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The human brain is a sophisticated, ever-changing organ. The web of neurons in your head constantly form and break connections with each other as you learn new things and adapt to your environment. Experts refer to this ability your brain has to change its own structure as neuroplasticity.

Your brain has more plasticity when you are young, as the network of neurons in your head is building itself up. Likewise, people tend to experience the largest shifts in their personalities between childhood and young adulthood. The more adaptable your neurons, the easier certain personality traits like agreeableness or conscientiousness can shift.

That said, your personality isn’t necessarily set in stone after age 30. Your brain still grows and changes as you age — this just happens at a slower pace.

To put it another way, altering aspects of your personality, will probably require more conscious effort at the age of 40 than it did at the age of 14.

Read on to learn more about the link between neuroplasticity and personality, including how your personality is reflected in your brain and whether you can take steps to change certain traits and behaviors.

Your personality is your unique way of thinking, feeling, and behaving in the world. While you might express yourself differently in various situations, your personality serves as your “default mode,” in a manner of speaking.

Say you’re a fairly introverted person. You might enjoy plenty of alone time and limit your social circle to a few people. At a party, though, you might push yourself to chat with guests because that’s what the situation requires. Still, you might keep these interactions brief and take plenty of breaks for fresh air throughout the evening.

Humans have created many ways to categorize personalities, from zodiac signs to Myers-Briggs types. One of the most common ways to label personalities is the five-factor model of personality. This measures your level of five traits:

  • Conscientiousness, or your attention to detail and sense of responsibility
  • Agreeableness, or your willingness to go with the flow, trust others, and compromise
  • Neuroticism, or your tendency to feel stressed, pessimistic, or insecure
  • Openness, or your creativity and receptiveness to new experiences
  • Extraversion (extroversion), or the level of energy you draw from social interactions

These “Big Five” traits tend to stay pretty fixed throughout your lifespan. However, some traits may shift a bit as you age. Evidence suggests, for example, that some people tend to become more agreeable and conscientious as they get older.

However, these changes are often somewhat relative. If you mostly tended to “go with the flow” growing up, you may simply become a little more organized with age — and experience. You more than likely won’t undergo a total transformation into a deadline-driven person.

Your brain does reflect your personality, true. Still, you can’t point to any particular chunk of your brain and say “That section controls agreeableness,” or “This lump represents a great imagination.” According to research from 2018, the same network of neurons may regulate neuroticism, extroversion, and emotion overall.

Which neurons activate and the order in which they fire determine the part of your personality that shows up at a particular time — similar to the way 1s and 0s in computer code can make a text document or picture, depending on their arrangement.

That said, brain imaging studies do suggest that personality traits can affect the shape of your brain. Here’s how.

Conscientiousness

Your working memory allows you to hold information in your head temporarily, like when you remember a password long enough to type it in.

According to 2015 research, the neurons in charge of your working memory tend to have greater plasticity when you have higher levels of conscientiousness. So, your neurons have an easier time forming those short-term connections to access memories. This may help explain why conscientious people often have greater attention to detail.

Agreeableness

The amygdala, which affects your emotions, connects to many different parts of your brain.

People with higher levels of agreeableness tend to have more connectivity between the amygdala and brain regions involved in perceiving social cues, 2022 research suggests.

One possible explanation? Agreeableness prompts more pleasant emotions from social rewards, which helps motivate you to maintain positive relationships.

Neuroticism

According to 2013 research, people with higher levels of neuroticism tend to have more connections between the amygdala and the precuneus.

One function of the precuneus involves reacting to cues in your environment. This may help explain why high neuroticism can mean you react with stronger emotions to certain stimuli.

Openness

Experts have found evidence to suggest that people with high levels of openness tend to have a more efficient web of neural connections in their default mode network.

The default mode network plays a part in both imagination and the ability to let your mind wander. In other words, your brain may, quite literally, be more open to new ideas.

Extroversion

More extroverted people tend to have a higher number of neuron clusters throughout the brain, according to 2018 research. Their web of neurons has more “knots” where neurons bunch together.

Personality stems from a mix of nature and nurture, like the vast majority of psychology-related characteristics.

