August 22, 2014

Can Your Myers-Briggs Type Change?/Neuroplasticity: The Adaptable Brain

Many people who take the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator will ask whether or not their psychological type can change.   According to type theory, basic type preferences for perception or judgment are inborn and do not change. However, it is also known that people, as a result of interacting with their environment and through life experiences, also develop behaviors, habits, and strategies that are not consistent with their type description.  It is not uncommon to hear a client say, “I used to be an INFJ but now I am an ENFJ.”  Or,” I am an introvert but I enjoy parties and nights on the town.”  How can this be?

The first Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, also known as Step I, was an instrument to identify individuals who have similar preferences leading to an assigned personality type.  The terms INFJ, or ESFP are well-known to many individuals.  However, even as these general tendencies could be validated, it was still clear that certain people within a type could have out of preference characteristics. An example would be a “QUESTIONING ENFP,  with “questioning”  normally being a facet associated with a thinking preference .”    It is true that the  ENFP personality type tends to be accommodating valuing harmony above all versus finding flaws in both their own and others’ viewpoints.    However, some ENFPs may develop this as a result of living with questioning thinking types or as a skill that is required at a job.   There are 20 such variations known as facet poles (5 for each dichotomy) that are possible  and they are identified in the MBTI Step II (or Form Q instrument).   A client’s development of Step II facets in response to environmental demands may give the client the impression that their type has changed.

As an MBTI practitioner, I noticed these variations and apparent changes in reported personality type.    However, what  would explain this if our innate preferences for introversion-extraversion,  sensing-intuition, thinking-feeling, and judging-perceiving were supposedly hard-wired?   I stumbled upon what I consider  to be the best brain-based explanation of this phenomenon when at a recent conference on neuroplasticity, or the notion that mental experiences and mindfulness can change the structure and function of the brain. This is what made the explanation so compelling:

1.  In order for neuroplastic change to take place,  some sort of dampening down of the usual mind map has to take place.  So for example, if you were going to learn a new language, you would have to eliminate as much use of the  native language so the new language can build resilient neuro-connections in the brain.   The brain doesn’t like competing stimuli. That is why language immersion programs seem to work. Similarly, if you were relying on your sense of touch to get around in a dark room, you would immediately switch to your preferred mode of sight to get around if the light switch was turned on.  In other words,  the preferences that were present  first take precedence but if they are greatly attenuated, then new pathways can develop.   Likewise, an ENFP whose natural preference is to be casual about schedules, may in fact develop a more scheduled approach as a result of working in an environment that demands a more structured day.  However, if the ENFP ultimately left that structured environment, it is likely she would be comfortable with her natural preference for a  relaxed schedule once again.  When I discuss these type variations with clients, they often say, “I HAD to do it that way at work” or “my family was that way.”

2. Also, a deliberate development of a non-preferred facet can also bring about a resilient change in the brain.  For example, one of the facets of extraversion is “expressive” versus it’s opposite which is “contained”.  Basically, this is the “chatty” facet and it describes an individual who talks often but who may not be aware that certain situations call for a more contained approach or  more listening and less talking.  A deliberate or mindful monitoring of behavior can create a self-awareness that one has to talk less and over time, a resilient change in the brain can take place.   Another example would be a natural introvert learning to extravert in many situations so much that at times, it may even feel like a natural preference.  In the neuroplasticity seminar,  examples were given where a mindful, deliberate approach was shown to alleviate symptoms of a host of mental disturbances.  Either through self-driven intent or the therapeutic guidance, the brain can adapt to the demands placed upon it.

So why is this significant?  For one, you may natural preferences (of innate tendencies) that are not fully utilized or have been suppressed that can be tapped into now which can bring about a more fully functioning self.   Or, you may have facets of your personality that you would like to modify so that you don’t fall into the same bad patterns time and time again.  The elegance of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator instruments is that it is a dynamic system that acknowledges and encourages an individual to change as a part of healthy type development (even as one’s  basic type theoretically does not change). There is emerging evidence from the neuroplasticity studies that either the environment or deliberate intention can indeed bring about these changes.   As a life coach, this is very good news indeed!

