Following Lives Through Time

Some recent naturalistic observations illustrated for me the results of longitudinal studies of human development—studies that follow lives across time, noting our capacities for both stability and change. 

My procedure, though time-consuming, was simple: 

  1. Observation Stage 1:  Attend a small college, living on campus with ample opportunity to observe my many friends.
  2. Intervening experience:  Let 50 years of life unfold, taking us to varied places.
  3. Observation Stage 2:  Meet and talk with these friends again, at a college reunion.

Time and again, researchers have documented the remarkable stability of emotionality, intelligence, and personality across decades of life.  “As at age 7, so at 70” says a Jewish proverb. 

And so it was for my friends (with names changed to protect identities).  Thoughtful, serious Joe was still making earnest pronouncements.  Driven, status-conscious Louise continues to visibly excel.  Exuberant Mark could still talk for ten minutes while hardly catching a breath.  Gentle, kind Laura was still sensitive and kindhearted.  Mischievous, prankster George still evinced an edgy, impish spirit.  Smiling, happy Joanne still readily grinned and laughed.  I was amazed:  a half century, and yet everyone seemed the same person that walked off that graduation stage.

In other ways, however, life is a process of becoming.  Compared to temperament and to traits such as extraversion, social attitudes are more amenable to change.  And so it was for us, with my formerly kindred-spirited dorm mates having moved in different directions . . . some now expressing tea partyish concerns about cultural moral decay and big government, and others now passionate about justice and support for gay-lesbian aspirations.  Before they opened their mouths, I had no idea which was going to be which.

And isn’t that the life experience of each of us—that our development is a story of both stability and change.  Stability, rooted in our enduring genes and brains, provides our identity . . . while our potential for change enables us to grow with experience and to hope for a brighter future.

(For more on the neurobiology that underlies our stable individuality, and on the brain plasticity that enables our changing, see Richard Davidson’s recent Dana Foundation essay.)