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Your personality is not fixed - neuroplasticity means you CAN change your spots

Posted in 1. Mental health resources @ Sep 8th 2016 - By Dr Cathy Warburton, Make Headway
Your Personality Is Not Fixed Neuroplasticity Means You Can Change Your Spots

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks – a saying that is as old as the hills, but is it true?

The first references to the concept of not being able to teach an old dog new tricks occurred back in the 1500’s. This and the related saying, leopards can’t change their spots, are said so often that they must be true - change is impossible, especially if you have been doing the same thing for a long time. Right?  

Is change impossible?

I am not so sure that we can get leopards to change their spots and I haven’t read the literature on brain change in dogs, but I am sure that we all know people that have changed – both for the better and the worse.  And we may have read popular books such as Norman Doidges’, “The Brain That Changes Itself” or watched Todd Sampson redesigning his brain on the ABC and know that we can change – that our brains are plastic throughout our life span – and that we can form new neural connections and strengthen or weaken neural pathways provided that we see a need to do so and are motivated to make the change.

I know I can learn new skills but change parts of my personality? 

Ok – but what does that mean to me, I hear you say? I already know that I can learn to do a new surgery or how to better manage a diabetic or how to interpret a profit and loss statement. Well, from my point of view, the really, super exciting stuff is around the changes that we can make to parts of our personality that many of us think are fixed – things like our ability to communicate positively and build relationships, whether we are optimists or pessimists, our tendency towards perfectionist thinking, or the degree to which we can self-regulate.  The list of qualities that we can develop is long and growing. It also includes;

  • Resilience
  • Hope
  • Will-power
  • Compassion and Empathy
  • Self-efficacy
  • Creativity
  • Patience
  • Co-operation
  • Kindness
  • Calmness

Our brain can be like a well-worn track 

Our brain pathways can be compared to the well-worn track that this 4WD that is travelling down.  If the 4WD stays on the track, then it can move quickly and easily. Likewise, our experiences to date will have created well-utilised fast neural circuits in our brains. Many of these will be very helpful and allow us to complete tasks quickly and efficiently.

The problem is that some of them may be creating repetitive patterns of behaviour that are not serving us particularly well and could even be causing us pain. It might be that we have got into a pattern of looking for the negatives in our life and barely notice, maybe even take for granted, the things that are going well.  Our pattern may be that we work harder and harder without consciously realizing it until we get to burnout. We may keep repeating the same problems in our relationships. Or alternatively, we may limit our lives by wanting to control everything and or by wanting to do the things we do so perfectly that we stay right in our comfort zone and never venture out.

Maybe it's time to creat some new tracks?

If we want the 4WD to veer off the well-worn track and go in a different direction, it is possible but it takes a bit of work. We might need to put a roadblock up on the old track and actively clear some space in the bush for a new track to be laid down.  Just as we can move the 4WD off the track and send it in a new direction – we can deliberately starve neural pathways that are not serving us well and create new more useful pathways in our brains.

Neuroplasticity is our friend in change.

Changing to a new, more helpful path is not going to be easy – but if some of the old ones are causing problems, it is probably worth the effort.

So how do we make the changes?

  1. The first step is always self-awareness - stand back and observe your automatic thoughts and patterns of behaviour. 
  2. Consciously recognize that you have a choice to act in a different way.
  3. Consider how a person that is optimisitic or a healthy self-regulator or kind etc would behave in this situation.
  4. Do what they would do.

It's not going to be easy

Easy – huh? Of course it is not. Changing the pattern of a life-time is not going to be easy. But who wants easy?  Fulfilled, happy and excited sound way better. We will all start at different points and improve at different rates but the large, large majority of us can grow and change in many different aspects of our lives. Small, regular actions are the best to create lasting change and sometimes (maybe even often) we will need professional support to do this.  Consider enlisting the help of a coach, counsellor or psychologist.  

What will be your new trick?

If you have any questions to ask Cathy about neuroplasticity and successfully making changes, why not ask them in the Comments section below?

About Cathy


Cathy is a coach and well-being consultant/educator with Make Headway.  Prior to this, she worked as a veterinarian, trainer and manager in private, university and corporate practices for 25 years.  Please visit her site at to make an enquiry about coaching or to find out more. 


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