Your Brain Can Change Your Mind

And Your Mind Can Change Your Brain.

More than 125 years ago, William James wrote in The Principles of Psychology that organic matter, especially nervous tissue, seems endowed with a very extraordinary degree of plasticity. In regard to that insight—and too many others to recount—he was far ahead of his time. Thus he was more or less ignored. Until relatively recently, the accepted belief was that at a certain point the brain is finished developing (“cooked,” if you will). Thus the saying you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

Now we know that isn’t true. The subject of plasticity has been getting more and more attention ever since it was discovered that the brain can change at any age—for better or for worse. In the normal course of events, changes in your brain are reflected in your behavior (mediated by your mental processes), and changes in your mental processes are reflected in your brain (mediated by your behavior).

There are two types of neuroplasticity, functional and structural. Functional plasticity is the brain’s ability to turn over a task from one area (that has been damaged) to another. Structural plasticity is the brain’s ability to adapt (change its physical structure) as a result of learning and experience.

Most of the changes that take place in your brain are outside your awareness and control, but in some cases you can encourage the process, resist it, or give it a good nudge. And your personality may play a role in the actions you take—or don’t take. Use it or lose it is a case in point.

Plasticity vs. Stability

Plasticity happens to be one of the two so-called meta-traits that subsume the five factors of the Five-Factor (OCEAN) personality model. The other meta-trait is stability. Plasticity and stability seem to be at opposite ends of a continuum, but when it comes to the capacity for sustained behavior change, the situation isn’t that black or white.


The functions of plasticity are exploration and the creation of new goals, interpretations, and strategies. The negative pole of plasticity is rigidity. Plasticity encompasses the factors of Openness to Experience (cognitive exploration and engagement with information) and Extraversion (behavioral exploration and engagement with specific rewards).

Each of the five factors has two aspects. You might have stronger tendencies for one aspect than for the other. In the case of Openness to Experience, the two aspects are:

  • Intellect: detection of logical or causal patterns in abstract and semantic information.
  • Openness: detection of spatial and temporal correlational patterns in sensory and perceptual information.

For Extraversion, the aspects are:

  • Assertiveness: incentive reward sensitivity and the drive toward goals.
  • Enthusiasm: consummatory reward sensitivity, and the enjoyment of actual or imagined goal attainment.

The functions of stability are protection of goals, interpretations, and strategies from disruption by impulses. The negative pole of stability is instability. Stability encompasses the factors of Conscientiousness (protection of non-immediate or abstract goals and strategies from disruption), Agreeableness (altruism and cooperation and coordination of goals, interpretations, and strategies with those of others), and Neuroticism (defensive responses to uncertainty, threat, and punishment).

The two aspects for Conscientiousness are:

  • Industriousness: prioritization of non-immediate goals.
  • Orderliness: avoidance of entropy by following rules set by self or others.

The two aspects for Agreeableness are:

  • Compassion: emotional attachment to and concern for others
  • Politeness: suppression and avoidance of aggressive or norm-violating impulses and strategies.

And the two aspects for Neuroticism are:

  • Volatility: active defense to avoid or eliminate threats.
  • Withdrawal: passive avoidance (inhibition of goals, interpretations, and strategies in response to uncertainty or error).
Preferences for Novelty or Conformity

Researchers suggest that the meta-trait plasticity reflects a tendency “to explore and engage flexibly with novelty, in both behavior and cognition,” while stability reflects a tendency “to maintain stability and avoid disruption in emotional, social, and motivational domains.”

People who are high in plasticity tend to be:

  • Higher in “externalizing behaviors”
  • Lower in conformity
  • Lower in morningness
  • Higher in divergent thinking

People who are high in stability also tend to be:

  • Lower in “externalizing behaviors”
  • Higher in conformity
  • Higher in morningness
  • Lower in divergent thinking

Although we all possess some degree of all five factors, considerable variation exists from one person to the next. The five factors, their aspects, and the numerous traits that go along with them all exist on a continuum. So even if two people had identical scores for, say, Conscientiousness, their scores for the aspects and traits could be different enough to lead to very dissimilar attitudes and behaviors.

If you haven’t taken the Five-Factor test yet, you can take it here.

