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02-14 New study finds association between personality and shape of brain

Posted in Cognition, Research


New study finds association between personality and shape of brain

The structure of the brain gives an insight into why people behave in a particular manner. In fact, personality may also be linked to the shape of the brain. The neural correlates of the five-factor model (also referred to as the “Big Five”) personality traits were analyzed in a recent study, published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience in January 2017.

‘Big Five’ personality traits

The Big Five consists of five main personality traits, which have been empirically validated and can be easily remembered by the acronym OCEAN:

  • Openness – a person’s depth, breadth, open-mindedness and originality of his or her experiential and mental life (e.g. artistic, curious, imaginative).
  • Conscientiousness – a person’s ability to use constraint and impulse control (e.g. thinking before acting, delayed gratification).
  • Extraversion – a person’s energy and enthusiasm (e.g. sociability, assertiveness)
  • Agreeableness – a person’s affectionate and altruistic traits (e.g. trust, modesty, tender-mindedness).
  • Neuroticism – a person’s emotional instability and negative emotionality (e.g. anxious, nervous, sad, tense).

The Big Five personality factors provide information about who they are, why they behave the way they do, their strengths and what makes them unique.

Why do people have unique personalities?

Recently, a team of researchers examined whether personality traits were related to what the brain actually looked like. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) data from over 500 people who took part in the Human Connectome Project (HCP) was used to examine how the thickness, surface area and amount of folding in the cortex of the brain were related to a person’s personality traits.

Each of the five personality traits showed unique differences in a person’s cortical thickness, volume, surface area and amount of folding in the cortex of the brain. In particular, people who scored high on neuroticism showed variations in areas of the brain belonging to the default-mode network (DMN), which is thought to play a role in cognitive processes like introspective, self-referential and self-projection.

The researchers also found that people who had high levels of neuroticism also showed decreased surface area in areas of the brain that are responsible for executive function and the ability to suppress emotional reactions. The neuroimaging results for neuroticism and openness are shown in the picture below.

New study finds association between personality and shape of brain Credit: The University of Cambridge. High levels of neuroticism were associated with increased cortical thickness (red) and reduced area and folding (blue) in some regions of the brain, which may predispose people to certain mental disorders. High levels of openness, on the other hand, were associated with decreased cortical thickness (blue) and increased area and folding (red) in some regions of the brain.

High levels of neuroticism increases risk for physical and mental disorders

Typically, cortical thickness often goes hand in hand with greater surface area and folding to help facilitate brain connectivity; however, people who had high levels of neuroticism had lower surface area and folding but higher cortical thickness, which the researchers suspected might predispose them to develop mental disorders associated with high negative emotionality.

Compared to people who score high on other personality traits, people who score high on neuroticism have an increased risk for both physical and mental health problems, including:

  • Antisocial personality disorder
  • Substance use disorders
  • Panic disorder
  • Depression
  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Comorbid disorders
  • Poorer health outcomes
  • Scoring high on neuroticism may predispose

The study showed that there are key differences in the brains of people with different personality traits. It may help in better understanding of the brain and the development of mental disorders.

As a leading provider of behavioral health treatment, Sovereign Health’s Rancho San Diego facility specializes in the treatment for mental disorders, including eating disorders and substance use disorders and co-occurring disorders in teens ages 12 to 17 years old. For more information about the treatment plans offered to teens at our adolescent facility, contact our 24/7 helpline.

About the author

Amanda Habermann is a writer for Sovereign Health. A graduate of California Lutheran University, she received her M.S. in clinical psychology with an emphasis in psychiatric rehabilitation. She brings to the team her background in research, testing and assessment, diagnosis and recovery techniques. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at

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