Comments

  1. Ann,
    As a fellow life coach and MBTI practitioner I am glad to have discovered your blog! I do think we are hardwired in our preferences but as we mature and hopefully evolve our consciousness, we are better able to access our less preferred cognitive functions. I know I have become less extroverted over the years but I do not think I will ever be categorized as an introvert. Do our preferences shift? Yes! Do they change? I don’t think so.

  2. Megan Devlin-Petty says:

    Ann,

    This is fascinating to me, because while I have usually typed as one thing (INFP), I know that I express strong non-preference (Thinking and Judging) characteristics in many situations, which I can see having been fostered by different elements of my environment. I have not yet been able to find a circumstance in which I could take the MBTI Type II, but I really want to (my husband would too). I think the breakdown of the expression of our preferences–at the MBTI I level are the same except for the dominant one– would be telling.

  3. An article in June WIRED Magazine(2010) talks about the way that neural pathways in the brain appear to be altered by Internet use. If the brain can exhibit change as a result of intentional methods of information gathering (or superfluous surfing), why should intentional effort to influence/shift MBTI type characteristics (like the effort of an introvert to be more outgoing) be any different? Seems like “brain plasticity” should apply across the board – ?

  4. Starsailor says:

    Thanks for posting this. I have been experiencing this myself but had heard that you cannot change your personality type. This explanation makes sense. Particularly, when you said, “Or, you may have facets of your personality that you would like to modify so that you don’t fall into the same bad patterns time and time again. ” That sums up exactly what I’ve been trying to do with myself for the last few years.

    I felt compelled to comment because of what Megan Devlin-Petty wrote. I, too, was a very strong INFP for most of my life. However, recently, I seem to have developed into an INTJ just as she has observed in herself.

  5. Does anyone know how long it might take, what might be average, to have an aspect of a personality develop that is contrary to one’s type.

    Perhaps one’s type was forced to change in childhood (like an ENFJ) might turn into an ESTJ because of the parenting style… would it then be possible or logical for one to have a tramautic event in life (such as divorce) to trigger a shift back to one’s natural tendancy? Would this be a scenario where one would feel the shift instantly?

  6. Certainly the brain can change “instantly” in response to a traumatic event but as far as changing one’s type, it would be gradual phenomenon. For example, a traumatic event could cause an indelible memory that would affect specific behavior pattern. However, type (or psychological preference) is more stable than that. You could have a parenting environment that could modify one’s type and even cause one to operate out of preference for quite some time. It is likely to manifest itself in a particular area rather than a wholesale change of one’s personality type. Another example might be if an ENTP is in the military, he is likely to learn organizational and time management skills pertinent to the demands of his role but he will still be someone who prefers ideas, connections, and brain storming over what is already known. The enhanced time management-organizational skills will be an overlay to his ENTP type. I hope that helps! If you want further clarification, feel free to ask more questions.

  7. About 10 years ago I took the MBII for work I was a ESFJ. In 2005, I got divorced, and in 2008 I got very sick and almost died. I also had a baby who was in the hospital for 4 months and almost died many times whilst in there. I just took the MBII again and now I am the complete opposite- Now I am INTP, and what does toughness mean? Did trauma change my neuro pathways? Please advise if you can.

  8. Thank you for your question. First, the MBTI was designed to assess the “normal” personality. For example, an individual with a diagnosed sociopathy would not be an appropriate candidate for the instrument. As far as your particular trauma and whether it led to a personality type change, I would first ask if you incurred brain damage from almost dying. Reduced oxygen to the brain can cause damage and subsequent changes in behavior. Technically then, damage to the brain can change personality- for example if the prefrontal cortex is damaged, a normally calm individual could have difficulty controlling his/her temper. However, the MBTI is not meant to capture these organic changes in the brain. ON THE OTHER HAND, an individual can have a temporary but fairly awkward personality change under stress. It’s a phenomenon known as “in the grip”. You can read more about that by reading Was That Really Me? by Naomi Quenk.
    Thanks for writing. Hope that helps!

  9. Dear Ann,

    I have been suffering from bouts of depression for some time now. While researching about the causes, i discovered that i have changed from INTJ type personality to an ESFP. I read profiles and descriptions of both, and could validate that such a change has occurred. I have no idea how this happened, and it was more like waking up to realize that you are someone completely different and i am very uncomfortable about it. It literally feels that I’ve lost something from inside, and a part of me is missing. There was no trauma involved except growing up. What would your advice be?

