the only thing to escape the brain’s amazing ability to change. But personality is rarely approached from the perspective of the brain. This is likely the main reason it is said to be fixed for life. If you study personality, you are primarily interested in how people behave in different situations. If you study cognition and the brain, you look at how people think and feel and how their brains work to bring about those thoughts and feelings. These are very different approaches that only rarely are combined and that only rarely result in joint discoveries.

Behavior is crucial to understanding what a normal person is like but it reveals only one side of personality: what others can see. The other important component pertains to what goes on on the inside of the skull. The stuff that you can’t always see. People trapped in unresponsive bodies are gruesome testimonies to the fact that what goes on on the inside of a person cannot always be measured by looking at behavior.

Unlocking Personality

Scott Routley was studying physics at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, when his promising future suddenly came to a halt. On December 20, 1999, Scott was leaving his grandfather’s house in Sarnia, Ontario, with his girlfriend. Only blocks away from the house, they collided with a police vehicle. The girlfriend and the police officer were taken to the hospital to be treated for minor injuries. Scott suffered much more dramatic injuries that left him in a peculiar state of unawareness, also known as a persistent vegetative state, or unresponsive wakefulness syndrome.

A persistent vegetative state is different from a coma. In a coma the person looks asleep and doesn’t move, the eyes are closed, and the results of an electroencephalogram (EEG), which detects electrical activity in your brain, are similar to those of a person under general anesthesia. People in a persistent vegetative state have regular sleeping and waking cycles. When they are awake their eyes are open, and they may look around. To the untrained eye they look aware and responsive but sadly most are not. A persistent vegetative state can last for years, and when people regain awareness, they are left dramatically crippled.

This was the condition Scott was left in after the accident. His parents kept insisting that he was responsive to them but all the traditional methods for detecting awareness indicated that he was unaware and that his parents were reading too much into his eye movements and bodily jerks.

Fast forward twelve years. In 2011 Adrian Owen, a British neuroscientist, heard about Scott Routley. Owen had previously found minimal awareness in patients in a persistent vegetative state using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). fMRI shows where the brain is most active when the patient is looking at or listening to a stimulus or is performing a simple task.

After hearing that Scott’s parents insisted that Scott was aware, Owen decided to put their claims to the test. Owen’s team first tested whether distinct activation patterns could be found in Scott’s brain in response to the two different commands: The first command asked Scott to imagine walking through his house, through each room, observing particular items on his way, such as the refrigerator, the dining room table and the television. The second command was for Scott to imagine playing tennis, running fast across the tennis court to get the balls.

The results confirmed the parents’ suspicions. Each of the two tasks triggered a distinct pattern of brain activation. When the team asked Scott to imagine himself walking from room to room at home, the parahippocampal gyrus, which helps us navigate through space, lit up on the fMRI scan. When they asked him to imagine himself playing tennis, on the other hand, the premotor cortex lit up. This area of the brain tells the motor cortex which muscles should be moved. The fact that Scott could consistently carry out a command and imagine one of two very different scenarios proved that he wasn’t merely awake, he was aware.

But Owen wanted to find out the extent of Scott’s awareness. Was Scott aware of himself? Did he recognize his family members and caregivers? Was he in pain? Did he have any preferences for entertainment? Owen wanted answers. Since fMRI cannot detect the difference between someone thinking “yes” and “no,” Owen’s team used a special paradigm that translates “yes” and “no” into two different visual scenarios. The “yes” scenario for Scott was to imagine himself walking through his house. To answer “no” he had to imagine himself playing tennis. Since these two scenarios yielded distinct activations of the brain that can be detected in the scanner, Owen was able to read off answers to his questions from Scott’s brain. The tests revealed that Scott knew who he was and that he was in a hospital. He also was able to identify the name of his personal support worker and the current date. When asked if he was in physical pain, he replied “no.”

Scott had been buried alive inside the tomb of his unresponsive body for twelve years before his voice was finally unlocked. But during those twelve years, Scott was in there, kicking and screaming, longing to be heard. Only the fMRI scans were able to reveal that he was still there. He was not simple awake but fully aware of his surroundings, capable of imagining complex scenarios, making difficult decisions and answering challenging questions.

