Can People Really Change?

Our resident psychiatrist answers the age-old question.

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Q. Can people really change?

Early on, society labels us, we label ourselves, and we label others. A child is told he is a good or a bad listener. A high school student thinks of herself as good or bad at math. These labels become even more entrenched in adulthood. A coworker might be thought of as a “lazy human being.” You might decide you will never be a good cook or that you are not a morning person. These beliefs are all based on the idea that people don’t change. Not so long ago, scientists held a similar opinion about the brain. The prevailing belief was that the adult brain was completely formed and unchangeable. The number of connections and neurons was thought to be finite. Any notion of brain change or growth was dismissed as science fiction. But new research shows this is not the case at all. In fact, the brain is far more malleable than once thought, responding to changing environments and situations and reorganizing itself throughout our life.

What happens to the brains of London taxi drivers is one of my favorite examples of how the brain can change. Unlike cabbies in other cities, London cabbies are forced to learn thousands of street names and routes in order to pass a notoriously difficult licensing exam known as the Knowledge. It requires a tremendous amount of memorization, and researchers were curious about how this affects the brain. In scans, they found that the part of the taxi drivers’ brains associated with memory is significantly larger than the average person’s. In the same way that the brain is changeable and capable of adapting, so are we. Skills can be learned, abilities can be developed, and character can be cultivated. When we adopt a growth mind-set, we open ourselves up to possibilities and explore our potential and the potential of others.

Recognizing that you are not set in stone can help you cope with stress, develop new interests, and make new connections. It can even make you a better friend and partner. To facilitate a switch from a fixed “I am who I am” mind-set to a growth mind-set, Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D., author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, recommends attaching the word yet to new challenges, e.g. “I am not a master chef yet.” It will help remind you that you are a work in progress, not a finished product.

Dr. Samantha Boardman is a clinical instructor in psychiatry and an assistant attending psychiatrist at Weil Cornell Medical College in New York and the the founder of positivepercription.com.

A version of this article originally appeared in the April 2019 issue of Marie Claire.


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