  10. Your question brings up a couple of important points. Here are 2 possible explanations for your “type change.” First, I wonder if you ever had your psychological type verified? As much as 25% of reported types (based on taking the MBTI) are not accurate. There are a number of reasons for this including confusing type preference with a notion that you should be valuing a different behavior over the one you prefer. An example of this might be if you ar introverted but have been given the message that being an extravert is the best way to be. Any number of questions that you answer can be affected by other variables like this. Another one might be if you are actively trying to develop a new skill such as being on-time even if you prefer the P- or more free flowing type of schedule. So, after taking the MBTI, type verification is critical. BTW, the online versions of the MBTI tend to be even more unreliable.
    The second explanations involves a phenomenon known as being “in the grip”. Basically, an individual under stress can behave like their “type opposite” but not in an elegant or comfortable way. You mentioned that you were an INTJ but changed into an ESFP. ESFP is in fact, your type opposite. You can read more about this phenomenon in a book called Was That Really Me? by Naomi Quenk.
    Hope that helps and thanks for writing!

  11. Christina says:

    Hi!
    I have taken the Myers Briggs throughout the past 12 years of my life or since I was 15. I always was an ENFP until about 4 years ago I was an ENTP for about a year and for the past two years have been an ENFJ. I can totally see how circumstances in my environment have molded these aspects. I have so much that I do currently that if I didn’t prioritize and not procrastinate I wouldn’t be able to function.

  12. Thank you for your comment, Cristina. I think of one’s type as the default settings on a computer. We can shift to other functions but our defaults remain the same. When someone takes the MBTI, the results you get are the reported type. Your reported type can be different than your actual or verified type for a variety of reasons. Verifying your type with a practitioner helps to discover your “default modes”, or the ones you tend to use most easily. The other functions become other options. Again, I like to think of the default modes on a computer like a default printer. You can always choose another option but there is one that is usually the easiest and fastest.

  13. Has anyone ever considered what happens if you are forced to make a change. What happens if you are born hearing and then you lose your hearing and then become more intuitive? It’s happens. You are not going to get your hearing back, and lets say before the hearing you were more inclined to be an S but for what would be “naturally inclining” you become more intuitive as a deaf person? Wonder if anyone has ever done a study on that one?

  14. You ask a good question, Robin. If you are forced to make a change, your brain will adapt. However it’s not a fundamental shift from preferring sensing over intuition. Sensing is the preference for facts, data, and things that are tangible. Your 5 senses are part of that. They are all ways to perceive the environment- or take in information. When one has a preference for sensing, they prefer concrete data over theories, patterns, and that which is unknown. Those who prefer intuition tend to perceive the environment in a different way. They look at what is there and start to draw up theories of what something could be or relate it to something else. This blog shows the difference between sensing and intuition and it might clarify the point that even if you lose one of your 5 senses, you don’t switch to prefer intuition. http://www.annholm.net/2012/04/sensing-versus-intuition-an-exercise-to-identify-your-preference/ Also note, everyone has the capacity to use both sensing and intuition and we do use both- but it’s like having a preference for using the right or the left hand. One is preferred in most cases. Please read the blog though because I think it will help clarify.
    Thanks for writing!
    Ann

  15. I came to this post because previously I came out as INTP (admittedly via unofficial online testing) but have, over the past several months, consistently come out as ENFP. When I first read detailed descriptions of the INTP personality type I strongly identified with almost 100% of what I read. Interestingly, I dated 3 people who were all ENFP. They seemed to have an allure over me. And now it seems I have taken on board many of their perspectives. I still feel I identify with the INTP description but I can’t escape the consistent ENFP testing. I wonder though – the free online tests seem to pose questions about *behaviour*. Perhaps what’s happened is I’ve developed a greater level of comfort *behaving* in ways introduced to me by exposure to ENFPs? This sounds consistent with what’s written here. For my mind, I am happy about this – I’ve probably adopte those views and perspectives I’ve most admired in others. In a sense this gives me a newfound freedom. Another possibility lies in the fact that prior to this I was in a long term unhealthy relationship. It’s possible that relationship suppressed facets of me which are in fact more core than INTP and now the “real” me is free to come out. Anyhow, I just wanted to share an anecdotal story because to my mind an INTP to ENFP swing seems like a drastic change (on paper, and to me personally as well). But I *have* always found it curious that results can change. It makes me ask the value of the measure in the first place. In some was I feel the type descriptions and test questions are actually the most valuable part of the phenomenon – as discussion points – even ahead of measured results.