Cases like these emphasize how important the brain is to personality. What goes on inside the brain can make the difference between an individual being a breathing “vegetable” and her being a person with multifaceted inner traits and characteristics.

Waking Up Dormant Brain Circuits

Genetic research, particularly twin studies, suggest that personality is about 50 percent inherited and 50 percent due to things unrelated to heritage. This means that if you are born with a certain set of genes, you have a 50 percent chance of developing a particular personality. But you also have a 50 chance of not developing it. You are merely predisposed, not destined to become a certain way. The environment is half the equation. A child’s personality is still shaping and reshaping in drastic ways. The same goes for adolescents and young adults, whose brains are still undergoing dramatic transformations.

 While the brain keeps changing all of your life, the greatest number of transformations occur before adulthood. Before adulthood the brain is continually generating new neurons, new neural connections, and myelin, a fatty substance that wraps around the transmitting ends of neurons and makes them better able to communicate with other brain cells. During brain growth the brain doesn’t just make new connections, it also gets rid of the connections it doesn’t use. This process of trimming the neural connections is also known as neuronal pruning, or just pruning. Pruning is thus a process that alters the neural structure by reducing the overall number of nerve-connections, or synapses. This results in more efficient synaptic configurations. Pruning is governed primarily by environmental factors, particularly learning.

The brain can also change its wiring in a different way. In the pruning process, neurons don’t die off. They simply retract nerve endings, or axons, from synaptic connections that are not useful. But the brain can also rewire itself by killing off its neurons in a process that is called apoptosis, which is a form of programmed neuronal death that is different from the kind of killing of neurons that occur in brain injuries, such as when you are wracked unconscious with a baseball bat. In apoptosis the neuron is killed and all connections associated with the neuron are also trimmed away. Apotosis happens, for instance, when the brain renews itself at regular intervals, or in more extreme cases when cancer cells trigger healthy cells to undergo this process.

During childhood and adolescence, imprecise, unused and unnecessary neural connections between neurons are gradually pruned away, leaving connections that are stronger, more useful, and more specific. We can think of it as a sort of neuronal natural selection.

It is during this time frame that our more stable personality traits are formed. This, however, raises a puzzling question. Once a neural connection has been pruned away or a brain circuit has been trimmed away, it is gone for good. Wouldn’t that suggest that it is difficult to turn things around once we reach adulthood?

There is indeed some truth to this. Once we have reached adulthood and have a relatively fixed set of personality traits, it is difficult to change. We cannot get back what is lost in the processes of pruning and trimming. In some cases, brain abnormalities that are genetically based make it virtually impossible to change. People with Williams syndrome, a genetic disorder caused by a deletion of 26 genes on chromosome 7, are extremely extroverted: they have a cheerful demeanor, are wildly talkative and feel at ease with strangers. Recent studies show that the Williams syndrome results in abnormalities in the structure and function of the front part of the insula, an area of the brain involved in self-awareness, empathy and interpersonal experience.[3]

Although there is no denying that childhood is the window of opportunity for change, it is now well established that the adult brain, too, can undergo changes. In fact, it continues to do so throughout life. It can transform in new ways with learning. But it can also return to old patterns. For better and for worse. This is because the processes of pruning and trimming are not always complete. Sometimes the neurons are left intact but have lost many of their connections to other neurons. In other cases, the connections are still present but have gone dormant. This means that the information the neurons transmit is so faint that it no longer suffices to move muscles or reach consciousness.

The amazing thing is that even crippled neurons can regenerate neural connections to other neurons, which can switch dormant brain circuits back on. One of the most amazing discoveries of brain plasticity in recent times is that people left partially paralyzed by spinal injuries can regain some mobility by manually awakening connections between the spine and the brain. Previously it was thought that complete and persistent motor paralysis is the result of a broken connection between the spine and the brain. But researchers at UCLA, University of California, San Francisco, and Russia's Pavlov Institute discovered that in the patients they were examining, the connection between the spine and the brain was still there, but in a dormant state with the neurons barely firing.[4] By stimulating the neural pathways in the spine with electricity, the team found that they could bring back some mobility to people who had been told that they would never feel their limbs again.

