Change people's character

When the ego breaks: what defines personality?

Mental illnesses - especially severe disorders such as schizophrenia - raise many questions that cannot be answered medically alone.

Is there a second I in every person? Can a character change overnight? Is our ego innate or can we consciously transform it? How do ego disorders such as borderline syndrome arise and where in the body is our identity even written down? Scientists set out to find the secret of the human personality.


How can our character change?

An apparent contradiction: How can it be that on the one hand the basic features of our personality are firmly anchored in us, even before we develop an awareness, that on the other hand it is exposed to the constant "danger" of a sudden change?

Normally, as has been shown by personality research, our character is like a calm river that flows through our lives. It is a closed system. Sometimes it changes its course slightly, it develops, carries a lot of flotsam, the composition of its water fluctuates, it continues to flow. A constant stream that remains closed in spite of all branches - because it does not overflow its banks. Usually not.

But that is exactly what can happen for two reasons: A person suffers a severe personality crisis triggered by traumatic experiences. Or there is an organic cause: an operation, a stroke, or a genetic defect. Then character traits emerge that were previously hidden.

Think of it like genes: some are "clicked", some are not, and they never will. Example hair color: A boy has dark hair like his father, but his mother's hair is blonde - the boy carries a gene for both colors, but the gene for "blonde" is muted. The researchers come to a similar conclusion when they look at how personality is neurologically anchored in the brain. Your seat is the frontal lobe, and each person's activity pattern is different there. Some regions are "clicked", others remain silent.

This explains why patients who have been operated on or injured there suddenly develop new tendencies. Suddenly a new region is switched on. Most people are spared that. Still, the feeling that we will never change is deceptive. Even if the character flows like a river, dangles are not excluded, but provided.


When and how does personality arise?

The British infant researcher Stella Acquarone describes the first meeting between mother and child as follows: "It's like meeting at a party. You know that this is a person. But you don't know how they behave." That would mean that even an infant has a personality, albeit an unconscious one. The mixed legacy of his parents and ancestors. Traits and preferences that develop and mature with experiences in his environment. Which, as the case may be, intensify or weaken.

A long-term study by the Max Planck Institute for Psychological Research showed that almost all basic characteristics of character are already established in three to four-year-olds. Over a period of 20 years, the scientists observed 200 children between the ages of four and twelve. They examined their subjects three times a year for several hours. They systematically examined every corner of their personality - in addition to cognitive abilities also the so-called Big Five - the five pillars of the human character: neuroticism (the tendency towards bad mood and self-doubt), extraversion, openness to new experiences, tolerance and conscientiousness. But there was only one thing that surprised the researchers in particular: the characteristics observed at the beginning of the study ran like a red thread through the children's development.

Clich├ęs came true as if by themselves: if you were quick to take away other children's toys when you were young, you were more likely to come into conflict with the law when you were 20. Anyone who was noticed to be aggressive at an early age also showed abnormalities as an adult. And there was another surprise: puberty is the climax in a person's development. According to the psychologist and head of the study, Wolfgang Schneider, "especially in the ability to think or remember, there was only minimal progress in all test subjects." The same applies to moral development. In many children it develops between 8 and 17 years of age don't go any further, it even goes backwards. We thought that more things will change. "

Does that mean: if you steal blocks as a toddler, you steal cars as an adult? A British team of scientists wanted to know more precisely: The psychologists from the University of Berkeley wondered how many "real" criminals could be found in a group of fare dodgers. They accompanied the railway inspectors for eight weeks and randomly checked the stowaways for a possible criminal record. The astonishing result: every eleventh person, which is around nine percent of the passengers without a ticket, had already become suspicious. The researchers saw their hypothesis confirmed: It is more likely to find criminals among a crowd of fare dodgers than in a shopping mall. But only the reverse is permissible: Those who are criminals tend to drive black, but not the other way around ...


