THE EXTENT TO WHICH AN INDIVIDUAL MAY CHANGE



The term personality can be best used to describe an individual. Personality consists of the most salient features of an individual. It is the most representative of an individual, manifesting what and who that person actually is, and what differentiates that person from the other. It is the attribute that is highly typical of the individual and is an important part of the overall impression created in others.
The salient features of an individual as well as typicality are reflections of fixed behavior patterns. It is these behavior patterns that depict who and what a person is all about. These behavior patterns are determined by the brain structure of the individual. Personality, then, can be said to be a composition of specific patterns of behavior that are determined by the brain of the individual.   
Personality is said to be relatively stable. This suggests that an individual, throughout his or her life, more or less remains the same. However, there have been psychologists who question this notion of personality. It has been suggested that throughout life people have a wide range of experiences that impact an individual in many ways. These can be extremely satisfying experiences or sad experiences, and even traumatic experiences, all of which can bring about some change in an individual. Life experiences, then have been found to be so impactful, that they do change an individual.
This idea of life experiences changing an individual can be understood by the concept of neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the changing of neural networks and neural pathways leading to changes in the structure of brain areas. These changing of structures further enables to changing or deviation of the specific functions associated with those brain areas.
Neuroplasticity suggests that the brain is constantly changing. It is the environment and the surroundings of the individual that is bringing about this change. This means that life experiences in the form of new information, social interactions or a lack of it, major life events, etc., are all causing the brain to change. When indulging in repeated behavior or being exposed to repeated stimulus, specific brain regions associated with that behavior begin to change. The consequences of this change in structure and function of brain areas are changes in behavior patterns and, thus, personality.
It is due to this that when people are born with a specific brain pattern, and thus temperament, characteristics, and personality, there is a likelihood that the person does not always remain the same.
For instance, people may be born as being shy, timid, or melancholic. Their neural circuitry is built in such a way that they are born in this manner. Similarly, the brain structure of individuals determines if a person is an introvert or an extrovert. But the environment in which they are brought up in, and the kind of life experiences that they may have, they may not always be the same in the years to come.
According to the research done by the developmental psychologist, Jerome Kagan, people who are shy have a highly sensitive amygdala, the brain area, which is said to be the seat of emotions. Their overly sensitive amygdala makes them highly reactive and prone to fearfulness and discomfort in social and unfamiliar situations. Similarly, timidity has been found to be associated with chronically high levels of the neurotransmitter (brain chemical) norepinephrine. This makes their amygdala easily get excited, leading to discomfort in social situations, and thus, avoiding such situations.
These individuals are said to be born with what is referred to as the inhibited temperament. Studies have shown that they remain inhibited in adulthood as well, suggesting that they remain the same. However, it has also been found that there have been a lot of instances in which shy individuals tend to be relatively comfortable in specific social situations. There are people who have been shy and yet are into leadership positions or teaching jobs, which do require a lot of interactions with others.
This can be attributed to their upbringing, experiences, and lifestyle. A shy individual, for instance, being brought up in a way or has certain experiences in which he or she has to have continuous interactions, the neural pathways in the amygdala would change in such a manner that those specific situations may not seem to be as fearful, and the individual no longer feels uncomfortable. This can really happen if a shy child is encouraged by his or her parents to have more and more friends, and then he or she grows up to become relatively comfortable around people. It can also happens in case of shy teachers, when in their initial classes they are hesitant and uncomfortable, but as they gain experience with respect to taking more and more classes, their neural pathways change in such a way that they become used to it, and do not feel as uncomfortable as they may have felt initially.
Like being born as shy and timid, some people are also born as melancholic. Such individuals have greater levels of brain activity in their right-frontal lobe, the right-front part of the brain. They experience negativity and sour moods, and are easily fazed by the difficulties in life. But this melancholic nature may not be there during adulthood if the child is given the kind of upbringing that involves a lot of nurturance, assurance, and is given a happy and pleasant environment, which could all change the neural circuitry in such a way that the individual no longer experiences negativity. Here again, the life experiences play a vital role in changing the brain activity, bringing about a change in the individual.