These changes are physical, but awakening dormant brain circuits can also result in psychological changes. One of the most radical cases is recounted in neurologist Oliver Sacks’ 1973 memoir Awakening, in which Sacks reports on his discovery of the beneficial effects of then-new drug L-Dopa on catatonic patients. In 1969, Sacks administered the drug—the precursor to the motivation and pleasure brain chemical dopamine—to patients in a Bronx hospital suffering from encephalitis lethargica, an inflammation of the brain that destroys receptors for dopamine and often leaves people speechless and motionless. The Bronx patients were victims of an epidemic of the condition that spread between 1915 and 1926, so they had been transfixed in a sleep-like trance for decades. When Sacks administered the drug to his patients, it hyper-activated the remaining dopamine receptors, arousing brain circuits for motion and speech. His patients awakened and returned to some normalcy of life.

When you awaken dormant brain circuits, you change the function of existing neural pathways. But the brain can also change by generating new neural connections, or synapses. These changes are known as structural changes. When people take up a new area of study or line of work, massive structural changes take place in the brain’s neural connections. For example, when people start using smartphones, the areas of the brain controlling the fingers and the thumbs change. In one study of thirty-seven volunteers, scientists found that smartphone users had greater brain activation readings in response to mechanical touch on the thumb, index and middle fingers than users of conventional cell phones.[5] Similar adaptations have been found in the brains of musicians: the areas that dominate the fingers used to play the violin are significantly larger in violinists than non-violinists.

The ability of the adult brain to change its structure is astonishing enough, but the greatest surprise has been that the adult brain generates new neurons. Throughout my adolescent years I was warned that neurons lost from drinking and recreational drug use were gone forever. This turned out not to be true—certainly not for neurons in the main control area for memory, known as the hippocampus, or for certain other brain regions. The brain is capable of turning stem cells, which are cells that are not specialized for anything, into neurons and incorporating them into existing neural networks.

In recent years we have discovered more and more cases in which dormant brain circuits become reactivated, sometimes in the strangest of ways. When George Melendez was pulled out of his car after a tragic car accident, he was left in a state of minimal consciousness. He was minimally aware of his surrounding, but otherwise unresponsive. His family took him home to care for him. Due to some night terrors that left George tossing and turning at night, the family doctor prescribed zolpidem, also known commercially as Ambien. The sleep medication had the opposite effect. It didn’t help George sleep. It woke him up. He was suddenly able to speak and remembered everything from before the accident. After a second dose of Ambien in the morning, he had the feeding tube removed and was eating pancakes for breakfast.

In another case a 48-year-old woman was left in a minimally conscious state for two years following a suicide attempt.[6] She couldn't move, speak or even feed herself. When given Ambien to help her sleep, she could suddenly speak, eat by herself, and move unassisted until the drug wore off. This was not an isolated incident: researchers have encountered numerous other cases of paradoxical awakenings, suggesting that Ambien can hyperactivate dormant brain circuits in some people with brain injury.

While medication in some cases can jump start dormant brain circuits, less invasive techniques can accomplish similarly amazing results by imitating the effects of medication. It has long been known, for example, that severe sleep deprivation alleviates depression 60 to 70 percent of the time, which is better than common antidepressants. However, for many years it has remained a mystery how being more tired could yank us out of a state that typically makes us want to stay in bed all day.

 It turns out that the electrical signals of the sleep-deprived brain mimic those of the last-resort “emergency” antidepressant ketamine. Ketamine--or Special K, in street parlance--is used to induce anesthesia before surgery, but in very small doses it can temporarily relieve severe depression by increasing the brain’s levels of glutamate, a powerful neurotransmitter that activates the brain.[7] The release of glutamate quickly regenerates connections between neurons that have been damaged by depression. When we get sleepy, the brain naturally releases the chemical adenosine. While this chemical normally makes us doze off, it can in higher amounts protect the brain against the harmful effects of sleep deprivation. It does that in a way similar to ketamine, by changing the activity in the prefrontal cortex, which can temporarily relieve symptoms of depression.

The unexpected awakening caused by Ambien or adenosine is not in general a useful approach for waking up dormant brain circuits. Even so, it does add weight to the proposition that dormant brain networks can be reactivated.