  16. Thanks for your note, Chris. There is a difference between reported type and verified type in the MBTI assessment. When you take the assessment, many variables can affect the outcome of the report, many which you adeptly listed above: valuing those traits in others and other situational influences. The reported type is generated based solely on how you responded to the questionnaire. The verified type is what happens after you start to sort through what is your core personality and what is learned, or your persona. That is why online tests that purport to offer an MBTI type are rather unreliable. You need the initial starting place (which is based on highly researched questions on the instrument) plus a capable practitioner to work through your results to see what is your real type. The certification to do this type or work takes 3 days and I would also say, a fair amount of practice. The verified type may not be known right away. It might come over time. Why is it important to know the core type? Mainly because if we can use the core functions of our core personality most of the time, we are usually more energized and competent in our actions. That isn’t to say we ignore other areas of our personality because it is essential to develop things that don’t come as naturally but it’s helpful to know where we tend to flourish under most conditions.

  17. This was really good to read as it helped me understand some critical life development changes I’ve been going through over the past few years. I originally took the MBTI when I was 16 as a part of a career counseling package to help me figure out what I wanted to do in life. I’m an INFP. Over the past few years I’ve been in roles that require a lot more usage of the T personality. In addition, certain aspects of my F personality type were having huge negative impacts on me. Granted, those impacts were some of the best things that happened to me (hindsight has given me that, I would NEVER have admitted to such a thing while going through it), but some significant change was necessary. As a result, the parts of being an INTP such as being more logical and analytical, viewing emotion as a piece of the data vs. the SOLE data, being better about seeing reality and not just the ideal, and researching all facets of something instead of just the stuff I identify with are some examples of how utilizing the T aspect has helped balance out some of the F stuff that got extremely out of control for me. In addition, I’ve come to discover an incredible love of career paths that would normally be more in line for an INTP, but they’re absolutely thrilling for me. I always considered myself as this artistic, creative, sprite like creature who would save the world, but I’ve disovered I LOVE science and I LOVE engineering because it stimulates so many ‘what ifs’ and possibilities for me…who knew? I still love art, but it’s more my self fulfillment now than actual career path. The other thing I found ironic was I was so set on being in a career field that involved patient care and counseling (my strong interest profile indicated that direction), but in pursuing it I realized it was too much of a drain for me, and not nearly as fulfilling compared to a job that required a lot of mental stimulation through research, problem solving, and experimentation. It’s funny how life’s journeys take you in directions you never would have even considered…especially not my 16 year old self.

  18. Rachel-
    Thank you for your insights. There are many examples where one has had to use an opposite preference and it becomes so developed, it is enjoyable. Or it might play out that way in one aspect of an individual’s life. An example of this would be someone like an ENFP who spends time in the armed services where neatness and organization is critical to survive. That individual might ultimately prefer neatness and organization but might still be very much a “P” when it comes to spontaneity, adaptability and the need for unscheduled free time.
    Thanks for writing!
    A

  19. INTPondering says:

    Re. what Rachel B. said about switching from INFP to INTP, I just want to contribute the possibility that some of the apparent change might be due to the influence of the inferior function. AJ Drenth has written quite a bit about this at the PersonalityJunkie website. Apparently, the inferior can exert disproportionate influence, and some people end up picking careers or relationship partners that appeal to it instead of the dominant function. (Drenth recommends steering clear of this tendency!) In the case of an INFP, the inferior function, Te, would definitely seek out careers in research science. And actually, an INTP, who uses dominant Ti plus auxiliary Ne, would probably be less excited about the methodical formalities of the experimental process and much happier in a more free-form environment like a think tank or an IT start-up.

