If we can't change personality,
What can we change?
[Bob Dylan's] vignettes are rendered as subjective experiences bordering on hallucinatory, filled with ragmen, Shakespeare, a dead grandfather, a baffled preacher, and Ruthie, with a honky-tonk lagoon and a Panamanian moon. This collage of verse spins in his head, above his head, a veritable mobile to be sure. It would be a stretch to call each verse a fable, a fictional story about a moment of insight. They are more like threats and denials - harmful stories, not useful.
“If you want to know me, then you must know my story, for my story defines who I am. And if I want to know myself, to gain insight into the meaning of my own life, then I, too, must come to know my own story. I must come to see in all its particulars the narrative of the self - the personal myth - that I have tacitly, even unconsciously, composed over the course of my years. It is a story I continue to revise, and tell myself (and some times to others) as I go on living.” - Dan P. McAdams1,2
You are stuck. The genes you have and the biology of your brain determine so much about you. They determine a significant part your experience of life.
We all disagree with this assertion because we live with such ableness3 - we can do things, and in the doing we control things, and in the controlling, we shape the experience of our lives. It’s our creation.
A fish doesn’t notice water. We don’t notice air. Our consciousness cannot notice the functioning of the brain or the fixity of the genes. Those qualities underly all brain function, and we are conscious of only 2%4. A lot goes on in the air we don’t notice.
Even if we are conscious of 2% of our mental function (and perhaps 0.02% of all body function), we are aware of 100% of our consciousness, heavy drinking aside. Don’t events and circumstances mold our personality and set our temperment? We can change those things. No genes or biology there, right?
Wrong. Genes create a remarkable degree of stability in personality and temperament. They cause much of the normal change through life.5 For example, today’s face looks like yesterday’s. Change happens over periods of years, longer nose, bigger ears, loss of hair and less symmetry. The same is true for personality.
Even significant life crises - death of a loved one, loss of job, divorce - have only moderate impact on personality. After the window of roughly six months, personality returns to its pre-crisis state. Faces get wounded. Wounds heal, sometimes leaving scars. Some scars deface, others show character.
The personal history of life circumstances,6 such as traumas, family, school, job and so on matter some.7 Too much tanning causes leather face. Sunscreen preserves a youthful complexion. If your parents had a nasty divorce, you might be reluctant to marry.
Consistent use of psycho-pharmaceuticals are a potent way to tweak personality. The doctor-prescribed kind raise conscientiousness and extroversion and reduce anxiety.8 Perhaps this treatment is like botox for the face - most of the time wrinkles go away and the face looks younger, but sometimes you get botox-face.
Life circumstances have a greater impact on the degree a person is nervous, easily upset, troubled by guilt, feels mistreated, victimized by bad luck or is vindictive,9 or more simply said, the degree a person is dysphoric. With care, nicks to the chin fade, cuts to the face heal and even wounds clear up to modest scars. Well after the fact, plastic surgery can remove the scar, potentially boosting self-esteem in the process.10
Daniel Goleman, writing for the New York Times, picks up on this point: core traits remain stable, but the traits of alienation, morale and feelings of satisfaction are more maleable, a reflection of self-regard at a particular moment rather than basic personality. To Goleman, we can influence our self regard even if nature (genes) matters more. Nature has fixed us in ways we might not appreciate but surely should accept.
Many guides for self help, personal growth, and well-being focus on what is rigid by nature - personality and temperament. These misaimed self-help efforts are bound to be frustrating and ineffective. What happens?
Guidance is inspiring, like the infatuation of a new romance. Positive transference feels so good. We are told we can work on our rigid nature, then get frustrated and the crush is gone. But for a while, we felt so close. We want to try again: a new guide, another infatuation and the same ending. We no longer pursue reasonable means to enhance resilience and well-being, just a good read.
Resilience and well-being are not found in a medicine bottle or from a witch’s broomstick or in many ungrounded guide books. Yet the ache for resilience and a heightened sense of well-being seems universal. What to do? What if we feel far removed from feeling normal?
Our most significant tool for improving resilience and well-being is the brain itself. We can invoke its natural processes in valuable ways. The brain is an experience creating machine, rendering continuous procession of primal sentences - body-as-it-was, object, body-as-it-is - into a pervasive sense of self. It write out our experience in an endless stream of simple sentences.
