OLD DOG, NEW TRICKS?
FOR REASONS I don’t fully comprehend, I have always been intrigued by the sudden and dramatic personality change storyline (though only one in which the changee is ultimately redeemed). Regarding Henry and The Doctor were two objectively mediocre movies that were released in 1991 and had similar plots: busy/cutthroat/ heartless lawyer/doctor (Harrison Ford and William Hurt, respectively) finds his heart/soul/meaning of life/true love after a gunshot to the head/life-threatening tumour.
Maybe it was the message of these stories – trite as they may have been – that appealed to me: that all is not lost; we’re not cast in stone. Anything is possible. But when it comes to fundamental change in middle age and beyond, is anything possible? Sigmund Freud certainly didn’t think so, claiming that people over 50 weren’t capable of it as their brains lack the plasticity of youth. William James didn’t think so. In his 1890 book, The Principles of Psychology, the Harvard psychologist famously stated, “In most of us, by the age of 30, the character has set like plaster and will never soften again.”
Naturally, most character formation occurs in the earlier stages of life. The brain is its most plastic and continues to form until about the mid-20s. By the age of 30, we’re pretty much who we’re going to be, as James indicated. Who that is has been partly determined by our genes and partly by the environment we’ve inhabited – remember that whole nature-versus-nurture debate? The jury’s still out on how much of us is a result of which, but both influence who we become.
Obviously, there are changes that occur in middle age and beyond as our circumstances change. When the kids move out, when we cut back on work, when we go through menopause and andropause, when our parents die, when we face health problems of our own – all of the