We humans have been trying to understand ourselves for thousands of years, yet we remain as perplexed as the ancients were about the nature of consciousness. In fact, we are so ignorant that we require highly trained psychologists to create models to explain the inner workings of the mind. When a model successfully maps behaviour, it can help us understand why we do the things we do. There are a number of different perspectives from which to attempt to map human behaviour and no model is complete in and of itself. However, one unusually consistent and cohesive model is personality theory.
Personality theory presupposes an inherent, multi-dimensional, hierarchical structure governing individual human behaviour. At the bottom end of the hierarchy, distinct traits explain specific acts. As you move up the hierarchy, things become more generalizable and previously distinct traits correlate to form superordinate traits. There are a multitude of levels, ranging from sub-traits (or aspects) to higher-order traits (or factors). However, the most popular level of analysis is that of the Big Five or OCEAN: Openness to experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism.
These traits illustrate the five general dimensions along which human personality varies. People with similar traits tend to do similar things, and particular personalities cluster in different areas of society.
Openness to Experience
Openness to experience (openness/intellect) is a tendency to explore concepts and ideas. A fundamental dimension of human personality, it provides insights into individual differences across a wide range of interests and behaviours. For instance, openness/intellect (OI) measures interest in fantasy, art, philosophy and science. As with most psychological phenomena, the trait follows a normal distribution and differences between individuals significantly influence our everyday experiences. Open personalities are much more comfortable with uncertainty. Eager to experience things for their own sake, those high in OI enjoy seeing the world from different perspectives and embrace conceptual complexity. Closed individuals are bored by ideas, insensitive to art and ideologically dogmatic. The trait is often viewed as wholly positive, though it has some possible negatives that I will touch upon later.
Openness to experience is the amalgam of two aspects of personality: openness and intellect. Openness measures one’s interest in aesthetic and sensory information, while intellect measures one’s ability to evaluate abstract information. The trait, therefore, describes both a behavioural tendency and a level of capability. People with high levels of openness to experience are more creative and intelligent. This makes research into this trait controversial, as we don’t like models that remind us our of inequalities.
Creativity and Intelligence
The Big Five personality traits can be measured using the Big Five Aspects Scale (BFAS). The aspect openness is scored using statements such as I need a creative outlet and I enjoy the beauty of nature. People high in this aspect value curiosity. They welcome abstraction and like to represent the world using theoretical models. The use of abstractions allows us to play out hypothetical scenarios in our heads, without physical risk. The conceptual world is a sort of training ring for the real world. How many conversations, for instance, have you rehearsed in your head? Our imagination allows us to rehearse events before they happen, which prevents us from getting overwhelmed by novelty. The ability to abstract the world makes one much more prepared to act in it.
Research has shown that the relationship between abstraction and action is also reflected in our neurology. There is a partial overlap between the neural networks used in motor imagery and motor execution. The bilateral premotor cortex, supplementary motor area and contralesional inferior parietal lobule activate during both physical and imagined tasks. Evolutionary pressures have linked imagination and action in the brain. When our ideas of the world are confirmed by our actions, we are rewarded with a dopaminergic hit. This deepens the neural connections between the areas involved, increasing the likelihood that they will be activated together during similar situations in the future. There are biological consequences to the ideas you hold: they affect your personality. However, some ideas are truly misguided. To act functionally, we require the intelligence to accurately sort through our concepts of the world.
In lexical studies, aspect intellect is defined by adjectives like intelligent, philosophical and clever. Unlike the fantasy and aesthetics-driven aspect openness, aspect intellect promotes a scientific, engineering-style approach. In the BFAS, people who score high on intellect tend to agree with statements such as I can handle a lot of information and I have a rich vocabulary. While there are technical differences between the two, intellect is essentially dependent on IQ. As with openness, IQ follows a normal distribution and where you land on that distribution determines your potential. The average person has an IQ of 100. Someone with an IQ of 115 is in the 85th percentile (the average university graduate has an IQ of around 113) and 130 is considered gifted (the average PhD student has an IQ of 124).