And you can find lists of some of the traits associated with each of the five factors here.

Diving into the OCEAN
of Personality Traits

While creating and sustaining positive behavior change isn’t easy for anyone, it seems to be harder for some people than for others. Identifying their Enneagram type helps my clients hone in on their strengths and weaknesses and develop an awareness of the kinds of roadblocks they’re likely to face in the work we do together. But it would be even more helpful to be able to determine at the outset how open someone really is to change. Simply asking the question, which seems like an obvious solution, isn’t the answer since the basis of many personality traits resides in the unconscious (therefore outside conscious awareness).

Well, it appears there actually is an instrument that offers some clues about a person’s receptivity to behavior change.

In the fledgling field of the neuroscience of personality, the system that has been given the most scrutiny is what is referred to as The Big Five or The Five-Factor model of personality—aka OCEAN. OCEAN is an acronym for the five factors the test measures, which are:

The Five-Factor model doesn’t account for all aspects of temperament or personality, but it’s quite comprehensive, and numerous longitudinal studies have confirmed its validity as well as its predictive ability. As a result of being the personality model most used by psychologists, it has been the target of research in areas such as creativity, leadership skills, and the use of technology and even social media. Researches are also working on correlating variation in the volume of different brain regions to the five factors.

[You can take the test here.]

Each of the five factors is divided into two aspects, which are further divided into facets (individual personality traits) that correlate to one or, in some cases, both aspects.

Openness to Experience

If you score high in Openness to Experience, you probably have a vivid imagination, like to try new things, love learning, enjoy the arts, and prefer variety over routine. Openness includes the aspects of intellect and openness. Some traits related to intellect and openness are:

  • Imagination
  • Insight
  • Originality
  • Creativity
  • Curiosity
  • Perception
  • Wide variety of interests
  • Quickness
  • Ingenuity
  • Excitement-seeking
  • Fantasy
  • Reflection

If you score high in conscientiousness, you’re probably able to delay gratification. It’s also likely you can plan and organize effectively, work within the rules, and tend not to procrastinate or be impulsive. Conscientiousness includes the aspects of industriousness and orderliness. Some traits related to industriousness and orderliness are:

  • Persistence
  • Puposefulness
  • Self-discipline
  • Perfectionism
  • Consistency
  • Predictability
  • Resourcefulness
  • Dutifulness
  • Deliberation
  • Efficiency
  • Competence
  • Planning

If you score high in extraversion, you are likely to seek opportunities for social interaction, are comfortable with others, enjoy being the center of attention, and prefer action to contemplation. However, what separates extraverts from introverts, brain-wise, is their responsiveness to rewards. Extraversion includes the aspects of enthusiasm and assertiveness. Some traits related to enthusiasm and assertiveness are:

  • Gregariousness
  • Confidence
  • Cheerfulness
  • Warmth
  • Sociability
  • Positive emotions
  • Leadership
  • Provocativeness
  • Friendliness
  • Talkativeness
  • Excitement-seeking
  • Poise

If you score high in agreeableness, you’re probably respected and well-liked, are cooperative and sensitive to the needs of others, and generally get along with people. Agreeableness includes the aspects of compassion and politeness. Some traits related to compassion and politeness are:

  • Trust
  • Modesty
  • Humility
  • Patience
  • Empathy
  • Pleasantness
  • Moderation
  • Kindness
  • Loyalty
  • Cheerfulness
  • Cooperation
  • Consideration

If you score high in neuroticism, you may lack self-confidence, cope poorly with stress, focus more on negative emotions than positive ones, and have a tendency to worry or ruminate about your experiences. Neuroticism includes the aspects of volatility and withdrawal. Some traits related to volatility and withdrawal are:

  • Pessimism
  • Moodiness
  • Immoderation
  • Anxiety
  • Anger
  • Depression
  • Timidity
  • Wariness
  • Insecurity
  • Self-consciousness
  • Instability
  • Over-sensitivity

How do you think high and low scores in the five-factor test might either support or impede behavior change? Within the five factor aspects (OCEAN), which individual traits do you think would exert the greatest effect on attempts at behavior change?