The genes you inherit from your parents can serve as a sort of map for your neurons to connect in certain patterns. Those early connections can make you more prone to traits like neuroticism or agreeableness.

But your environment also influences your personality. Perhaps your culture strongly values responsibility and your parents often scold you for small mistakes. You may grow up more conscientious than you would have without these two factors.

The rules of neuroplasticity help determine which personality traits stay and which ones go. Simply put, when you engage in a behavior, the neurons involved in that behavior activate. When neurons fire together enough times, they form connections to one another.

Here’s how it works

Say you were born with genes that encouraged your amygdala to form lots of connections with the social parts of your brain. These connections promote the agreeableness trait. As you get older, your helpfulness and compassion attract a large social group.

The more opportunities you have to demonstrate your agreeableness, the more those neurons around your amygdala fire. As a result, those connections eventually become denser.

In this way, personality traits can reinforce themselves by driving you toward environments that reward those attributes. The more you show a certain trait, the more deeply ingrained it becomes in your neurology and your personality.

Likewise, when you stop showing a certain trait, the related neural connections weaken over time.

Maybe you’ve noticed your agreeableness veering toward the extreme. Instead of trying to keep everyone happy, you might practice communicating more assertively and saying “no” if you don’t want to do something.

Once you stop doing everything other people want you to, those people-pleasing tendencies may no longer feel like second nature.

Plenty of people want to alter certain aspects of themselves. The most common goals for personality change include:

  1. Increasing extroversion
  2. Increasing conscientiousness
  3. Decreasing neuroticism

Researchers have found a few things successful personality interventions have in common:

Awareness

You need to have some concrete awareness of the parts of yourself you want to change.

Simply saying something like, “I want to be more conscientious” is generally too vague to have much impact.

Instead, you might try something that offers a clearer picture of the trait you want to modify, like “I want to improve my time management skills so I stop showing up late to events.”

Strengths

Using your existing talents and relationships can often help you reach your goal.

For example, if you want to get better at small talk, you could reach for your skill with animals and practice striking up conversations with people at the dog park. Or, you could ask a close friend to come with you to a party for moral support.

Reflection

Successful interventions often encourage you to think about why your personality has taken the shape it has.

If you want to be more adventurous, then, you might start by exploring exactly what you find frightening or challenging about new experiences.

Action

One of the best ways to help a trait flourish? Act as if you already had it.

For example, acknowledging what you’re grateful for in life can fire off neurons in your brain related to positive emotion. As you build up those neural pathways, you may have an easier time noticing the bright side of life — your brain signals have a pre-existing path to travel, after all.

Not sure where to start?

If those steps sound like a lot of work to do on your own, a therapist can always offer more guidance and support. Psychotherapy can often help bring about personality change, even when you enter therapy with a main goal of mental health care, not personality improvement.

Here’s how to start your search for a therapist.

In fact, according to a 2017 review of 207 studies:

  • Therapy seemed to help create personality changes that lasted at least 24 weeks.
  • Anxiety treatment appeared to offer the largest personality shifts.
  • The change participants most commonly reported was improved emotional stability.
Change doesn’t play out the same for everyone

It’s worth considering a few key points as you explore aspects of personality you’d like to adjust:

  • Everyone has a different capacity for change.
  • You might find certain parts of personality, like conscientiousness, easier to shift than others.
  • Changing one trait could have a ripple effect on other parts of your personality.
  • You might find it more helpful to change unwanted habits and behaviors than your core self.

Consequently, it’s hard to provide an exact formula to modify your unique self.

Your personality can influence the shape of your brain, and changes in your brain’s structure can influence your personality, in turn.

Your brain does tend to have more plasticity during youth. Still, with work and patience, it’s certainly possible to change certain traits, habits, and behaviors throughout your life.


Emily Swaim is a freelance health writer and editor who specializes in psychology. She has a BA in English from Kenyon College and an MFA in writing from California College of the Arts. In 2021, she received her Board of Editors in Life Sciences (BELS) certification. You can find more of her work on GoodTherapy, Verywell, Investopedia, Vox, and Insider. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.