We can use the brain to recreate or modify the distress of unclear, unresolved events in our life. We can use it to explore for resolution and meaning. We continuously revise the stories we tell ourselves. With some practice and skill, we can change the stories our brain writes. We objectify and let the body work the object - a topic for an upcoming essay.
One of the best writers on life stories is Dan McAdams. He makes a forceful point: our stories are myth with introjected characters not archetypal ones. Such stories search for psychosocial truths, rather than factual truth per se. When we find meaning, the insights feel fundamental, primal and create the sensations and feelings of epiphany.
Our myths create significant emotional responses, story-object, body-response. This reaction signals the brain to catalog, make sense and find significance. We put our brain to work to create order and understanding even if it has to confabulate, to lie.
Ultimately, the point isn’t to actually write out a different personal myth (though such effort can be highly therapeutic). The point isn’t to know you can tell a different story. The point is to have an implicit belief that your story is simply a story. Otherwise, your stories might own you. Those are strange, addled fables indeed.
The Bob Dylan song, “Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again” shows what happens when addled fables own the story-maker. In the song, Dylan puts us in the position to hear his protagonist review, unsettling vignette after vignette, slim pieces of apprehension:
The protagonist knows he can’t escape. He cannot connect with Shakespeare - the source of modern personality.11 His eyelids have been ripped off, burned and snuffed out so he can no longer shut out the train of life experience, and so on. My favorite is the line,
An' she says, "Your debutante just knows what you need but I know what you want."
The protagonist lives an overwhelmed life denied all but the basics of satisfied needs.
His vignettes are rendered as subjective experiences bordering on hallucinatory, filled with ragmen, Shakespeare, a dead grandfather, a baffled preacher, and Ruthie, with a honky-tonk lagoon and a Panamanian moon.12 This collage of verse spins in his head, above his head, a veritable mobile to be sure. It would be a stretch to call each verse a fable, a fictional story about a moment of insight. They are more like threats and denials - harmful stories, not useful.
No doubt the protagonist is in an altered state of consciousness, a gateway to creativity and where conscious experience itself can be attended. He should be able to close his eyes, imagine a new story, reframe a troubling experience, tame the wildness out of his personal mythology.
Dylan gives the listener perspective the protagonist lacks,13 a sense of just how images from the protagonist’s hallucinations conflate into aspects of mythology. These aspects are not god-like figures, they are a procession viewed through the haze of Texas medicine and railroad gin, his neon madmen. Without eyelids, he has too much sight, no refuge, no chance for reason. With little apprehension, with much apprehension,14 the protagonist is defined by his madmen.
He cannot close his eyes and cannot change the vignettes or even stop them. The madmen seek the perspective of height, possess the story teller and even change him to suit their purpose. In a way, the fabled neon madmen are more conscious than the protagonist.
Dylan depicts the process of stringing together narrative in the quest for sense, for a significant psychosocial truth, a moment of insight, a piece of self-definition. The song itself is more than seven minutes long and has nine verses. Its run-on quality suggests Dylan could have written on indefinitely.
Mythology has this open-ended quality - figures with stories, different figures who react to the stories and the story-tellers, new stories created by the figurative acting out these internal dramas, and so on - verse within verse on top of verse. The combinatorial process continues on indefinitely until its creator - the protagonist in the song - tires and choses to inject the end conditions.
Dylan might have written more, but his perspective started to lose focus, and risked merging with the protagonist. The album cover suggests that even the songwriter, the creator himself, could not maintain pin-sharp perspective and had become fuzzy, mildly out of focus. Even so, the ending would not have changed. In the prefigured final verse, the end condition for this recursive experience, Dylan answers the question of the song with mystery then bluntness.
Now the bricks lay on Grand Street Where the neon madmen climb.
The protagonist does not wander some figurative life path set in the ill-defined ether of the future-possible. He sees each verse laid out as brick, a stretch of pavement no longer than a street block, and not as stepping stones set in virgin, fertile earth, leading into the hopeful unknown.
He remains on Grand Street stuck in one location, not wandering. On this street, the characters of the protagonist’s mythology arise. Grand neon madmen climb out of and away from the brick, seeking height, perspective, understanding. Unlike the protagonist, his facets try to leave. They are stuck because he is and vice versa.