Next time, I’ll fill in another piece of the puzzle, one that is less widely known than the Big Five. It’s referred to as the Big (sometimes Huge) Two because its two factors are meta-factors that include the Big Five factors and provide us with that shortcut to determining an individual’s inherent capacity for succeeding with behavior change strategies.

In the Groove

Having managed to survive what just might have been the worst month I’ve ever had, I have a couple of things to report about habits and knowing what you want. (To fill in the blanks first, I was over-prescribed an antiarrhythmic medication that has a number of debilitating side-effects and a half-life of 58 days—which means that although I stopped taking it five and a half weeks ago, I still have a few more weeks to go before half of it is out of my system.)

Here’s what I’ve observed during the past couple of months.

The Value of a Compelling Habit

Last year, I wrote about the two sets of four things that I aim to do every day—things I want to do. They can’t be strung together into a routine, so for quite a while I attempted to get them done by putting them on my to-do list. But, as I wrote:

In the moment, at any given time, the unconscious part of the brain, which is focused on immediate gratification, can almost always find something more interesting or enjoyable for me to do.

I solved the problem by rewarding myself with a small star sticker on the calendar in my bathroom each time I completed the four things. My goal was to earn both stars every day. I see this calendar whenever I leave the bathroom, since it hangs above the light switch. Observing the day-by-day accumulation of stars was very satisfying.  And I found that my self-talk, which had been encouraging me to delay or blow off one or more of the activities, turned into a cheerleader encouraging me to do them so I could get the star sticker.

This system has been in place for a while and had been quite successful until this past September, when I stopped being physically able to do two of the things (walking and stretching) twice a day. For a while I just lowered my sights and aimed for one star sticker a day. But more often than not, I couldn’t even aim that high.

But I have been very gradually feeling better and stronger the longer I’m off the medication. And I noticed that the calendar—with or without star stickers—has become a cue for me to resume those activities, which I have now been able to do for 10 consecutive days.

It doesn’t matter whether I look at each of the four things as a separate habit or at the group of them as a single habit. They are united by the star stickers on the calendar as well as in my mind. And not only does doing them make me feel better, resuming doing them is an indicator—in multiple ways—that I am better.

Although I hadn’t been doing the four things regularly for two and a half months, as soon as I was able to do so I got right back on track and my self-talk got right back in line. That’s because this set of habits is very compelling for me. I really, really want to do them. And I did them long enough in the past to create a well-defined track or groove that was easy for me to find and get back into.

The takeaway is that creating a groove is the most important part of developing a habit. If there’s something you want to do every day, first create a groove for doing it once or twice a week. If there’s something you want to do multiple times a day, first create a groove for doing it once a day.

If you try to be perfect out of the gate and fail (which is the most likely outcome), you’ll never gain any traction. You’ll have to continually keep starting over. But if you have a groove, even if it isn’t all you want it to be, it will be so much easier for you to find your place when you lose it. And you will lose it. That’s the nature of things.

The Value of Identifying What’s Most Important to You

There’s a little bit of irony in the fact that I identified vitality as the thing that’s most important to me two months before I was diagnosed last year with multiple heart conditions, including one that results in fatigue and decreased energy. On top of that, one of the most prominent side effects of the antiarrhythmic drug I took recently is insomnia. This is not a recipe for vitality.

But the fact that I can’t have the level of vitality I used to have and that I would much prefer to have doesn’t mean it isn’t still important to me. I haven’t decided to replace it with something else because my circumstances have changed. I’m clear that no matter what, vitality is still what I’m aiming for. That means I have to determine the best actions to take so I can achieve the highest level of vitality possible at any given time.

That makes it hard to feel defeated or powerless. My personal agency may be limited, but I can identify the agency I do have, the actions I can take, the difference I can make. In fact, aiming for as much vitality as I can get makes decision-making a breeze. Instead of basing decisions on what I should do or what I would prefer to do, I simply ask myself if doing or not doing something is likely to increase or decrease my vitality.

The takeaway here is that you may not be in a position to achieve as much of what’s important to you as you would like to achieve. That doesn’t mean you should write it off. (It doesn’t actually mean anything at all.) Don’t sell out. Don’t give up. Don’t let it go. Go after as much of it as you can get at this particular point in time!

