By Brianna Wiest
Understanding whether or not our personalities are fixed or malleable – and to what degree – has been the question philosophers and neuroscientists alike have spent years trying to understand. It’s comforting to attribute our most debilitating qualities to just being “who we are.” It lets us off the hook, it helps procrastinate change. Yet, when we remain unconscious of the fact that we can change our natural inclinations to the point that we can actually change the way our brains fire off response signals, we will simply be continually living out patterns that we developed in youth, and never grew out of.
“Neurons that fire together, wire together” is the single sentence that can sum up Hebbian theory, Donald Hebb’s idea that with repeated activation, neurons connect themselves to be engrams, or permanent restructures of the brain. The modern term is neuroplasticity, and the idea is that the brain can create new neural pathways to adapt to its “comfort zones” is likely one of the most crucial and underutilized concepts for self-actualization.
In other words, what you do, you become. You end up where you’re headed. If your life ultimately amounts to what you do each day, then real change lies in the adjustment of small habits. This isn’t always instinctive, though. It’s a common belief that habitualness is born of monotony and lack of character. Many philosophers even idealize a habit-free existence. Alva Noë at NPR believes this is a mistake. She argues:
Goethe said that architecture is frozen music. Actually, architecture is frozen habit. A habit-free existence would be a robotic existence; it would be one in which nothing could be taken for granted. But if nothing can be taken for granted, you can’t get started on anything. How could you talk, if you couldn’t take your own fluency, that is to say, your own habitual mastery of words, meanings, and ways of talking, for granted? How could you read the newspaper? Imagine that you had to think about and decide where to put your feet in the morning! Without habits nothing recognizable as a human or even animal form of life would be possible. To have a mind like ours, you need habits like ours.
Essentially, it’s not about trying to eliminate our habits and inclinations, but structuring them to serve our ultimate goals.
If you want to be a creative, you must train yourself to be comfortable with creating. If you no longer want to play out your relationship to your parents in your relationship to your spouse, you must train yourself not to. If you want to more easily release negative thoughts or care less about what people think, you have to choose to do so until it becomes second nature.
Our deepest internal battles, it seems, may simply be our conscious choice-making riding up against our current neurological structure.
Psychologist and philosopher William James wrote Habit in 1887, and was one of the first to explain how behavioral patterns shape what we refer to as character and personality more than we think. In one of the most beautiful passages, he explains the gift of habit like this:
Habit is thus the enormous fly-wheel of society, its most precious conservative agent. It alone is what keeps us all within the bounds of ordinance, and saves the children of fortune from the envious uprisings of the poor. It alone prevents the hardest and most repulsive walks of life from being deserted by those brought up to tread therein. It keeps the fisherman and the deck-hand at sea through the winter; it holds the miner in his darkness, and nails the countryman to his log cabin and his lonely farm through all the months of snow; it protects us from invasion by the natives of the desert and the frozen zone. It dooms us all to fight out the battle of life upon the lines of our nurture or our early choice, and to make the best of a pursuit that disagrees, because there is no other for which we are fitted, and it is too late to begin again. It keeps different social strata from mixing. Already at the age of twenty-five you see the professional mannerism settling down on the young commercial traveller, on the young doctor, on the young minister, on the young counsellor-at-law. You see the little lines of cleavage running through the character, the tricks of thought, the prejudices, the ways of the ‘shop,’ in a word, from which the man can by-and-by no more escape than his coat-sleeve can suddenly fall into a new set of folds. On the whole, it is best he should not escape. It is well for the world that in most of us, by the age of thirty, the character has set like plaster, and will never soften again.
Yet, despite all of this, there is something inherently appealing about making profound, sweeping change. We imagine how happy we want to be, yet cannot fathom how writing down one thing we’re happy for each day could possibly create that much change. Yet, it’s essentially a momentum effect. It’s the same concept of why decluttering is important, or why subconscious biases control your life more than your conscious choices do: what you expose yourself to repeatedly shapes who you are. Here, B.J. Fogg explains exactly how that happens.
You have more control over your life than you think you do. Often, it’s not about struggling to discern what you can’t control – but actually wanting to take control of it. When we assume that we’re treading uphill against our inclinations, it makes adapting to new ways an almost impossible feat. When we recognize that our responses will build and physically regulate themselves, we realize that it’s not a matter of whether or not we can, but whether or not we will have the discipline to do.
Your mind will be like its habitual thoughts; for the soul becomes dyed with the color of its thoughts. Soak it then in such trains of thoughts as, for example: Where life is possible at all, a right life is possible. – Marcus Aurelius