Borderline - a life on the edge

Julia Meisner (26) suffers from borderline syndrome. Borderline means borderline - what is meant is the boundary between extreme feelings. The I on the edge. A life on the tightrope - on the one hand you are threatened with falling into the abyss, on the other hand you fall softer. However, people like Julia usually bring about happiness artificially: through drugs and alcohol. This personality disorder develops in early childhood. The inner turmoil, the deep hatred of oneself and others go hand in hand with an inner emptiness that borderline patients describe with an agonizing feeling of numbness. To feel their body, they injure themselves, cut their skin. Because pain is better than no feeling at all, they say. With the help of therapy, Julia is on the way to being able to control the dark side of herself.


How many I's does a person have?

When Jeff Kooning has a brain tumor removed, the doctors are in for a surprise. He has the finest food from the best restaurants in town and can think of nothing more than saffron and lobster. The political journalist from Washington will later switch fields - to write restaurant columns. The neuropsychologist Marianne Regard called this phenomenon the Gourmand Syndrome. Doctors conclude from this that character traits lie in certain regions of the brain. The preference for good food is therefore stored in the right front hemisphere - where the tumor was removed. This suggests that there is still a whole range of personality patterns available in our brain convolutions. Some are visible and shape us. Others, on the other hand, slumber silently in our heads all our lives and never make themselves noticeable - until something awakens them. For example a brain injury or an operation, as in the case of the journalist.


Is there an artificial me?

As a toddler, Helen Keller (1880-1968) became deaf-blind as a result of meningitis - she lagged behind in her development. Until the teacher Anne Sullivan came into her life. She created Helen's world, became her inseparable twin, gave her her own personality - (narrated) experiences, stories, thoughts - and above all: language. She was able to understand the vocalizations of people who knew neither the finger alphabet nor the Braille by palpating their lips (photo on the left). The downside: In Helen's biography, real memories and imaginary things are blurred, which later earned her plagiarism allegations as a writer. And doubts about their personality. A second-hand life, a pseudo-me: "Sometimes I just don't know whether my memories come from my books or whether they are real."


Genius and madness in one self

Born in West Virginia in 1928, John Forbes Nash is considered a math genius - he is one of the few Nobel Prize winners in his field, and his life was even good for Hollywood material ("A Beautiful Mind"). But not only because of his groundbreaking insights, for example in the field of game theory, but because of his other side, his second self. Nash developed paranoid schizophrenia at the age of 30. He suffered from delusions, acoustic as well as visual - even his best friend and fellow students he is supposed to have imagined. On the other hand, schizophrenics see their environment as threatening, and even familiar people assume hostile intentions. Nash even felt he was being followed by the CIA. Today he is largely cured of his schizophrenia. He still teaches at Princeton University in New Jersey.


The heart as a memory store?

When his hand glides across the canvas with the brush, he sometimes has the feeling that it is remote-controlled. It then feels like someone else is painting the lush landscapes and animal pictures. The amazing thing is that what William Sheridan recently put on paper was like a six-year-old's scribble. But everything has changed since his heart transplant. The 64-year-old is certain: the heart donated to him by a New York stock exchange trader is responsible for his sudden artistic talent. In his spare time he had done one thing above all else: he painted pictures. And William believes that he not only "inherited" the art from his donor. "He must have been a good person. I've become much more loving."

Gary Schwartz from the University of Arizona conducted a study around the world in 70 cases in which characteristics of organ donors were transferred to recipients. The phenomenon cannot be explained medically, but Schwartz calls it "cell memory". "We assume that the information and energy stored in the organ are passed on to the recipient. This is supported by: Scientists like Schwartz have discovered neurotransmitters in the heart that are also found in the brain.


Where is the personality in the body?

"That could mean that there is a chemical exchange of information between the brain and the heart," says Schwartz. Doctors have also been able to observe something similar after a stroke in the forebrain: a previously shy person is suddenly impulsive and cocky - and vice versa. But what does it actually mean when foreign tissue can turn us into a completely different person? What if a tiny injury in the brain can turn a personality inside out? And what if a few cubic centimeters of misdirected blood in the gray cells can do more in a few seconds than ten years of upbringing? Apparently the foundations of personality are easier to shake than we'd like. But the really puzzling thing is: where something is deleted, there is often no gap - but something new. It is as if character traits were buried in layers in our brain. If the top layer falls away, another one moves up. Researchers now want to solve the great mystery of our personality. Often it is disorders and clinical cases that provide decisive clues. Which give reason to believe: The I has many dimensions. And there is something like a second self in each of us. In many ways.