The Extrovert Inside You

How does the awakening of brain circuits in quadriplegics, people in minimally conscious states and individuals suffering from major depression relate to the brain circuits for personality? Research shows that many of us have dormant brain circuits for personality traits that are too weak for them to affect our actions, emotions or thoughts. You can see this process at work in people who have gone through recent traumatic or transformative experiences. If you used to be extroverted and only recently became introverted owing to a bad breakup, a layoff from a job or the loss of a family member, you are likely to have dormant circuits corresponding to the old extroverted you.

This chapter will zoom in on extroversion. In later chapters we will look closer at the other personality types as well as some common personality disorders. Recall that extroversion is one of the five dimensions of personality on the Big Five Model of personality, which is one of the most commonly used models of personality in personality psychology. We often attribute extroversion to people who are social magnets, the center of attention at social gatherings, the types who might spontaneously give a brilliant toast at their friend’s birthday party and who aren’t fazed about what people think about them. Like the other dimensions, however, extroversion comprises six facets only some of which are associated with life-of-the-party behaviors and none of which turns directly on whether you care about what others think about you. The six facets for extroversion are: warmth/friendliness, gregariousness, assertiveness, activity level, excitement-seeking and positive emotions/cheerfulness. A person who makes friends easily, who thrives best in the company of others, who has a take-charge manner, who has few empty slots in her busy calendar, who feels most alive in highly stimulating environments and who radiates joy would score high on all six facets of extroversion. Most people fall somewhere on the middle of the spectrum, either by scoring in the middle on most of the facets or by scoring high on some and low on others.

Despite the fact that most of us are not true extroverts, extroversion has become somewhat of an ideal in our society. As Susan Cain, a former Wall Street lawyer, argues in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, we have always been a society that favors action over contemplation. Our educational system encourages extroversion by putting kids into big classrooms and urging group activities and social behavior, and to succeed in the job force, it is a strong advantage to be magnetic and charismatic and to speak up and take charge. To succeed in our society introverts often have to pretend to be extroverts or work hard to overcome their aversion to the spotlight.

In her book Cain calls attention to the many overlooked societal values of private, contemplative people. The reflective, cerebral, bookish types often are the people carrying out the basic research large corporations benefit from. It nonetheless remains a fact that, in many niches of society, being extroverted gives you the push that sometimes is needed to get your foot in the door to success. But strengthening the extrovert in you turns out to be within the realm of possibility, because the seat of this dimension of personality is located in the parts of the brain most susceptible to change.

Optimism and Environmental Pleasure

The six facets of extroversion are undergird by two more fundamental traits: (realistic) optimism and the tendency to attribute the feeling of pleasure to one’s environment.[8] Countless studies have found that optimism is associated with high self-esteem, a cheerful attitude, a tendency to look at the positive aspects of a given situation and believe in a bright future.[9] They see themselves as being in charge of their own success and achievements rather than being passive agents whose only successes came about as a result of luck. This mindset promotes happiness.[10] It can even add years to your life.[11] In a recent study, Sophie Chou, an organisational psychology researcher at National Taiwan University, further found that a healthy portion of optimism can also lead to success in life.[12] A sense of realism can help us perform well at work and in school, and a positive outlook can help us spot opportunities and offset depression after failure or rejection.

Realistic optimists are more likely than pessimists to radiate genuine joy and be friendly and warm, two of the facets of extroversion. Surprisingly, optimists and pessimists have distinct brain activations that can be measured using electroencephalography (EEG), which detects the brain wave patterns in different parts of the brain. Optimism turns out to be associated with greater physiological activity in the left hemisphere of the front of the brain, whereas pessimism triggers more activity in the right hemisphere.

In people who fall in the middle on the optimism/pessimism spectrum, the brain takes in and processes positive and negative information to about the same extent. But the left hemisphere is more active when positive information needs to be processed, whereas the right hemisphere is harder at work when the input is unpleasant or negative.[13] In one experiment, research participants listened to a recording of a message warning them about the damaging effects of sun tanning through either the left ear or the right ear.[14] Information that comes in through one ear is processed in the opposite side of the brain. Those who received the message through the left ear and who therefore processed it in the right side of the brain were more likely to use sunscreen on the beach, the researchers found. In other words, they were more likely to be cautious about the damages of sun burn, because the message was delivered to the “cautious side” of their brain.

