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June 22nd, 2010
05:58 PM ET

Personality shows up in brain structure

By Elizabeth Landau
CNN.com Health Writer/Producer

Some people are more outgoing than shy, or worrisome than carefree. Such personality differences are now being explored biologically in the brain.

A new study in the journal Psychological Science finds that several personality traits are associated with definite brain regions. Scientists from the University of Minnesota, University of Toronto, Yale University, and The Mind Research Network in Albuquerque, New Mexico, collaborated on the study.

Participants were 116 people, half of whom were male, and all between 18 and 40 years old. They were given a personality test and then underwent magnetic resonance imaging.

The researchers found evidence in the brain for four of the "Big Five personality traits": extroversion,
neuroticism, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. They looked at the volumes of various brain regions to see how greater or smaller volumes might be connected to personality traits. But they did not find clear associations for the fifth trait: openness/intellect.

A brain region involved in processing reward information, called the medial orbitofrontal cortex, seemed to be associated with how extroverted participants were. Extroverted people tend to be more sociable and talkative.

Brain regions associated with threat, punishment, and negative affect seemed to have something to do with how neurotic participants were. Neuroticism includes elements of irritability, anxiety, and being self-conscious.

Brain areas dealing with information about the intentions and mental states of other people were associated with agreeableness. Cooperation, compassion and politeness are part of agreeableness.

The lateral prefrontal cortex, involved in planning and the voluntary control of behavior, seemed to be associated with conscientiousness. People who are highly conscientious tend to be self-disciplined and orderly, rather than impulsive.

The one major personality trait that did not have an association with a brain area volume in this study was openness/intellect, which includes people who are creative, philosophical, imaginative, and intellectually engaged. This is also the only trait that has been associated with intelligence in previous research. Further study would be needed to determine how biology might be related to this trait.


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soundoff (69 Responses)
  1. Bob

    Sorry to bust your bubble, Prof. K but there is no such thing as free will.

    June 23, 2010 at 15:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Brad

    J Twedt made reference to the MBTI test. I'm no brain scientist, but I'd certainly like to know how to live as an INFJ. I thought the book "The Introvert Advantage" did some good explaining about brain activity in introverts.

    June 23, 2010 at 15:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Joe

    No surprise that neuroscience has done what astrology cannot: find something that correlates with personality traits! : )

    June 23, 2010 at 15:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. maggie

    "In terms of complexity, an individual cell is nothing when compared with a system like the mammalian brain. The human brain consists of about ten thousand million nerve cells. Each nerve cell puts out somewhere in the region of between ten thousand and one hundred thousand connecting fibres by which it makes contact with other nerve cells in the brain. Altogether the total number of connections in the human brain approaches . . . a thousand million million." Michael Denton

    Really, no man can fully understand the human brain only the designer. Maybe what we need to do is to understand the designer instead of the design.

    June 23, 2010 at 16:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. justsomeperson

    But can you "act" extroverted if you're not? Can you "act" introverted if you're an extrovert? Even if you could, could you do it long enough to affect your brain structure? The fact that I've not been able to change my personality, try though I might, makes me lean toward the brain structure determines personality idea.

    June 23, 2010 at 16:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. charls

    The study merely confirms that our brains determine our personality. Some things can be modified by an individual but overall, our personality is set at birth. The film series called "7 up, 14 up, ..." shows how most people stay fundamentally the same all of their lives. All of us are born with certain strengths and weakness. The best that you can do is find your strengths and emphasize them and minimize your weaknesses.

    June 23, 2010 at 17:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. scott

    Paragraphs 6 and 7 identify specific personality traits but fail to identify the area of the brain which affect these traits. Can you clarify?

    June 23, 2010 at 17:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. TRUTH

    What a bunch of crap. Everyday these articles get more and more asinine. Who believes this nonsense? All this becomes is more EXCUSES for people to behave badly.
    'Oh, I'm not a jerk, its my BRAIN SHAPE that is making me act this way!' Grow a pair and own up to your actions !

    LAAAAAAAAAAAAAME.

    June 23, 2010 at 18:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Bob Bornt

    Great article. I know it was asked above but does anyone know how to get a copy of the research report. I use body / brain initiated behavioral styles in my work to triage critical event stress and the post stress symptoms.

    Thank you...

    June 23, 2010 at 18:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. jane

    How is an extraverts personality a main personality trait but an introvert personality is not? Is neuroticism supposed to be assumed to be interchangable with itroversion??
    All sociopaths are extrverted, and although that is a psychosis, I mean to imply that noyt all extravets are psychotic. Just as not all introvets are neurotic.
    This does seem like a silly study. Is it for a graduate thesis. I would agree that, from what is listed in the article, this does not get all closer to ending the nature/nurture debate.

    June 24, 2010 at 04:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Anonymous

    More generalities based on "statistical" correlations that actually have little relevance, but there is likely to be a marketable product created from this "discovery". Someone has to pay for all of the research and product development as well as stockholder dividends.

    June 24, 2010 at 10:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Midwestmatt

    This confirms what I've suspected all along.

    Our brain determines who we are and "how" we are.

    It's not about our "soul" or some internal weakness/strength that makes someone shy or outgoing, it's the mass of neurons encased in our skull.

    In the future, it will be possible to alter the physical nature of the brain to reduce painful shyness, difficult to control anger, or other aspects of the personality that is debilitating to someone or even dangerous to society.

    June 24, 2010 at 11:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. TC in Al

    Very good point Michael, but, your mother grows you, you don't grow yourself, and half of what she grows is based on your father's input, so the actual structures are set before you're born, however you could change your own mind , if you choose to, after you're aware of how to do that, until then, most people are stuck being who they are, many never even stopping to think about the self

    June 24, 2010 at 14:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. seriously.

    I hate to say it but...who cares? Learn to deal with the cards you are given. Stop living in some science fiction dream world in which we can alter people's personalities based on this information. I can't believe we wasted research dollars on this study. MRIs are expensive. Use the money to diagnose a stroke and not someone's personality.

    June 24, 2010 at 16:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. edward

    while there may be some genetic factors in personality. I think environment is the driving force in the development of ones personality.

    June 24, 2010 at 16:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. vonasby

    Better be careful about drawing any conclusions about any of this. Man is more than the sum of his parts. Nazi Germany was the last nation to attempt to build the perfect race. There is no such thing.

    June 26, 2010 at 11:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Justine

    can you please give me reaction on this article thank u

    July 2, 2010 at 09:34 | Report abuse | Reply
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    Stephanie,What can I say, you and Jolynne did such an amazing job, all the pietcrus were absolutely gorgeous. I have had so many complements on the photographs, and all I can say is I had two very amazing and gifted photographers to help me catch every special moment and detail of Chris' and my special day! Thank you!

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.