Is Neuroticism Bad for Your Brain?
Neuroticism and greater vulnerability to brain pathology may go hand in hand.
Posted Sep 28, 2020
Throughout my sports career, I relied heavily on the "Big Five Personality Traits" framework when cultivating an exemplary athletic mindset. With volition, I fortified my mental toughness and cognitive resilience by always being conscientious in terms of self-discipline, attention to detail, daily motivation, determination, and the pursuit of personal bests.
As a pro athlete, sustaining high levels of conscientiousness was always top of mind. But I also nurtured an openness to different "people, places, and cultural diversity" whilst competing internationally in uncharted territory; strove to exhibit friendly, sportsmanlike behaviors in the form of agreeableness; and pushed myself to come out of my shell and display less introversion and more extraversion when I was elbow-to-elbow with fellow athletes.
Neuroticism is the only Big Five trait I banished from my day-to-day life and my athletic mindset. As a young rookie, I learned that being neurotic was a toxic form of self-sabotage. In The Athlete's Way, I describe neuroticism as an "anxious, self-conscious, impulsive, worrying" personality trait that perpetuates catastrophic thinking and learned helplessness. My advice: "Neuroticism should never be a part of your game or a part of your life. Strive to eliminate it."
Anecdotally, I learned through trial-and-error that high levels of neuroticism dissolved my grit and made my brain feel weak. I also learned that if you consistently make a conscious effort to reduce neuroticism, you can become less neurotic, which makes you feel self-empowered and strong. That said, I wasn't aware of any evidence-based, scientific research about how neuroticism affects cognitive resilience and brainpower across a lifespan until recently.
This week, a Northwestern University-led research team published a paper, "Associations Between Personality Traits and Cognitive Resilience in Older Adults," which identifies a link between higher neuroticism and greater vulnerability to neuropathology. These findings (Graham et al., 2020) were published on September 24 in the Journals of Gerontology.
According to the authors, this is one of the first studies to investigate how "an individual's personality traits are linked to how well they are able to sustain their cognitive function as they age." As Graham et al. explain: "The goal of this paper was to examine associations between personality traits and resilience to neuropathologic burden."
For this preregistered* study, the researchers examined post-mortem neuropathology data and information about personality and cognitive activity from 1,375 individuals who agreed to participate in this study while still alive. (*All of the data from this study is available on the OSF Center for Open Science platform.)
After a detailed analysis of multiple data sets, Graham et al. found that "higher neuroticism was associated with greater vulnerability to pathology" and that "higher conscientiousness was associated with less cognitive decline relative to the amount of pathology, or greater resilience."
In general, the researchers found that higher conscientiousness was associated with greater cognitive resilience to dementia-related neuropathologies in the brain. Based on these findings, the authors speculate that "personality may have a pathoplastic effect on neuropathology, as low neuroticism and high conscientiousness are associated with better function despite neuropathologic burden."
"Our study shows personality traits are related to how well people are able to maintain their cognitive function in spite of developing neuropathology," first author Eileen Graham of Northwestern's Feinberg School of Medicine said in a news release. "Since it is possible for personality to change, both volitionally and through interventions, it's possible that personality could be used to identify those who are at risk and implement early interventions to help optimize function throughout old age."
"These findings provide evidence that it is possible for older adults to live with the neuropathology associated with Alzheimer's disease and related dementias while maintaining relatively healthy levels of cognitive function," Graham added.
Although these findings support the notion of leveraging Big Five traits to help older adults who are vulnerable to neuropathology maintain better cognitive functions as they age, more research is needed. Graham notes that an important focus of future work will be to investigate how cultivating personality traits that promote cognitive resilience might be particularly beneficial for individuals prone to chronic stress.
Eileen K. Graham, Bryan D. James, Kathryn L. Jackson, Emily C. Willroth, Patricia Boyle, Robert Wilson, David A. Bennett, Daniel K. Mroczek. "Associations Between Personality Traits and Cognitive Resilience in Older Adults." The Journals of Gerontology: Series B (First published: September 24, 2020) DOI: 10.1093/geronb/gbaa135