This asymmetry between the two sides of the brain can also be detected when mid-spectrum people process information about their own positive versus negative features.[15] For example, if ill-tempered but hard-working people think of their own anger, the right hemisphere is more active, and when they contemplate how hard they work to achieve goals, the left hemisphere is harder at work.

The constant elevated activity in the left hemisphere in optimists is explained by their tendency to look at the bright side of life and see themselves in a positive light and as active agents. Pessimists have shut down the parts of the left hemisphere that are supposed to take in and process positive aspects of themselves and their surroundings and be in charge of their own success. One form of depression is a pathological, or extremist, state of pessimism.[16]

The second trait underlying extraversion is the tendency to attribute feelings of internal pleasure to one’s environment and for active and social environments to trigger feelings of pleasure. A study published on June 13, 2013 in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience found that extroverts are more likely to attribute a release of the reward and motivation chemical dopamine to the environment they are in.[17] The researchers Yu Fu and Richard Depue, neurobiologists at Cornell University in New York, gave a mix of extroverted and introverted research participants Ritalin, a drug that increases the active levels of dopamine in the brain. While under the influence of the drug the participants were shown videos sequences that were either neutral, such as a rainforest or stimulating, such as a triumphant football game sequence (scoring of a touchdown). Later the subjects were subjected to tests measuring how much their increased attention would give rise to a feeling of reward, using memory test and tests of environmental stimulation, such as finger tapping and demeanor. Unlike the introverts, the extroverts associated their increased attention to the videos with a feeling of being invigorated. They attributed their good feelings to what they saw outside of themselves.  All this indicates that extroverts feel energized by rewarding environments, whereas introverts are more likely to “get high” on what goes on in their minds.

The gregariousness and excitement-seeking facets of extroversion are directly attributable to this tendency to find pleasure in a stimulating environment. Extroverts tend not to be homebodies because the home tends not to provide the kind of stimulation that they are energized by. Because dopamine-triggered pleasure is the antidote to anxiety, shyness, doubt and timidity, an environment that promotes this kind of pleasure can also trigger boldness, assertiveness and a take-charge attitude, the sixths facet of extroversion.

Jumpstarting Extroversion

Research has shown that optimism is rooted in what is known as attentional bias.[18] Attentional bias is a general tendency for the thoughts that we are typically plagued or amused by to affect what we end up processing in perception. For example, people who frequently think about clothes and fashion pay more attention to what others wear.

Because optimists have recurrent positive thoughts about themselves, about the situations they are in and about the future, their brains pay more attention to positive elements of the environment and filter out information that does not fit their brighter mindset. Pessimists are equally affected by attentional bias but the information they take in isn’t filtered through rosy glasses. Pessimists pay greater attention to negative cues, while ignoring positive elements.

This has been measured in a number of ways, most successfully by tracking people’s eye movements when presented with pleasant or unpleasant images.[19] When presented with two parallel images, one pleasant such as a smiling face and the other unpleasant such as a fearful face, optimists gaze significantly less at the unpleasant image and focus much more on the pleasant image compared to pessimists.

As we saw at the beginning of this chapter, these kinds of attentional biases can be corrected with effort. One way to adjust a right-brain negative bias is to engage in imagination exercises that attribute a happy outcome to a devastating situation.[20] In one of our studies, we asked volunteers to look at pictures of fatal car accidents, quadriplegics in motorized wheelchairs, and homeless people on the street. Participants who had scored as severe pessimists at the outset were told what actually happened and were then asked to imagine a different positive outcome of the scenario. For example, they might imagine the homeless person finding a winning lottery ticket on the street or the quadriplegic meeting a doctor with a magical cure. They repeated this task once daily for eight weeks. After the study period, their pessimism had gone down significantly. There was much less activity on the right side of the frontal areas of the brain at rest, they were dwelling less on negative information and scored higher on optimism questionnaires.

Another approach to correct a right-brain negative bias is to train the brain to search for positive cues in the environment. In one study we asked research participants scoring high on pessimism to search for the one happy face in a crowd of unhappy/neutral faces displayed on a computer screen. Each session had twenty visual search tasks that required finding a happy face in a crowd of unhappy/neutral faces. Our volunteers were asked to repeat the task once daily for eight weeks. Those who complied with the task scored significantly higher on measures of optimism after the eight weeks compared to their starting point. 