What is the maximum number of personalities a person can have?

Truddi Chase's personality was simply obliterated. Or shall we say she froze when Truddi was a little girl. She has been sexually abused by her stepfather since she was a child. To escape the unbearable abuse, something incredible happened in her psyche. Something that not only shows the severe degree of violence and emotional injury, but also reveals what the human psyche is capable of in extreme situations: the little girl's original personality remained in its development - it was in its current state at the beginning of abuse "frozen". As a result, her ego split into several inner persons. They got names, voices, characters, ages and roles. Over time there were more and more.

In the end it was 92. It was only 40 years after the attacks by her stepfather that Truddi began therapy - but at that time she did not know about the many egos that shared her personality. Truddi Chase's multiple or dissociative personality was only discovered when the psychiatrist noticed his patient's large memory gaps. She couldn't even remember the birth of her daughter. Eventually it became clear: she knows less about her past life than any of her other personalities. And that probably saved her life. Because in this way she could go on living as if something bad had not (only) happened to her, but as if it had happened to other people.

Psychologists are convinced that the ability to develop multiple personalities resides in everyone - and is lived in the first years of life. "In the course of childhood, the different identities unite to form a self - with flowing transitions," says Simone Reinders from the University of Groningen. "Even in adulthood they are still there, only externally they are not visible. But in our dreams, for example, they reappear."


The me in the wrong body

Tim already knew at the age of two that he was in the wrong body. He played with barbies and said, "I'm a girl." The parents thought that would pass. Until the four-year-old ran into his room after visiting the hairdresser and screamed: "Now I'll cut this thing off." From that day on, Tim was called Kim. Kim is 14 today, wears eyeshadow, cropped T-shirts and talks about her dream of later going to Paris as a fashion designer. She started hormone therapy before puberty, and in her files the darned first letter has already been exchanged. She still has to wait for her operation until she is 18.

For decades, psychiatrists believed that parents were to blame for their children's transsexualism. The developmental psychologists agreed with them: children were born psychic neutrals, they claimed. The feeling of having ended up in the wrong body can only arise through experiences the child has in the first few years, they said. Say - through severe emotional trauma. The Kim case refutes that. And he says even more: From the beginning there is a felt identity that its physical counterpart accepts - or not. The course for the physical ego is presumably already set in the womb. Infant studies show that female babies just a few weeks old have been looking at faces for longer, boys at abstract shapes. And even if no researcher wants to diminish the influence of the environment today, these cases show that the basic features of our personality are fixed long before birth.


Who writes the book of our life?

Researchers doubt the one director in our heads who makes the film of our lives. According to the one coherent script. That is why they search for the origin and essence of the human self and ask: Where do we get our personality from? Can we steer and change it? Their results show that there are apparently several narrators who write the story of our lives. Sometimes the change between the "authors" of our character is obvious, sometimes it is hardly noticeable, least of all to us. It starts with a guilty conscience. "Take what's not yours as long as you don't get caught." "Don't do it," whispers the second voice. A dilemma that is as simple as it is clear. The question arises: which voice is the self? The bad or the good?

It gets even more complicated with new voices and moods when chemistry comes into play: with drugs or medications that directly change people's self. Biological psychologists have long been deciphering the neurochemistry of personality. Some of them are even convinced: once you know how the messenger substances, so-called neurotransmitters, interact with each other to shape your personality, you could change it at the push of a button - with the tailored psychopill. The beginnings can already be felt. The antidepressant Prozac is now a staple food in some American suburbs. Millions of people take Paxil for shyness. And those who want to appear particularly alert and dynamic can get on with Modafinil. The fact is that many psychotropic drugs are used to help people function better psychologically who are not sick at all. The supposed search for the true self is the search for the perfect self.