Mind the Gap

You experience the gap numerous times each day. Everyone does. The gap, in this case, is the discrepancy between what you expect will happen and what actually happens. Because your brain finds this gap to be very unsettling, it responds by rushing to close it (i.e., explain it) as quickly as possible. Ostensibly, the purpose of an explanation is to help you understand what’s happening—or give you the sense that you understand—so you can determine a course of action to take.

This is an automatic process that works reasonably well in a variety of situations, especially if they’re straightforward and/or familiar. Coming up with explanations is so automatic and so fast that you probably don’t stop very often to question the validity or accuracy of the expectations that gave rise to the gap that needs explaining.

But if your expectations are based on unfounded assumptions or an incorrect analysis of the situation—or if they are missing critical information—then your explanation is bound to be flawed. And it turns out that most such explanations are flawed.

In truth, when we set out to explain our actions, they are all post hoc explanations using post hoc observations with no access to unconscious processing. Not only that, our left brain fudges things a bit to fit into a makes-sense story. Explanations are all based on what makes it into our consciousness, but actions and the feelings happen before we are consciously aware of them—and most of them are the results of nonconscious processes, which will never make it into the explanations. The reality is that listening to people’s explanations of their actions is interesting—and in the case of politicians, entertaining—but often a waste of time. —Michael Gazzaniga, Professor of Psychology, UC Santa Barbara

You can’t avoid having expectations. If your brain wasn’t predictive, you wouldn’t be able to function in the world you find yourself in. But those predictions are based, to a great extent, on the mental model the unconscious part of your brain maintains of what’s normal for you. Naturally, you feel pretty confident about them. But the degree of confidence you have in your explanations is not a reliable guide to their validity or accuracy.

When the gap is generated by a flawed explanation based on unfounded expectations, the action you take to correct or respond to it won’t get you the result you want. Instead you will be faced with yet another gap to explain and contend with. Continuing down this winding road can take you very far afield from your original destination.

As a result, the conscious part of your brain (the part you think of as “I”) may become more and more dissatisfied, frustrated, and even confused. You may give up or at least feel like giving up. The unconscious part of your brain, on the other hand, is likely to be quite satisfied with this state of affairs.

We have a big brain capable of greatness with hardwiring for survival. –David DiSalvo

The unconscious part of your brain is, as Cormac McCarthy put it, “a machine for operating an animal.” This particular machine’s prime directive is survival, and it thinks the best way for you to survive is to maintain your status quo. It has a variety of tricks up its sleeve to deceive you into thinking you’re moving forward when, in fact, you’re expending a lot of mental energy running in place on the hamster wheel.

The Myth of Self-Sabotage

Self-sabotage is a great example of an explanation created to account for the gap between the expectation that our behavior ought to be based on our conscious intentions and the experience of doing something other than what we consciously intend to do. If you accept the self-sabotage explanation, the logical action to take is to try to determine how and why you’re sabotaging yourself. This is a diversionary expedition that leads to a dead end. It contributes nothing in the way of helping you change your behavior.

The expectation that our behavior ought to be based on our conscious intentions is based on several unwarranted assumptions. The reality is that since we operate on autopilot most of the time, most of our behavior is generated by unconscious impulses, not by conscious intentions. And the unconscious part of our brain wants to maintain the status quo. You’re far more likely to keep doing what you’ve been doing than you are to do something different.

You may not like it, but the fact that you don’t always do what you consciously intend to do should not surprise or confound you. The logical action to take (instead of trying to figure out how and why you’re sabotaging yourself) is to retrain your brain to make the desirable behavior part of the status quo.

When you follow the path of least resistance by unquestioningly going along with your brain’s interpretation of events and behaviors, you end up digging yourself deeper into your rut. If you want to expand your mental model, change your direction, and give yourself more opportunities to succeed, one of the best things you can do for yourself is to develop the habit of questioning your expectations.

Objective Means to Subjective Ends

An objective is…objective. It’s generally specific and quantifiable. A dictionary might define an objective as something you’re working toward, such as a goal or the completion of a project. You may or may not succeed in reaching the goal or completing the project, but you’ll know whether or not you achieved your objective.

One objective may be a single step in the process of completing a larger objective. Maybe you undertake to read a particular book in order to successfully complete a class that is part of your goal of obtaining some type of certification or qualification. You’ll know whether or not you finished reading the book, successfully completed the class, and obtained the certification.