Berit Brogaard
Source: Berit Brogaard

Screenshots from a task asking participants scoring high on pessimism to identify the happy face in the crowd of neural faces.

This sort of task doesn’t require a laboratory setting or the right sort of computer stimuli. You can complete it when you are sitting in a crowded dentist office, walking around the grocery store or are riding the subway. Simply practice finding the most happy face in the crowd. It turns out to be more difficult than you may think. Most people are more in tune with Peanuts’ Charlie Brown than Olaf the snowman from Frozen.

Optimism does not by itself make for extroversion, even though it is a step in the right direction. The other trait is the tendency to be stimulated by social events such as small talk with strangers, dancing in mega clubs, large weddings, and company holiday parties. It may seem like a lot of people possess this trait, and a lot of people do. But true introverts don’t. True introverts may tolerate these activities, they may even find them mildly amusing. But what really gets them fired up are activities they complete on their own, away from people, curled up on a couch or chair.

Changing this trait may not be in everyone’s best interest but there are ways to become more outward directed. We sometimes say of people who remember only what interests them that they have selective memory. As it turns out, we all have selective memory. This is a good thing. As the psychologist and philosopher William James pointed out, “if we remembered everything, we should on most occasions be as ill of as if we remembered nothing.”[21] We are all very good at “forgetting” information that is irrelevant to a particular task or has little future value. But we don’t all regard the same information as irrelevant or as lacking in future value. Without typically giving it much conscious thought at all, introverts don’t regard their external environment as providing them with much information that is relevant or of future value to them. They find other people tiring. Extroverts drive them nuts. They are not misanthropic, rude or narcissistic, their brains simply have conjured up this type of attentional bias as a result of genetic makeup, brain maturation or life experience.

Personal interest can be understood as a constellation of those dispositions to like or dislike, or prefer, certain things that lead to consistent patterns of behaviors.[22] If you like talking, you will tend to seek out situations that allow you to do that, such as social gatherings. If you like thinking about deep questions, such as the meaning of life, you may decide to become a philosophy major. Although extraverts tend to be agreeable, extraversion--along with openness and conscientious--stand in sharp opposition to neuroticism and agreeableness in being strongly correlated with interest.[23] Extroversion is strongly correlated with interests in enterprising and social affairs, whereas people who are merely agreeable but not extroverted aren’t correlated in this way.

Our interests and preferences change considerably as we proceed through life. Most of these changes protect us against disappointment. Unconscious influences alter our preferences in light of the options we have available.[24] For example, if you have a preference for a life of extravagance but are unlikely to ever obtain the means for such a life, your brain may secretly alter your preferences and make you prefer what is obtainable. It would be great if our brains always made us alter our preferences to fit our options without us having to rely on conscious will or effort. But that obviously is not the case. If that were the case, then none of us would ever wish to become more talkative or assertive in order to fit into the families we were born into or the jobs we happen to occupy.

Unfortunately, we still haven’t found any really good methods that can change your personal interests. Part of the reason for this is that interest is determined in part by your brain’s levels of the reward and motivation chemical dopamine. When your brain’s dopamine levels are out of whack, you become more attracted to outside stimulation. When the dopamine doesn’t fuel the frontal lobes of your brain consistently (as in people with attention deficit disorder) or is too high (as in people who just snorted half a gram of cocaine), you get attracted to too many outside stimulators. How your dopamine levels are set, however, is largely due to biology, which is particularly difficult to adjust without medicine or technology. But there is hope, if you wish to change.

Personal interest, which is your tendency to be interested in certain subject matters, occupations or activities, is different from situational interest. Situational interest is spontaneous, transitory, and is triggered by the particular situation you find yourself in. You might not normally be interested in talking to people and yet suddenly find yourself fascinated by what your colleague has to say at the annual holiday celebration. Educational research shows that situational interest is the main factor that can trigger personal interest.[25] Situational interest increases when you receive novel information,[26] as well as when the activity is at least minimally relevant to your personal interests.[27] The best thing you can do if you want to strengthen the introvert in you is to find an expert in small talk and try to endure an hour of talk without content.

