Neuroscience, psychology, and your MBTI® personality type
Vanessa Bradford, The Myers-Briggs Company
7 min. read
The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI®) assessment is an effective framework for lifelong personal development. It is also one of the world’s most popular tools for understanding personality—and personality differences—because it works.
Taking the MBTI assessment and learning your MBTI personality type—a profound revelation for some and no surprise for others—can help improve how you communicate, learn, and work with others. The benefits of having a grasp of your MBTI personality type make themselves apparent at work, in school, during stressful situations, and, perhaps most importantly, at home while interacting with loved ones.
How does it work? Glad you asked. The MBTI assessment helps people understand their natural personality preferences. After taking the assessment—it’s not a “test,” and there are no “wrong answers”—you’ll verify your best-fit personality type, expressed using four letters to describe opposite personality preferences.
You’ll start by identifying whether you’re energized more through interaction with others (expressed by the term Extraversion or the letter “E”) or through quiet contemplation during time spent alone (expressed as Introversion, or the letter “I”).
Some people tend to approach a challenge by seeking facts and details and focusing on the here and now. In MBTI terms, this approach is called Sensing, represented by the letter “S.” Other folks tend to take in the big picture and anticipate the future using Intuition—represented by the letter “N.”
The third preference pair in the Myers-Briggs® framework is Thinking and Feeling. When making decisions, do you tend to focus on objective logic and cause-and-effect analysis (Thinking, or the letter “T”) or do you tend to consider how your actions might affect others and focus on interpersonal relationships (Feeling, or the letter “F”)?
The fourth and final pair of opposites is about whether you tend toward detailed planning or prefer to fly by the seat of your pants. Those who prefer plans, structure, and closure are described, in MBTI terms, by Judging, or the letter “J.” Those who tend to improvise on the fly are described by the term Perceiving, or the letter “P.”
Once you’ve completed the assessment, your MBTI personality type is expressed as the four letters corresponding to your four preferences. Sounds pretty simple, right? And that’s the beauty of it. Decades of theory and research are condensed into an understandable, actionable set of tendencies that describe and reveal so much about where we tend to focus our attention, how we’re likely to respond in a range of situations, and even our key motivations—what makes us tick.
Your brain and your MBTI® personality type
What does all this have to do with neuroscience and psychology? According to Dario Nardi, PhD, a research fellow at UCLA, MBTI Certified Practitioner since 1994, and author of Neuroscience of Personality and 8 Keys to Self-Leadership, the brain, broadly speaking, “consists of many small modules. Each module is a neural circuit that helps you do a task. Some tasks are concrete, such as recognizing faces, hearing voice tone, and moving a hand. Other tasks are abstract, such as evaluating ethics, adjusting to others’ feedback, and mentally rehearsing a future action. There are easily five dozen modules just in the neocortex. Moreover, there are broad qualities like empathy and imagination—the stuff of the psyche. These are supported by various modules working in concert, like instruments in a symphony.”
Each of the 16 Myers-Briggs types is like a different piece of music played by our brains in a “symphony,” as Nardi describes. In one study, Nardi worked with almost 70 subjects, spending two or three hours testing various tasks with each person. His findings indicate that people who share a four-letter MBTI type tend to rely on similar regions of the brain for similar tasks. For example, people with INFP preferences—preferences for Introversion, Intuition, Feeling, and Perceiving—tend to rely on parts of the brain that aid in identity, imagination, listening, and speaking. People with INTP preferences, however—that’s Introversion, Intuition, Thinking, and Perceiving—favor areas that reinforce reasoning, deduction, and evaluating risks and benefits. As indicated by an electroencephalogram (EEG), INFPs may show a solid blue map when conversing one-on-one, while INTPs might show a solid green map, indicating that they are shutting out signals from the deeper regions of the brain for a more objective, “disassociated” evaluation of their environment.
All 16 MBTI types show a similar correlation to EEG monitoring. Although correlation doesn’t equal causation, these results are compelling—they highlight a measurable connection between scientific data and the expected tendencies, or focus areas, for a given MBTI personality type.
What about psychology?
Our personality preferences tend to stay stable over time. However, our personalities do develop as we grow older, reflecting the long-term effects of the culture we live in, our careers, relationships, and the aggregation of everything we learn during the course of a human lifetime.
Carl G. Jung, whose theory of personality types inspired Katharine Briggs and Isabel Myers to create the MBTI assessment, defined “individuation” as “the therapeutic goal of analytical psychology belonging to the second half of life, […] the process by which a person becomes a psychological individual, a separate indivisible unity or whole, recognizing [their] innermost uniqueness”. In other words, individuation refers to each person’s journey of becoming their own unique self, regardless of any similarities to others and similar “types.”
The upshot of this is that, while your MBTI personality type may indicate certain preferences, your behaviors may not always match up. As we develop and learn to get by in a world that may or may not respond favorably to our preferences, we develop strategies to manage a wide range of situations. In fact, as we explore different ways of living and relating to others, we may exhibit behaviors that are actually associated with the opposite of our natural preferences. Not all of these learned strategies are going to match up with your MBTI personality type. Not only is that OK; it’s also perfectly normal.
Brain like a toolbox
We all use tools —for example, personality assessments, mindfulness techniques, or therapy—that help us meet our psychological needs.
There is currently a lot of debate on whether neuroscience will someday replace psychology, the way psychology has replaced what was referred to as “psychotherapy” in the days of Freud and Jung. If it does, perhaps you’ll be able to use neuroscience (or its successor), along with your MBTI personality type, to achieve an even greater understanding of yourself, your interactions with others, and what it means to be human.
Call it evolution, progress, or what you will; one thing is certain—we’ll never stop learning and improving.
For more information on MBTI personality types, please download our e-book, The Power of Personality.