Personality traits reflect individual structural differences in
the brain, study finds
9 April 2009
It has widely been held that personalities are shaped by
a combination of nature and nurture. But a new study published this
week has in fact found that major aspects of our personalities are
imprinted on our brains as structural differences.
Anatomical bases of personality traits, a
collaborative study between the University of Hull, the University
of Modena and Reggio Emilia and the University of Parma in Italy
and Washington University at St.Louis in the USA, has investigated
whether certain characteristics such as novelty seeking,
persistence, dependence on reward and avoidance of harm could be
correlated with parts of the brain.
Novelty seeking can be described as impulsive decision making,
an extravagant approach to cues of reward and quick loss of
Harm avoidance, on the other hand, manifests as pessimistic
worry in anticipation of future problems, passive avoidant
behaviour, fear of uncertainty, shyness of strangers and rapid
Reward dependence is a trait found in those with an addictive
personality; it manifests as sentimentality, social attachment and
dependence on the approval of others.
The final characteristic that was examined was persistence.
Persistent people tend to be industrious, diligent, hard working,
ambitious, overachieving and perfectionist.
The study looked at whether there is a correlation between
biological make-up and these traits of personality. These traits
were chosen because these are the main dimensions of human
personality and can be assessed easily with one of the most
reliable measures of personality available, the Three-dimensional
Personality Questionnaire (TPQ) devised by Professor Robert
Cloninger, a co-author of this study.
The team of researchers asked a large sample of eighty five
people to complete the questionnaire and their answers were
correlated with their brain scans acquired in three dimensions with
a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scanner, using a technique that
provides a volumetric measure of the brain.
They found that people with high levels of novelty seeking had a
more developed inferior part of the frontal lobe, the area above
the eye sockets. In contrast, participants with a less developed
inferior part of the frontal lobe around the midline inner surface
of the brain, had high levels of timidity, approval seeking
behaviours and greater tendency to seek gratification from external
sources such as food or drugs.
Additionally, participants who have a very persistent
personality trait have more developed parietal lobes and
parahippocampus; this region of the brain plays an important role
in developing and maintaining memories.
There is some indication that other traits of character such as
extroversion and introversion also vary in their expression
depending on the difference in function of some brain regions.
Professor Annalena Venneri from the University of Hull explains:
"This study shows that personality traits are something you are
born with, but their full expression can be modulated during
development with the right approach. The fact that traits are
reflected in specific anatomical differences is useful to know,
however, for instance, when it comes to understanding a child's
behaviour and choosing the right approach so that somebody who is,
for example, particularly timid might be helped through education
and support during development to build their confidence and have
the right approach not to be too disadvantaged by their
personality. There is no point shouting at a child who is very shy
and telling them off because it does not come naturally to them to
put themselves forward, but actually knowing there is a biological
basis for this helps educators or parents to use the right approach
to help a child compensate".
She continues: "People who have a high reward dependent
personality but find themselves in an environment where they do not
find reward through family support or other types, will seek reward
through other means ending up seeking rewards such as food or
drugs. Knowing that someone has such a predisposition could
help them adopting preventive strategies and avoid situations where
they might seek rewards which could be potentially harmful"
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