They all fall there so perfectly, It all seems so well timed.
What about the brick? The protagonist does not create them or lay them down. They are the water of his life circumstances mixed with the clay of a body (and the genes that created it). These bricks fall in the common time of life, one damn thing after another as my biology teacher would say, a cruel providence.
Now finally, the protagonist tells us what he wants.
An' here I sit so patiently Waiting to find out what price You have to pay to get out of Going through all these things twice.
Because the protagonist is overwhelmed, he does not want to know Why? For what purpose? To what end? Just the price. He wants to pay so his madman may sit and he may walk, therapy in lieu of problem solving. He cannot be apart from himself and cannot get what he wants - no Ruthie or Panamanian moon for him.
The prospect of going through it all again, of continuing with rumination and conflation, only to experience the wildness of his neon-lit archetypes is the nature of his blues.
Oh, Mama, is this really the end, To be stuck inside of Mobile With the Memphis blues again.
He is stuck inside his mobile of hallucinatory vignettes, unable to make sense. They spin and he is spun. No doubt his next song will be crazier still.15
MacAdams, D. P. (1997) 11. The Stories We Live By: Personal Myths and the Making of the Self. The Guilford Press. ↩
The essay title is from Bob Dylan, Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again, from Blonde On Blonde. This essay leans heavily on Haidt, J. (2006), chapter 7, and 142-3 specifically. The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. Basic Books. Haidt’s book is an inspiring read and strives to connect the discoveries of modern psychology and neuroscience to the topics of happiness. ↩
In psych-speak, agency is the term for ableness. ↩
Most books on psychology or neuroscience eventually make the point that we are conscious only a faction of the mental function of our brain. The usual estimate is 2%. I have seen it as high as 5%. No need to cite conventional wisdom. A genuine citation for this point would be nice, however. ↩
McCrae, R. R., & Jr., P. T. (2005). Personality in Adulthood, Second Edition: A Five-Factor Theory Perspective. The Guilford Press. The book puts forth a significant argument for genetic determination of personality. Its citations are numerous and comprehensive. ↩
In psych-speak, environmental issues. ↩
Srivastava, S., John, O. P., Gosling, S. D., & Potter, J. (2003). Development of personality in early and middle adulthood: Set like plaster or persistent change? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The tone of this study somewhat contradicts the idea that personalities are fixed over time. ↩
Harkness, K. L., Michael Bagby, R., Joffe, R. T., & Levitt, A. (2002). Major depression, chronic minor depression, and the five-factor model of personality. European Journal of Personality, 16(4), 271-281. ↩
McGue, M., Hirsch, B., & Lykken, D. T. (1993). Age and the self-perception of ability: A twin study analysis. Psychology and Aging, 8(1), 72-80. ↩
Haidt (2006) 93:
People who undergo plastic surgery report (on average) high level of satisfaction with the process, and they even report increases in the qualities of their lives and decreases in psychiatric symptoms (such as depression and anxiety) in the years after the operation. The biggest gains were reported for breast surgery, both enlargement and reduction. ↩
Bloom, H. (1999). Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. Page 4:
Personality, in our sense, is a Shakespearean invention, and is not only Shakespeare’s greatest originality but also the authentic cause of his perpetual pervasiveness. Insofar as we ourselves value, and deplore, our own personalities, we are the heirs of Falstaff and Hamlet, and of all the other persons who throng Shakespeare’s theater of what might be called the colors of the spirit. ↩
We’d all like to waltz under her Panamanian moon, for free or otherwise, no doubt. ↩
In this respect, Michael Gazzaniga is like Dylan, a story for a different day. ↩
Apprehension is another of my favorite words. It suggests both ‘to understand something about’ and ‘to be scared of.’ In the subjective world of our inner experiences, I believe we pretend to comprehend to avoid apprehension, the sense we should know more and are scared of what we cannot know. We create understanding where it doesn’t exist. We confabulate or deceive or lie. This tendency, necessary perhaps to give a false sense of agency over the external work, is likely innate, just like self-serving bias. ↩
If someone told me this song was about Dylan, torn between acoustic and rock music, suing his agent and record label, and scared he’d remain stuck in that untenable position, I could believe that too. It’d just trash my buzz. ↩