To awaken your interest in your external environment, be it other people or unfamiliar activities, move beyond small talk and start focusing on the details of your surroundings. Imagine that you are an introverted philosophy student with an interest in the meaning of life. At the annual holiday party, you find yourself surrounded by the future educators, lawyers and entrepreneurs of Miami from the law school, the business school and the department of education. When they are not talking shop, which is beyond you, they are chatting about the weather, which is nearly never-changing in Miami. You last an hour, then you can no longer breathe and you split.

Wrong approach, if you are hoping for change. Keep in mind that you can change the topic of the conversation. It might actually be interesting to find out what future educators, lawyers and entrepreneurs have to say about the meaning of life. There may even be a future study of people’s attitudes toward life awaiting.

If your external environment doesn’t interest you, it may be in part because you need to be more perceptive. One big secret of extroverts is that they pay attention to detail. Some of them are so distracted by details that they can’t keep their focus on even a brief verbal exchange. They may interrupt you mid-sentence to point out the cute outfit of the baby in the stroller that just went by. Take that to the extreme and you have a person with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder on your hands. That is distributed attention, or shift of attention, taken to the extreme. While this is undesirable, a healthy portion of attention to detail can help stimulate interest. Since you are reading this book, you are likely to have some interest in personality. Why not treat your next big social gathering as an exercise in determining people’s personality. That will leave you with a purpose as well as a herd of questions to ask: “Do you enjoy meeting new people?”, “Are you prepared to tell people if they are mistaken?”, “Do you prefer to follow the same routine every day?”, “Do you try to respond to your emails as soon as possible?”, “As a parent, would you rather see your child grow up kind than smart?”, “Are you more of a natural improviser than a careful planner?”, “If you had a business, would you find it very difficult to fire loyal but underperforming employees?”.

The Neurotic Extrovert and the Emotionally Stable Introvert

As Susan Cain has argued in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, extroverts dominate public life. They are overrepresented among politicians, lawyers, company leaders and public top administrators. It’s a trait that has come to be an ideal in Western society. Extroverts hire other extroverts in leadership positions. This may all rest on a mistake. Perhaps the world would be a quieter, saner and more peaceful place if introverts were in charge. But they are not. To live up to extrovert ideal and succeed in the world as it is, you have two choices: pretense, which may help you rise on the career-ladder under false pretenses, or: move across the personality spectrum to get closer to the extrovert ideal, until the world opens its eyes and acknowledges the virtues of the contemplative person.

Pretense, unless employed in a systematic way, which we will discuss in a later chapter, is exhausting. Change is possible because there is no need to go from one extreme to the other in order to survive in the land of extroverts.

Some aspects of extroversion are both incredibly annoying and independently desirable: their optimistic attitude toward life, their ability to enjoy the most trivial routines and their unstoppable cheerfulness. Those aspects of extroversion, however, are not optional; they relate directly to your life expectancy, your quality of life and your success in relationships.

The good news is that you can change, if you wish to move along with the trends of society. To increase optimism, you can seek out anything positive in your everyday environment on a regular basis. Find the one happy person on the metro, or the one happy person in the grocery store. This has been proven to increase your optimism, and therefore partially your extroversion and your abilities to succeed in our extrovert-driven society. But optimism isn’t all it takes to become an extrovert. Your personal interests need to be outward directed. Sure, read your novel at home curled up on your couch with a nice cup of green tea. But when you are out, try to become interested in what is around you, what people have to offer, what things look like. Ask questions—not small-talk questions—but substantial ones.

Looking for happy faces and other positive elements in your environment and seeking out things that might interest you have been scientifically proven to make a real change to the main facets of extroversion. They can help you change as well. 


[1] Costa, P. T., Jr., & McCrae, R. R. (1992). NEO PI-R professional manual. Odessa, FL: Psychological Assessment Resources, Inc.

[2], retrieved on December 3, 2015.

[3], National Institutute for Mental Health, retrieved on December 7, 2015.

[4], National Institutes of Health, retrieved on November 15, 2015.

[5] “Use-Dependent Cortical Processing from Fingertips in Touchscreen Phone Users”, Current Biology.

[6], retrieved on August 10, 2015.

[7], retrieved on August 15, 2015.

