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.