    I’m an INTP myself (as you may have guessed by now), and I’m often attracted to feelers and feeling professions, which I now attribute to my inferior Fe. I think I’ve developed my feeling side a lot over the years, and this is reflected in the fact that my type also seems to have “changed” to INFP or INFJ, depending on the test. But if I’m honest with myself, I know this is just due to maturing and realizing that feelings have to have their place at the table too if you want to be a whole person. Nevertheless, my basic tendency is and always will be introverted thinking.

  20. INFPondering- Maturity is exactly it. The MBTI Step III is an instrument that measures type development and it examines whether you are grounded in your natural type but can also flex when needed. The theory goes that if you can operate in preference much of the time but don’t resist times when you have to operate out of preference, life in general will be more enjoyable. Imagine an INTP who experiences constant frustration because “everyone is so illogical” versus one who acknowledges the legitimacy and uses the feeling function when the setting calls for it!

  21. Late to the party but as a late onset deaf person (identified with progressive hearing loss at 18- I’m now profoundly deaf at 30), I don’t find a change from sensing to intuition (then again I was already an N) but the biggest change I’ve noticed is introvert to extrovert.. at least according to the tests. So many of the questions focus on communication or settings that hearing loss directly impacts. I’m a natural extrovert but because I rely on lip reading and residual hearing which takes a LOT of effort, I now show the introvert qualities of needing alone time after socializing (or even amid socializing), of often preferring a book over company… if it was a matter of having my hearing back and asking the same questions I’d still be an extrovert but the way the test is designed if I answer truthfully for my current situation I am labelled an introvert. It’s tough. Does that mean I am changing into an introvert because of circumstance or will I always be an extrovert? I think in my situation the test might be at fault- then again as this is permanent for me from now on perhaps the label of introvert IS helpful in that it helps people understand my needs better even if my needs-because-I’m-deaf depart from my personality-preferences.

  22. Since the MBTI is a self-reporting questionnaire, it is designed to pick up preferences for the majority of the population. So the questions that are asked sometimes may not capture the exceptions. For instance, Hilary gave the example of being deaf and how it has changed her introversion balance, according to the MBTI questionnaire. However, the type verification process that happens with a practitioner after the assessment might be able to identify this nuance. Hilary, my background prior to coaching was speech pathology. I worked fairly often with hearing impaired individuals. It is very true that hearing can take great effort for certain people- it can be exhausting. However that wouldn’t be a true switch to introversion, as defined in Jungian psychology. Your need to be alone at times might be more of a sensory exhaustion- the effort that it takes to hear might be a de-energizing force that overrides any need for extraversion. In this case, if hearing were to become easier for you, you would likely extravert more often. I saw this in action this past weekend. My mother’s husband is hard of hearing so he doesn’t go out very much- he reads a lot. However, conditions were perfect this weekend- plenty of low-pitched male speakers. The transformation back to extraversion was amazing. Thanks for sharing your unique story, Hilary.

  23. Could being in “survival” mode cause you to appear as a different type? As a child I was in “survival” mode and had I been typed then I would have appeared to be an introvert. As an adult, I’ve tested as an infp on one test and enfp on another.

  24. Absolutely. There are many factors that can affect how the results of the MBTI turn out. Current environment is one of those factors. Oftentimes, an individual will type differently in a work setting versus home. That doesn’t reflect a core change in personality. However, it might affect how you would answer a question on a type assessment. It’s critical to explore type with someone who is experienced in sorting out those other factors to arrive at a true or verified type. Any self-reporting instrument has limitations in its accuracy. Sometimes it’s clear and dead on. Other times, it’s muddy due to other factors – and when these factors are sorted out, it tends to be a very energizing experience for the client.

