Can we change ourselves?

Dr. Surendran and wife Meera were friends of my father. They wanted to immigrate to the USA. Everything was ready for them. But they delayed the journey till their only daughter Prabha was five years old. As medical people, they believed that in the first five years the child’s basic attitudes and personality were set. Early upbringing was responsible for it- that was the conventional wisdom at that time. Once they were in the states, they spoke only their local language at home. The house was full of books on India and Indian culture. They wasted no opportunity to preach about traditional Indian values. They wanted the affluence and opportunities that America offered, both for themselves and for their daughter. But they wanted Prabha to be brought up as an Indian. The couple wanted her to remain Indian in spirit, throughout her life. That was the crux of their carefully thought out plan.

I am sure you can imagine what happened. Like countless other carefully thought out plans, this one fell into pieces. She turned as American as the kid next door. After sometime, she stopped speaking her native tongue, even in the house. She rebelled during her teens, and flapped her wings restlessly, resisting all attempts at cultural brain washing. As a young woman when she married her black boyfriend and moved out of the house, their parents wondered what they had done wrong.

As for her- she had done nothing wrong. People around her, the peers- were doing exactly the same thing.

The father and mother were wrong. They had grossly overestimated their ability as parents to influence their offspring.

Let us look at one astonishing fact of behavioural genetics:

A good portion of the variation in complex human traits is not accounted for by the effects of genes or families!

Slightly more than 50 percent of our personality traits are innate or genetic. But let us not forget that it leaves a substantial 40 to 50 percent. Even the innate things depend a lot on the peers and environment.

What puzzled researchers in twin and adoption studies are that the ‘shared environment’ had only a measly 10 percent effect on the various facets of personality. Shared environment means the parents and immediate family. Going by the example given above, the peers and the general cultural environment has a big influence. More than parents. Many unfortunate immigrant couples have found this out the hard way.

What was even more frustrating was the fact that among twins and siblings, most of the peer group and family are similar. That still leaves a good 30 percent of variation between them unaccounted for.  What is this mysterious factor?

No one knows for sure. Psychologists call it ‘the unique environment’. It maybe chance. It could be the spontaneous differences in brain wiring, later accentuated by the person’s unique responses to events and experiences. Call it free will. Call it god’s will. Whatever you name it, we are not fully determined manufactured cars that will run just as predicted.

This is the conclusion reached by happiness researcher Sonja Leubomirsky who wrote the book ‘the how of happiness’. She says that 50 percent of our contentment levels are fixed by a genetically determined ‘set point’. Only 10 percent of it is due to external life events. According to her educated opinion, 40 percent of our happiness variability is modifiable, with effort.


By the eighties and nineties, neuroscientists reached the conclusion that the brain is a fixed machine that is fully formed by five or six years of age. Neurons cannot replicate. They cannot be renewed. Separate brain regions cater to different functions. They cannot be altered. These conclusions have been proved wrong, by modern imaging and methods of study.

The brain is a computational organ that keeps changing throughout our life. New connections are formed and old synaptic connections are pruned away. The prefrontal cortex that is concerned with long term planning and social functioning goes on growing and maturing till the twenties and early thirties.

The sea gypsies are a tribe in Southeast Asia that practically live in the seas. They learn to swim before they can walk, and dive for collecting sea cucumbers and shellfish. They can hold their breaths underwater for record times, and see clearly under water. Our pupils dilate under water as a reflex. The sea gypsies constrict their pupils to more than 20 percent normally possible, to achieve this feat. Constricting pupils is supposed to be a hardwired unconscious reaction.

We know that arm wrestlers have awesome biceps in their competing arm. This is due to the work that it is put to. But do you know that London taxi drivers have measurably bigger posterior hippocampus in their brains to store complex routes and spatial information? This study was done by Eleanor Maguire and Katherine Woollet.  It has been proved that new neurons are constantly produced in the Hippocampus, cerebellum and possibly other areas in the adult human brain.

Optometrists can put prismatic lenses in reading glasses that inverts images. If you put these glasses on, whatever you see looks upside down. You can read books the wrong side up and amaze your friends. But if you keep wearing them, the brain rearranges the images so that your view of the world rights itself. Walk around like that for some days. Then remove the glasses. Lo! Everything looks upside down!  We can read the newspaper upside down without glasses now. The friends will be even more amazed. Fortunately for you, this is temporary.

Brain plasticity and our 40 percent magical window allow us to modify our own inner selves and make us more contented. That is what we should strive for. for more, you can read my book ‘Health and Happiness without Bullshit’ available in

Dr Jimmy

I am a Doctor, Writer and Science Communicator. I am a member of Info- Clinic, and have written a few books. This site features my blog posts and stories. Thank you for visiting. ഞാൻ എഴുതാൻ ഇഷ്ടമുള്ള ഉള്ള ഒരു ഡോക്ടർ ആണ് . നിങ്ങളുടെ താത്പര്യത്തിന് നന്ദി .