I’m watching an episode of BBC Horizon last night — it is the science show PBS Nova wanted to emulate — and it’s about how to change your personality.
Now, this is Horizon, so it’s hosted by a medical doctor and full of rat brain dissection, identical twin gene studies, EEGs, and such. No simple new age arm waving here.
The doctor knows he has insomnia and is a catastrophic thinker, a bit of a pessimist, somewhat socially phobic. The studies show he is right; he twigs to negative faces much faster than positive, and his brain is asymmetrical, the right half working much more than the left.
He is in the media lab at MIT and is given a pair of bracelets that track neural activity. When the graceful woman prof dumps his bracelets and hers, you can see that he has much, much more activity than she does. A much higher “arousal level.” He is overthinking.
“That looks quite tiring to sustain that level of peak,” he says.
“It’s work,” she agrees with a sympathetic nod.. “Being around people can be hard work.”
That is my experience of the world. My sister knows it, that I have to work hard to be around people, especially people like my family who always terrify me.
Still, the twin studies show that genetics is malleable. Different genes can be switched on and off, affecting behaviour, even between identical DNA people. So he goes to do some reprogramming of his brain, with mindfulness meditation and Cognitive Bias Modification.
Seven weeks later, it seems to work. His brain activity is more balanced and he sees negative and positive faces at about the same rate. He is sleeping better, and his wife notices a difference in him.
Change is possible, at least for him.
One of the heaviest burdens I bear is that knowledge, that belief that change is possible. It means I can’t just assume the world is as it is, but rather I have to hold open the space for my own transformation and the transformation of others. It keeps me working.
But is change really possible for my mind?
It isn’t as long as I am tethered to the expectations and behaviours of my family, as long as I need to be who they expect me to be. Their inability to engage change has always been what left me struggling.
It’s that permission to change my mind that seems to escape me.