Meet the Editorial Board for Personality Neuroscience: Q&A with Colin DeYoung
Colin DeYoung is Professor at University of Minnesota, USA. His research focuses broadly on the structure and sources of personality, attempting to discover the relations among different personality traits and the neurobiological systems that influence them. DeYoung is interested both in normal personality functioning and in the ways that different personality traits and their underlying functions constitute risks for various forms of psychopathology.
What do you think is distinctive about Personality Neuroscience as a journal?
Quite simply, it is the first journal dedicated to the field of personality neuroscience, the study of how variation in neurobiological mechanisms underpins individual differences in behavior, motivation, emotion, and cognition. Individual variation is a pervasive feature of human life, and so perhaps it was inevitable that this variation would come to be a focus of research in neuroscience eventually. Now that larger samples are providing the opportunity to study human neurobiological variation effectively, along with its behavioral correlates, such studies are beginning to appear in traditional neuroscience journals, but there was no journal until now that was specifically designed for this field. Personality Neuroscience is poised to deal with these studies more effectively because it focuses on personality as much as it focuses on neuroscience. Personality psychology possesses a large body of knowledge regarding the nature and assessment of psychological individual differences, and bringing that knowledge to bear in the context of neuroscience is crucial for the advancement of this field. Knowledge of personality can guide investigation of neurobiological variation, and knowledge of the neural correlates of personality can guide the development of psychological theories designed to explain personality. Personality Neuroscience should be a prime outlet for research pursuing these goals.
What developments in the world of personality neuroscience are currently exciting you?
At this stage, the field is so young that all developments are exciting to me! One of the most important developments over the last 10 years has been a substantial increase in the quality of studies. When I wrote my first review of the field, around 2007 (DeYoung & Gray, 2009), I couldn’t be very selective in terms of what studies I paid attention to and wrote about because there were so few, and most of them were grossly underpowered. In other words, their sample sizes were so small that their results were not likely to be reliable, but I tried to make some sense out of them anyway, as best I could, both because otherwise there would have been very little to say and because I wasn’t fully aware then of the dangers posed by underpowered studies. When I reviewed the field again more recently (Allen & DeYoung, 2016), I was very excited to realize how many large studies had been carried out since my previous review. To study individual differences well requires much larger samples than the typical neuroimaging study that’s designed to answer some question about brain function based on a comparison of two conditions within the same subjects. Finally, that message seems to be getting through, and so we are learning about the neural correlates of personality a lot more rapidly now.
Another exciting development is the expansion of the array of traits that are being studied using neuroscientific methods. I typically rely on the Big Five trait taxonomy, which is based on the fact that correlations among various personality traits show five major underlying dimensions that capture the major patterns of covariation in personality. These “Big Five” dimensions are often labeled Extraversion, Neuroticism, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, and Openness to Experience. When I wrote my first review, there was much more research relevant to Extraversion and Neuroticism than to any of the other three dimensions, and that’s because Extraversion and Neuroticism appear to reflect sensitivity to reward and sensitivity to threat and punishment, respectively. These are phenomena that are highly relevant to psychopathologies like anxiety and depression, and they have been studied extensively in neuroscientific research in other species, like rats and mice. Hence, there was both a strong motivation and a foundation of knowledge for researching these traits in human beings. The likely neural basis of the other traits was much less clear, which was a real lack, given that they describe variation in extremely important phenomena like empathy, altruism, impulsivity, self-discipline, and creativity. Recently, however, good studies are beginning to be published investigating personality differences associated with these other dimensions.
How did you get into the field of personality neuroscience?
I got into personality neuroscience as part of a long trajectory from the humanities into hard science. As an undergraduate at Harvard, I was interested in philosophy and psychology, and I majored in the history of science, studying the history of psychology and psychiatry. But it was my courses in contemporary psychology that interested me most, and so I decided to apply to graduate school in psychology. I got my PhD in Personality Psychology at the University of Toronto, and from early in my training I was interested in understanding the neurobiological as well as the psychological basis of personality. I’ve always had a synthetic and integrative approach to understanding the world, and it seemed useful to understand how psychological processes were actually instantiated and carried out by the brain. As a grad student, I got the opportunity to begin working with molecular genetic data, and that is one path that took me into neuroscience—studying genetic variation in neurotransmitter systems, such as the dopaminergic system. Then as a postdoctoral fellow at Yale, I was trained in cognitive neuroscience and neuroimaging (magnetic resonance imaging; MRI). Now in my lab at the University of Minnesota, a lot of my research focuses on investigating the neural basis of various personality traits using MRI.
Personality Neuroscience is a fully Open Access journal that publishes papers in the neuroscience of personality. Learn more about the journal and how to submit your article at cambridge.org/pen.