Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Changing One's Personality? Totally A Fool's Errand Given Our Brain Structure


            The brain creates the illusion of a stable self (personality) via its neural processes

The WSJ article ('Changing Personality – Start Small', Jan. 11, p. A11) got my attention given I've been trying to do so for over 50 years.  Also the "start small" tweak appeared to be a novel recommendation. According to the piece, we are informed:

"Now, a body of research by personality psychologists shows that we can change our personality, that many of us want to, and that we’re often happier when we do. A key is to start small. Use your strengths to change your weaknesses and fake it until you make it."

But is "faking it" really going to work given it means adopting what is essentially a false persona to get the job done?  The very notion actually confirms and reinforces Julian Baggini's point (see below) that the brain creates the illusion of a stable self as a singular unified entity.  

To clarify the concept of personality itself, the WSJ author writes :

Personality” is a broad umbrella term for a characteristic pattern of thoughts, feelings and behaviors that people take with them across situations and time. It includes our skills and abilities, goals, motivations and traits. These traits, which are typically adjectives, such as calm, curious or caring, are what most people think of when they hear the word personality. Researchers categorize personality traits into five groupings, known as the Big Five: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. Each of us has all five of these types of traits. But we each have different levels of them."

The 'trick' then is to work on the given levels, tweaking each in small ways, "similar to trying to lose weight", according to Nathan Hudson, a psychology prof at SMU.  But given most people who have BMIs over 30 seldom lose weight, no matter what they try, this seems a losing proposition. And a terrible analogy. But then the article cites Brent Roberts a "personality researcher"  at Univ. of Illinois Urbana-Champaign who informs us many already have changed personalities on getting a first job, i.e.

"When people start their first job, they typically become more conscientious, emotionally stable and—yes—agreeable,"

True, but what happens after they lose it Then the next, and the next?  Might their personality still remain "agreeable"? Emotionally stable? I doubt it.

Julian Baggini argues (The Ego Trick) that there is no single unified entity or part of a human being that exists as a "personality", a stable "him" or "her". Nothing which can be uniquely pinpointed, though we entertain the illusion of a self thanks to a creative trick of the brain. Basically what we call "personality" is just the assembly of past memory and events and one's reactions to them which are then incorporated as a tentative psychological template.  If those memories leave or our reactions to them change, so does the personality.   Does an Alzheimer's patient have a personality? Baggini and I would argue emphatically 'No'.  He might have had a facsimile of a self at one time but once his memories were extirpated by the disease that self ceased to exist - as did any illusory personality attributed to it. 

"Changing personality"  then actually amounts to playing small tricks on one's own brain (as even the author concedes) to get it to use its neural resources to confabulate - if only briefly - a semi-stable "newer" self - or the illusion of such. That such confabulation of a newer self might make us "happier" is still arguable.

One's brain, body and memories all play a part in "constructing" the Self, according to Baggini, but there is no particular structure which confers identity. All of which means the concept of Self is totally fluid, and the notion of a stable personality amounts to psychological codswallop.  If we have learned anything since the age of Freud it's that we ought not treat the Self as if it's fixed. The Self I am today, for example, is not the Self that I was twenty or thirty years ago, and this goes far beyond mere physical changes. As a results of my collection of unique experiences over decades long interludes I am a different self.  Indeed, looking back at my antics and beliefs, attitudes now compared to when I was a 21-year old living in the Big Easy, I am flabbergasted to say the least.  Just spotting some old images of me at parties makes me wince and my jaw drop, e.g.

Is that really me with that Bourbon on the rocks making those insane faces?  Well, the photo doesn't lie but now some 55 years later it still leaves me in stark disbelief.  But that image embodies the point I am making here along with Julian Baggini. That is, the character captured in that image no longer exists and the psychological beliefs, attitudes he exhibited then are no longer part of the self-assembly package that exists now. 

This is also important to bear in mind in terms of the fragility of the self. For example, a brain tumor or Alzheimer's can destroy the self, by virtue of eliminating vast memory troves as well as cognitive ability.  Janice's cousin Desmond was once a man of quick wit and endless curiosity, especially about astronomy and cosmic physics. When I saw Desmond in 2003 at the family vacation beach house, we had a long  conversation and debate about the mass limits of stellar black holes and also the estimated mass of the galaxy-gobbling black hole at the center of the Milky Way

                            Desmond in 2003 before Alzheimer's wrecked his brain.

Merely seven years later, he was reduced to a hollow shell, his earlier intellectual persona replaced by a man-baby babbling nonsense syllables. He could barely recall even basic events, far less engage in a conversation about dark energy, cosmic expansion or stellar black holes

However, as Baggini notes - and I observed-  certain emotions, such as grief, might still be recognizable in the same person, irrespective of brain deformity or damage. Since each 'Self draft' is capable of recalling the previous ones (as I recall my earlier New Orleans days), this capacity is what confers an essential sense unity of self and stability.  But it is all an illusion.

Baggini, in his book,  follows the model of philosopher Derek Parfit in describing the unity of the Self as being achieved by a trick called "the ego trick". That is, constructing such a strong sense of connectedness and continuity out of disparate memories and experiences in a brain with no single command center. The trick, as he notes, works so well that many are fooled into believing some little controller actually sits behind the eyes and pulls the strings for action!

Baggini then argues that while we as walking brains are matter, we are not "just" matter. In other words, we can't describe ourselves fully with only the vocabulary of physics. One needs to invoke psychological concepts too, because of the immaterial nature of our consciousness. Therefore, we need to accept that thoughts and feelings emerge from the matter of which our brains are constructed. In other words, he is an "emergent materialist". Thus, your mind is not your brain, but rather it's what your brain does. If your brain doesn't do anything then your mind can't exist, at least for that time.

In the end, Baggini succeeds in showing there are three interactive and mutually compatible modes for selfhood, dependent on: 1) the physical body as a self, 2) our assorted memory collections which recall the evolution and tendencies of a Self, and 3) a more traditional selfhood criterion. Each captures part of the truth and each in its way helps to constitute the whole truth.

Since, of course, the self can change so readily, we can see it is somewhat ridiculous to hold it to some firm account for what it may have said or thought earlier.  In my condition -  in that photo above- could I be held responsible for anything I said to my blonde companion?  I doubt it.  (Even omiting the fact I may have been slightly inebriated). Was anything I said in that state a "lie" because some contradiction appeared to have occurred later in what was said or done ? Only if the complainant could show that my self is a fixed entity and not subject to the changes, neurological morphing I cited above!

Can we change our personality?  Only if we believe in the myth that we are stable and unique selves as opposed to subtle confections of our brains that took a jumble of neuronal paths and assembled them into a unity.  Or as Baggini puts it (p. 123): 

 "Generations of thinkers have gone wrong in thinking we needed to postulate a unified core self to account for the unity of self-experience.  In fact such 'unity' is not a cause but an effect of a remarkably disunified, bundle-like system."

Weight, its loss or gain then, has nothing to do with a person's purported personality change.  Since the latter is based on a disunified, unquantifiable 'bundle-like' conglomerate not susceptible to alteration - since it has no firm identity. People will still amuse themselves by playing parlor games about changing their personality, but it's all in the realm of a virtual fantasy.

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