The idea of life experiences changing neural pathways can also be seen with respect to introversion and extroversion. The personality psychologist, Hans Eysenck, based on his research, found that introverts have a high level of brain arousal, specifically in the reticular activating system (RAS). This high brain activity makes them get easily aroused in stimulating situations, often leading them to get drained out, especially when interacting with a large number of people. It is due to this that introverts prefer to keep to themselves, and interact with people only when they feel like to do so. Extroverts, on the other hand, according to Eysenck, have low brain activity in their RAS, which makes them have a high threshold for stimulation. This develops a need within extroverts to be energetic, outgoing, and have many social interactions.
However, there have been many instances in which introverts have been found to be relatively comfortably interact with a large number of people and extroverts preferring to spend time by themselves. In such instances, as mentioned above, the continuous experiences that they may be having will lead to changes in their brain activity, making them relatively comfortable in situations that may not be suitable to their temperament. An introvert, for instance, due to work (teaching, social work, marketing, media), might have continuous experiences of having many social interactions with people, gradually changing the brain activity, making him or her feel relatively comfortable in such situations. Likewise, an extrovert may have to be involved in certain activities such as writing, editing, composing, programming which require a lot of alone-time, gradually changing the brain activity, making the individual not feeling that much of discomfort in similar situations.
It is therefore quite evident that people due to their varied life experiences, because of the process of neuroplasticity, do not necessarily remain the same. Individuals constantly have a wide range of experiences, which suggests that the process of change takes place throughout life.
If individuals change constantly, throughout life, it gives rise to the question that is there a possibility that individuals completely change? For instance, can an introvert completely change and become an extrovert, can an extrovert completely change into an introvert, or can a shy and timid individual completely change into a highly confident person? The answer to this lies in the rubber band theory.
The rubber band theory suggests that individuals change only up to a certain extent. Just as a rubber band can be stretched to a certain limit, after which it may break, meaning that it cannot be stretched beyond that, the change in individuals is also in the same manner. This means that an individual will not completely change.
Thus, a shy person will not completely transform into a highly confident person. The person will largely be shy, but in some specific situations in which the person has got used to, he or she will feel confident. In the same manner, an introvert will always remain an introvert. There will be situations in which the introvert will be energetic, enthusiastic, and comfortable in interactions. But the introvert will still want that alone-time, to be with himself or herself. The introvert will never completely change into an extrovert.
The notion of an introvert not completely changing into an extrovert, but being like one only in specific situations goes in line with Eysenck’s conception. Eysenck suggests that introversion and extroversion are not mutually exclusive traits; they lie on a continuum. This suggests that individuals have tendencies of both introversion and extroversion, and depending on where the individual lies on the continuum, one of the characteristics will be more dominant.
A similar perspective of introversion and extroversion, before Eysenck, has been suggested by, the psychoanalyst, Carl Jung. According to Jung, people tend to be both introvert and extrovert, but one of them is more dominant. It is due to this that an introvert sometimes may behave like an extrovert and an extrovert may sometimes behave like an introvert. But an individual will never be either completely an introvert or an extrovert.
Therefore, according to the rubber band theory, it can be said that individuals do change over the years, due to their life experiences, but this change will be to such an extent that he or she will not completely transform into a completely different person.
This change, however, is not that simple as it may sound to be. Genetic studies indicate that the genotype (gene structure) of an individual eventually determines the environment in which the individuals are brought up in. For instance, a person due to being shy will be avoiding interacting with others. This, in turn, will make others avoid that person. The person, therefore, will be living in an environment that has limited social interactions, with very little possibilities of changing the neural circuitry in such a way that it will make that person less hesitant in specific situations.
Nevertheless, the right kind of environment, nurturance, and life experiences, due to the process of neuroplasticity, bring about a change in the personality of the individual. This change, however, according to the rubber band theory, takes place only to a certain extent, and does not necessarily mean that the individual will transform into a completely new person.

Saif Farooqi

A PhD in Psychology (from the University of Delhi). I have been blogging about psychological issues for more than ten years. I am extremely passionate about teaching psychology. I'm a writer, an independent researcher, and conduct workshops and awareness programs in schools and colleges. Currently, I'm also working as an Assistant Professor in Psychology at the Department of Applied Psychology, Vivekananda College, University of Delhi, India.

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