[8] Handbook of Individual Differences in Social Behavior edited by Mark R. Leary, Rick H. Hoyle, p. 36.

[9] David Hech, The Neural Basis of Optimism and Pessimism, Exp Neurobiol. 2013 Sep; 22(3): 173–199.

[10] “The role of meaning in life and optimism in promoting well-being”, Personality and Individual Differences Volume 48, Issue 5, April 2010, 658–663.

[11] “Dispositional Optimism and All-Cause and Cardiovascular Mortality in a Prospective Cohort of Elderly Dutch Men and Women”, JAMA Psychiatry.

[12] Presented at the Meeting of the American Psychological Association, Hawaii, August, 2013.

[13] Kakolewski KE, Crowson JJ, Jr, Sewell KW, Cromwell RL. Laterality, word valence, and visual attention: a comparison of depressed and non-depressed individuals. Int J Psychophysiol. 1999;34:283–292.

[14] McCormick M, Seta JJ. Lateralized goal framing: how selective presentation impacts message effectiveness. J Health Psychol. 2012;17:1099–1109

[15] Fox E. Processing emotional facial expressions: the role of anxiety and awareness. Cogn Affect Behav Neurosci. 2002;2:52–63.

[16] Handbook of Individual Differences in Social Behavior edited by Mark R. Leary, Rick H. Hoyle, p. 35.

[17] Richard A. Depue and Yu Fu, “On the nature of extraversion: variation in conditioned contextual activation of dopamine-facilitated affective, cognitive, and motor processes”, Front. Hum. Neurosci., 13 June 2013 |

[18] For an overview, see David Hech, The Neural Basis of Optimism and Pessimism, Exp Neurobiol. 2013 Sep; 22(3): 173–199.

[19] Isaacowitz DM. The gaze of the optimist. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2005;31:407–415. Isaacowitz DM. Motivated gaze: the view from the gazer. Curr Dir Psychol Sci. 2006;15:68–72. Segerstrom SC. Optimism and attentional bias for negative and positive stimuli. Pers Soc Psychol Bull.2001;27:1334–1343.

[20] Johnstone T, van Reekum CM, Urry HL, Kalin NH, Davidson RJ. Failure to regulate: counterproductive recruitment of top-down prefrontal-subcortical circuitry in major depression. J Neurosci.2007;27:8877–8884. Ochsner KN, Bunge SA, Gross JJ, Gabrieli JD. Rethinking feelings: an fMRI study of the cognitive regulation of emotion. J Cogn Neurosci. 2002;14:1215–1229. McRae K, Gross JJ, Weber J, Robertson ER, Sokol-Hessner P, Ray RD, Gabrieli JD, Ochsner KN. The development of emotion regulation: an fMRI study of cognitive reappraisal in children, adolescents and young adults. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2012;7:11–22.

[21] James, 1890, p. 68.

[22] Cole NS, Hanson GR. ( 1978). Impact of interest inventories on career choice. In Diamond EE (Ed.), Issues of sex bias and sex fairness in career interest measurement. Washington, DC: National Institute of Education. For further discussion, see Mount M, Barrick, MM, Scullen, SM and Round, J. “Higher-Order Dimensions of the Big Five PErsonality Traits and the Six Vocational Interest Types, Personnel Psychology Volume 58, Issue 2, pages 447–478, June 2005.

[23] Ackerman PL, Heggestad ED. (1997). Intelligence, personality, and interests: Evidence for overlapping traits. Psychological Bulletin, 121, 219-245.

[24] Ben Colburn, “Autonomy and Adaptive Preferences”, Utilitas / Volume 23 / Issue 01 / March 2011, pp 52-71

[25] Krapp, A., Hidi, S., and Renninger, K. A. (1992). Interest, learning and development. In Renninger, A., Hidi, S., and Krapp, A. (eds.), The Role of Interest in Learning and Development, Erlbaum, Hillsdale, NJ, pp. 3–25.

[26] Hidi, S. (1990). Interest and its contribution as a mental resource for learning. Rev. Educ. Res. 60: 549–572

[27] Schraw, G., and Dennison, R. S. (1994). The effect of reader purpose on interest and recall. J. Reading Behav. 26: 1–18.