  25. About 5 years ago, I moved to North America from the Middle East. It was a big change for me for which I felt very unprepared and it took me a long long time to fully adjust to the new life. But from the very early on I started experiencing changes in my normal cognition. I was always very scientifically minded. From an early age I loved math, I loved abstract thinking and analyzing everything and modelling them in abstract ways. Looking back, I recognize my primary function as introverted intuition. I say primary because I did that in an obsessive manner. I was looking for abstract shapes and outlines in every concrete experience.
    It was about a year or so from the move that I discovered something in my brain changing. It was such an uncomfortable change and entirely inside my cognition that I was worried at the time that I might be having brain cancer or something. I was very concerned. I was doing a masters in computing and the change felt as if parts of my brain was going paralyzed. Like I had lost sight in my eye and I could try to see through the other. The first time I saw that change in action was at a final exam of a course which I was TA-ing. The instructor asked me to count the students. I spent the next 45 minutes counting the students and every single time coming up with a different number. There was absolutely no patterns emerging from the numbers. I had no idea where I was going wrong. All I knew was I couldn’t keep my brain on track to consider the student in a sequence and count them one by one or any by any. My eyes and my brain were jumping all around.
    4 years after, I finally had to quit my computer career because I realized that I have no faculty in my brain that can do that kind of task any more. In other words, I came out strongly as INFP. I read now that the jumping allover and not taking in the world in a sequence is very much an INFP thing (that is, the extroverted intuition).
    I never took the test before but reading the descriptions of INTJ I think I would’ve related a lot with it during my early adulthood, before the change. I don’t know if I really was a different type back then, but I really feel that the priority ordering of my function stack got shuffled over the course of the past 5 years. I saw my extroverted thinking gradually sinking down and my introverted feeling swelling and swelling (which I experienced as something like a lump in the throat – a massive weight of unattended emotions without any particular trigger from the environment). I developed a massive crush on literature and I started seeing words stringing in my head one after the other, in place of the numbers and the obsessive counting I habitually did, as if I was walking through life watching a subtitled movie. Most importantly, I think my introverted intuition got last in the process. My mode of observing and taking in the world now is definitely through empathy. The abstract thinking and categorization has just completely vanished.
    Also, as much as I relate with INFP now, I know my childhood wasn’t anything like INFP. I was never under a stress to develop any particular skills (except for recently in my programming job, which I had to eventually quit for the same reason), and while I was generally sort of artistic as a child, I was never very creative. I was more curious and ambitious in terms of wanting to go out into the world and discover secrets and answer questions, rather than sitting in my room and imagine internal underworlds, which is what INFPs typically do. I never named my possessions or came up with fictional characters in my head, I never had a very strong ‘alternate world’ imagination. I know I didn’t, because now I do and I do a lot to the point that I don’t know how to handle it. It feels like I’m constantly under attack by the possible worlds that my brain thinks up.
    I’m pretty sure the changes of environment I went through have been the basis of the changes in my brain, but I don’t know why I would develop particularly towards an INFP direction. Based on what you described in this post, our changes are in the direction of acquiring skills that our environment is demanding from us, but I changed and acquired skills ‘inspite of’ my environment — which is what eventually led me to leave that world and pursue literature and writing instead.
    I wonder if you or anyone have ever seen or experienced such a change and how do you interpret it?

  26. I will respond to your observations shortly. I am a little backed up on a few projects. Please feel to copy and past this into an email if I haven’t gotten back to it in a week or so- annholm@annholm.net

  27. I’ve seen a lot of people commenting that their type has changed. It’s very difficult to change all your functions.
    Addressing T, intj is the esfp’s “Depression” type, the same as when you are stressed. Likewise, when an intj is depressed they have become and currently posses all the negative aspect of an esfp. They no long wants to plan, and they’re main goal is now to party, to have fun. The esfp’s shadow is intj, so when you are truly, truly down, you will mope. You won’t have any of the intj’s good points, just the cons. You won’t want to plan ahead, but you will hate everyone around you. This isn’t just because the opposing preferences of an esfp is intj, either. It works out differently for each type. For instants, an entj’s shadow would be enfp. The entj will now yell at everything or keeps his anger in. I could go on forever, but I think I’m two years late. Just posting for the nephew generation to not be confused.

  28. It’s never too late to add to the discussion. Thanks for contributing your insights. The phenomenon you have described is known as “the grip” (for those who have never heard of it). Naomi Quenk’s book Was That Really Me? is the go to read on this topic.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] not uncommon to experience a feeling of your type changing. However, the MBTI (which you can see how to take here) and other sources indicate that we all have [...]

Speak Your Mind

*