Thursday, March 3, 2011

Do We Have The Ability to Change?

Similar to the last entry, here I repost my responses to questions posed to me in a forum thread from Eline, whose blog you can find at (

Eline's Question:
My knowledge of phychology is at best very basic, but I do find it a fascinating subject, and I'm also interested in coaching, and I'd love to know what you think about a question that I have asked myself lately... On the one hand, the hypothesis is that there is high hereditability for almost everything (including personality), and that anything non genetic comes from non shared environment, and thus that personality traits are stable over time. On the other hand, I believe in free will, and that it's possible to change your values, beliefs, thoughts and actions. Taking it further, if you believe in free will, to what extent could we use the plasticity of the brain to shape and transform our personality ourselves? I'm thinking, with so many self-help books on the market, what proportion of identity is really up to us?

My Reply:
You ask a very interesting question! Speaking very broadly - from a combination of fancy statistics and studying identical twins who were adopted into different families, we have estimates that genetics and environment contribute about equally to various personality traits, behaviors, and disorders. Let's first discuss these factors before getting into free will.

From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense. It is favorable to survival to have some traits passed on from one generation to the next. On the other hand, there needs to be some room for adaptability.

In some people personality traits are really stable across time; however, stability cannot be confused with heritability. In other words, just because something is stable, doesn't mean that it is inherited or genetic. For example, someone could have experienced something extremely traumatic early on in their childhood and would remain fearful and avoidant their entire lives. In this case, the environment would be the main contributor to a fearful and avoidant personality. While this is true, a complex interplay of genetic and environmental factors after the trauma may also maintain a fearful personality.

As someone who studies the treatment of "personality disorders," which are considered to be such stable disorders that they are part of one's personality, I can tell you that personality disorders are not stable over time. A very difficult disorder to treat called Borderline Personality Disorder - which involves suicidal tendencies, behaviors like cutting, chronic feelings of emptiness etc - has been shown to be effectively treated with a talk-therapy called Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). This suggests, that even very difficult and stable traits can be changed with a psychological treatment. Because it is obviously not gene therapy, therapeutic change can be viewed as the environment (along with the individual) shaping behavior.

As I mentioned on this thread where this blog post originated, the mind and body are shaped by the environment. Talk-therapies and experiences can actually re-wire the brain. So even if we're born with a genetic predisposition to something, we can mold it, within certain limitations that are hard to estimate, with experience. There is, however, very likely an element of choice in whether to proceed with and effective treatment.

Although this is likely the case, free will is a really difficult topic to discuss with confidence. We are often very influenced by factors completely outside of our awareness. We also make up reasons for why we do things, when we really have no idea why on earth we do. Many cleverly designed studies have shown this.

With that being said, my own ideas on free will are this: when we become aware of our thoughts and actions, perhaps through the practice of meditation, we have an increased ability to choose. As we hone this ability, over time, we become less like a pinball careening towards different springs that just send us hurling in random directions. We can shape the way in which are brains are rewired by choosing to practice a craft, studying a topic, or participating in an effective treatment like CBT or DBT where psychological management skills are learned.

Eline's Repsonse:
How interesting! Thanks for such a complete answer! I just completed an introductory course in psychology and am having a hard time putting the pices together. What you say really makes sense..

Now I'm thinking about meditating again, I did it for a while, but never really made it a routine or a priority.. :)

My Response:
Eline, my pleasure! If you have any more questions, this thread is here :)

I absolutely love meditation - I research, practice, and teach it. I just wrote an article about meditation here:

If you have the time to check it out, let me know what you think!

Eline's Response:
Great article! I used to share the same misconceptions you address, and I'm sure there are many like me.. I also like the idea of starting with 2 minutes, I started directly at 15 and found it really long, maybe that's why I stopped

My Response:
Thanks for the positive feedback, Eline! It is much appreciated.
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