Intelligent people are better able to handle and apply novel information. They can think up new goods and products and are economically rewarded for this. Differences in IQ explain around 20% of income variance and are a stronger indicator of career success than socioeconomic background. Those on the right side of the distribution are able to navigate the world with relative ease. Those on the wrong side live in a much more confusing and complicated world (it is difficult to read and follow instructions with an IQ below 90). For this reason, the US armed forces will not accept anyone with an IQ of under 83. How, then, can someone of below average intelligence provide for themselves in a society that is getting more technological and complicated all the time?
Genius and Madness
Open individuals have a wide range of interests, which compels them to seek novelty and change. Practically, this translates into a willingness to take on different jobs and implement new ideas and strategies in the workplace. With their need for intellectual stimulation, employees high in OI tend to seek more complicated, self-directed positions. The ability to address many independent problems simultaneously also makes those high in OI optimally suited to managerial and professional roles. Upward job mobility requires one to adapt to new responsibilities and provide creative solutions to problems one’s predecessor failed to address. Openness and intellect measure one’s tendency to seek, process and apply new information. They allow you to navigate concepts better and that leads to higher status jobs. However, higher OI is also associated with greater job instability. Furthermore, openness itself is hard to monetise. No one will pay $100 to see a mediocre art exhibition. People are only interested in the heights of human talent (Picasso, Michelangelo, van Gogh). Openness/intellect is a high risk, high reward strategy.
Publicly, there are many advantages to being smart and open. We tend to like these qualities in other people and hope to display them in ourselves. As an evolved mechanism, changes in openness/intellect reflect changes in the environment to some extent. Research has shown that greater job mobility can increase levels of openness to experience. Repeatedly performing intellectual tasks that require original or flexible thinking increases one’s appetite for such tasks (in this, openness differs from IQ, which can be depleted but not increased). Over the course of your lifetime, you are bound to experience certain changes to your personality. OI tends to decrease from childhood to adolescence, increase in adulthood and then flatten out in the fourth and fifth decades. Personality develops gradually, but interventions to increase openness generally only remain effective during the interventions themselves. However, one study found that a single, high dose of psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) can significantly increase openness to experience. The hallucinogenic state seems to put our brain in a state of plasticity, connecting parts of the brain that are otherwise independent. If the subject reported having a mystical experience during the trip, the resulting personality changes can persist for over a year.
The implications of this study are extraordinary and may provide neurological support for the ancient association between genius and madness. According to Sam Harris, psilocybin is a key that unlocks a door in one’s mind, revealing an enormous landscape of previously unknown potential human experience. A common theme in the accounts of people who have taken magic mushrooms is an experience of wave-like synaesthesia. All sensory systems coalesce at the centre of your attention, cycling between low and high intensity. During the low points, you are amused at how foreign the world feels (all the things you usually ignore become the centre of your focus). The high points feel like swimming in a roaring ocean of meaning that convinces you that, although you are the only occupant of your mind, you are not in control of what is going on. Afterwards, people reliably report that the experience was among the most meaningful of their lives, but feel that language cannot do it justice. Artists have attempted to depict it, without success. The significance of the hallucinogenic world is hard to discern once sober and, once over, it is nearly impossible to communicate it in language.
Research has tried to bridge this gap by investigating the relationship between psychotic episodes and hallucinogenic trips. Both psychedelic and schizophrenic hallucinations have metaphysical meaning, but the experiences themselves are very different. High OI is correlated with a higher risk of schizotypy, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. This means that high levels of OI can be measured on the same dimension as insanity. When high openness/intellect reflects a decreased threshold of informational awareness, it increases the range of stimuli we take into consideration. Increased pattern recognition leaves us prone to finding meaning where none exists. Finally, without recourse to any solid facts to ground us, we can easily lose ourselves in abstractions, creating a mismatch between our perceptions and reality. Open individuals require an anchor to ground them in a coherent system of thought. Our tendency toward chaos is tempered by the discipline of a second Big 5 trait: conscientiousness.