But why are you working toward that certification? What aspects of your status quo are you aiming to change? The objective change is obvious: you will have the certification or qualification you didn’t have before. However, the subjective change—your desired outcome—is likely to be much less clearly defined, if even considered.

This isn’t to say you don’t have an explanation for why you want to do something—or at least why you think you want to do it. Explaining ourselves to ourselves comes naturally to humans. You may also be clear about the potential benefits of succeeding with your objective. But having good reasons and being aware of the benefits are not the same as identifying your desired outcome.

Why (to) Ask Why

You could be going on a job interview because you hope to get hired or because you’re thinking about quitting your current job and are testing the waters or because a relative hooked you up and you feel obligated…or…or…or. Those are some reasons you might have for keeping the appointment for that interview.

Assuming you hope to get hired, why? Maybe it’s simply to earn enough to pay your bills. Or maybe you want to move up into a more challenging or more prestigious position. You might be seeking a congenial group of co-workers to expand your circle of friends. Or you might want a calmer work environment with less stress than you now have. Or you’d like a more stimulating environment. It could be a combination of factors.

If you’re clear about what you hope will happen as a result of getting the job, you’ll be better able to evaluate whether or not to take it if it’s offered to you. At the interview itself, you’ll be able to ask more informed questions and pay attention to things that are relevant to your concerns. Knowing the desired outcome you’re looking for is pretty important since it increases your chances of getting it.

But if you accept the job offer without having identified your desired outcome, you set yourself up for the possibility of being disappointed. Maybe the money’s good and the work is interesting but you wouldn’t get to interact with very many other people—and it turns out the social aspect is really important to you. In fact, you realize you would be willing to earn less in exchange for having more interpersonal interaction.

Reality Check

In addition to changing jobs, we get into or out of relationships, take up hobbies, move from one part of the country to another, decide to go back to school (or drop out), sign up for a gym membership, start a diet, buy a complete new wardrobe—or a set of patio furniture or an expensive camera or a car. We not only fail to identify our desired outcome, we also fail to identify potential obstacles we’re likely to face along the path to getting it.

Included in the “Reality Check” exercise my clients complete when filling out a Goal Action Plan are these three questions.

  1. Imagine a positive vision (fantasy) of achieving your desired outcome and describe it. How will your status quo be changed?
  2. Describe your current reality in regard to your desired outcome.
  3. Compare your positive vision of success with your current reality.

It’s important to remember that if all you do is generate and focus on a positive vision of your desired outcome without doing anything else, you are less likely to be successful in achieving it because you will have tricked your brain into thinking you’ve already got it.

Answering all three questions is a form of mental contrasting that can help you see your situation more realistically and identify the obstacles to achieving your desired outcome. If you know the obstacles you’re likely to face, you can figure out how to deal with them ahead of time instead of being blind-sided by them. Or you may realize there’s an obstacle big enough to be a deal-breaker, at least for now.

When we perform mental contrasting, we gain energy to take action. And when we go on to specify the actions we intend to take as obstacles arise, we energize ourselves even further.Gabriele Oettingen, Rethinking Positive Thinking

Evaluate and Motivate

The more clearly you can visualize your desired outcome the better you’ll be able to evaluate how likely it is that the action you’re contemplating is the best path to getting there. If it is, great! That clarity can be highly motivating. If it isn’t, that’s great, too, because you can change or revise your plan and save yourself the time, energy, and effort of going off on a wild goose chase.

The more time, energy, or effort it will take to attain your objective, the more imperative it is that you identify your desired outcome. The unconscious part of your brain is hooked on instant gratification, but changing the status quo tends to be gradual, mundane, repetitious, and tedious. Being able to remind yourself not only what you’re aiming for (the objective means) but also why it’s important to you (the subjective end) will go a long way to keeping you focused and on track.

Developing the habit of identifying your desired outcome is useful in all kinds of every-day situations, such as responding to a social media post, attending a staff meeting, choosing a book to read, or planning a vacation. It’s a truism because it’s true: it’s considerably easier to get what you want if you know what that is.

Adapted from a previous post, D Is for Desired Outcome.