Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Different Personality Types and Brain Systems by Helen Fisher

Helen Fisher sitting on stage laughing and answering questions

Ever since the inception of science, scientists have been trying hard to classify and fit everything and everyone from plants and animals to humans into distinct categories. For instance, the Greek physician and philosopher Galen based his four different types of personality on a person’s “humor,” which could be classified as either black or yellow bile, as blood, or as phlegm, while each category would be equipped and charged with specific criteria and personality characteristics.

The Big Five personality traits aside, the division of human personality into four distinct elements – earth, water, air and fire - has also been practiced by the field of astrology, yet it was refreshing for me to see that biological anthropologist / evolutionary psychologist Helen Fisher in her analysis broke down humans into four distinct categories based on differences in their brain chemistry.

I learnt about this classification when attending her lecture in Vancouver on attraction and human relationships, a topic that Helen Fisher knows best and most about due to her extensive research in the field. Yet in order to find out who could be matched with whom (keep in mind that Helen Fisher has also been involved in the creation of match.com and chemistry.com), it is important to first know where oneself exactly stands on a specific spectrum of personality. 

As she was talking about the different types of brain systems with both their positive and negative aspects and connotations and as she was giving famous real-life examples of each one of them, I could not help but mentally position myself into two distinct groups.

In fact, it turned out that I was correct in my self-analysis as we were given a free test to gauge our very own brain system. Although I am unfortunately not able to make that gift to you, I can at best give you a summary of each of the systems so that you may self-classify yourself along the given spectrum. 

If interested, by all means do opt for the full test that Helen Fisher offers, which would come with relatively detailed explanations and charts; in fact, it is not unlike the astrology charts offered by astrologers except that her account is more embraced, accepted and backed up by science.

As a rule, there are four different brain systems based on individual variations and fluctuations in levels of dopamine, serotonin, testosterone, and estrogen. Although some may immediately assume that men will have higher testosterone levels and that women would thrive on estrogen, this is not necessarily the case. Brain chemistry levels can certainly be triggered and influenced by one’s gender, but there are various other factors that could come into play when dealing with the brain and one’s personality, such as genetic predisposition, upbringing, and culture.

In fact, when I heard the characteristics, I immediately knew that I was not going to fare well in the testosterone department, and indeed, I did not. But overall and in most cases, there would be two predominant traits among each of us, and they would set, define and / or favor a certain personality type.

Now let us look at each level on its own merits and drawbacks. To start off, we have the dopamine type of personality. These are usually explorers; they like to take risks, and they are rather curious. They are the ones who end up making the most amount of money but are at the same time capable of losing the most amount of money as well. This may be due to their impulsive and optimistic nature, but they are generally enthusiastic and generous people. They also tend to generate more ideas. In Helen Fisher’s words, they tend to vote for Democrats in the United States.

Yet dopamine explorers can have the following negative traits. They are easily bored and can become reckless. Their drive can keep them motivated and keep them on their toes, but it can also make them manic and, in some cases, even insincere. If you think, that all this makes it sound like an entrepreneur type of person, look no further than entrepreneur and venture capitalist and co-founder of PayPal Peter Thiel, who was held up as an example of such a type of person alongside journalist, feminist and political activist Gloria Steinem.

Then there are the serotonin builders. They tend to be the pillars of society. They are generally traditional and cautious in their outlook and approach to life. They are often modest, calm, and self-controlled, and they like to plan and schedule ahead. They are certainly not averse to routines, but at the same times they are precise, detail-oriented (they are generally very good with numbers and figures) and persistent. By the looks of it, it sounds like they would make good accountants as well as computer scientists.

Due to their traditional nature, they also tend to be religious as well as dutiful, respectful, and loyal. They are not revolutionaries but like to follow the rules and the established law. Indeed, they respect authority and do not like breaking rules or guidelines. At the same time, they are not fearful and can be stoic when facing dangers, obstacles, and difficulties.

On the negative side, they might end up being close-minded and rigid in their set and pre-established views, and they would also tend to be controlling. Two of the famous examples are current American Vice-President Mike Pence and Queen Elizabeth II. It may seem rather odd to have both of them in the same category, yet at the same time, it seems to make perfect sense.

The next brain chemistry category is the testosterone-driven director. They are analytical and logical, but also ambitious and competitive. They tend to be independent and self-disciplined, but they are also inventive. They are, for better or worse, emotionally contained and can also be skeptical of others. They are the ones, according to Helen Fisher, who would say the following to their spouses: Do I love you? I said, I love you last month, and nothing has changed since then, so why ask me the same question all over again?

Their negative traits reveal themselves in their impatient, exacting and demanding attitude towards others. In fact, when testosterone levels go up, empathy levels tend to decrease as well. This is also why men tend to be less emotional and empathetic compared to women.

But think about it, Helen Fisher told us. Men’s task and job was in fact not to be emotional and caring throughout evolution. Our ancestors would not have been able to kill animals for food had they been overly empathetic towards their prey. However, they also tend to be fair and that is an essential positive character trait they are endowed with. Famous examples include, not too surprisingly, Steve Jobs as well as Hillary Clinton.

Last but not least, there is the estrogen negotiator. They tend to be holistic and engage in what is referred to as web thinking (Helen Fisher stated that she used the term before the advent of the Internet). They are also imaginative and mentally flexible and can tolerate ambiguity.

Moreover, they are intuitive, introspective, nurturing, and empathetic, and they are good at reading faces and body posture. They are emotionally expressive as well as diplomatic and have strong people skills. In fact, they tend to be trusting and seek meaning and harmony in everything they do.

Conversely, they can also be scattered and indecisive. They could harbor negative feelings and ruminate about what you said or did five years ago. They can be hypersensitive (I would not be surprised if most or all Highly Sensitive Persons or empaths would fall into this category) and they tend to overthink things and could also be gullible due to their sensitive and trusting nature.

Famous examples include Oprah Winfrey, who seems to be the embodiment of almost all of the above traits as well as Charles Darwin who astonishingly managed to connect and encompass the whole of humanity and human history with his theory of evolution. In fact, Darwin was also high in dopamine adding the element of curiosity with the drive for exploration.

Finally, Helen Fisher quipped that many say that there has never been a female president in the history of the United States, but this may not be entirely true. There was indeed Bill Clinton with his soft face who scored high on most of what is traditionally designated as feminine traits and characteristics.

There you have the four brain systems by Helen Fisher! Should you take everything at face value? It is grounded in science, but one should still take it all with a proverbial grain of salt. But at the same time, I find it most interesting to combine neuroscience with personality traits.

It may not be perfect as of yet, but there could be more precise and more accurate measurements and predictions in the future, and ones that do not solely rely on self-survey questions but that would combine quantifiable information of brain chemistry alongside genetic codes and signposts.

Does this sound scary? Would we be better off because of it? Hard to say for now, but I would highly recommend ways and attempts of understanding oneself and others better, and this brain system is most interesting and promising in those aspects, and more.