March 20, 2012

A Personality Fix

Old dogs can learn new tricks. When seniors improve mental skills, personalities also get a boost.

Every day it seems like researchers are discovering something else that overturns long-held notions about how the brain operates. In contrast to conventional wisdom, for example, the brain is able form new neural connections into young adulthood. Now, a new study shows that mental abilities can be boosted – and aspects of personality enhanced – well into one’s golden years.

Seniors from 60- to 94- years old were split into two groups: One group was assigned to a 16-week course of brain puzzles, completed at home; the other got no special treatment.

'[H]ere you have a study that has successfully changed personality traits in a set of individuals who are (on average) 75. And that opens up a whole bunch of wonderful issues to think about.'

The brain games challenged the participants’ inductive reasoning skills: for example, finding patterns in numbers and letters, along with crossword puzzles and Sudokus. When one skill level was completed, the participants turned their work in to the researchers and were given a more challenging set.

All participants took tests that measured their inductive reasoning skills both before and after the 16-week study period. The experimental group (those who did the brain games) scored significantly higher on inductive reasoning after the study was over – the other group’s scores did not change.

The participants also took tests that measured the “big five” personality traits: openness, extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism. Openness was of particular interest to the team, and incudes factors like ingenuity, intellect, creativity, the ability to catch onto new ideas quickly, and competence. At the end of the study, the seniors who had done the cognitive challenges scored higher in openness, though only slightly. .The researchers believe that there is a connection between cognition and personality, such that enhancing one’s cognitive prowess could naturally influence your openness to new experiences.

Lead author Elizabeth Stine-Morrow says, “While we didn't explicitly test this, we suspect that the training program – adapted in difficulty in sync with skill development – was important in leading to increased openness. Growing confidence in their reasoning abilities possibly enabled greater enjoyment of intellectually challenging and creative endeavors."

This news is particularly exciting because it contradicts the convention that our personalities are virtually unchanging after early adulthood. "There are certain models that say, functionally, personality doesn't change after age 20 or age 30,” adds coauthor Brent Roberts. “You reach adulthood and pretty much you are who you are. There's some truth to that at some level. But here you have a study that has successfully changed personality traits in a set of individuals who are (on average) 75. And that opens up a whole bunch of wonderful issues to think about."

So if you’re feeling stuck in a mental rut, try some new ways to challenge your cognitive abilities or engage in new intellectual experiences. It may boost not only your reasoning abilities, but it might just make you a little more open in your approach to life.

The study was carried out by researchers at the University of Illinois, and published in Psychology and Aging.

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