The Enneagram and Patterns of Asymmetric Dominance in Orbitofrontal Cortex and Amygdala

Peter Savich, December 2007

The web book Personality and the Brain: A hacker’s journey through the Enneagram and the emerging brain research presents an hypothesis that the Enneagram theory of personality emerges from variable patterns of persistent asymmetric activity in the orbitofronal cortex and amygdala. This hypothesis asserts that the nine types of the Enneagram theory can be described as nine different dominance patterns of the two mental state pairs [self optimism, self pessimism], and [aware fear, unaware fear]. Three possible dominance patterns exist for each pair -- ie. first is dominant, second is dominant, or neither is dominant. These three possible dominance patterns of [self optimism, self pessimism], combined with the analogous three of [aware fear, unaware fear], result in the nine persistent patterns of the Enneagram types. The hypothesis argues that this framework is supported in large part by certain research on the orbitofronal cortex by Richard Davidson, Eddie Harmon-Jones, and the Wellcome Department of Imaging Neuroscience, and on the amygdala by Ralph Adolphs and Jan Glaescher. Although this framework is supported by certain work of these researchers, it is certainly not, circa 2007, confirmed in full. Further research awaits.

Addresses

Corresponding author: Savich, Peter (duck.n.gather@gmail.com)

Introduction

Over the past ten years, research activity on human personality and the brain has exploded. Papers in this area are being published at a rate causing intellectual indigestion. It's fair to say that, considered in its entirety, this body of research is akin to a seemingly impenetrable forest.

From time to time, researchers in the field have attempted to rise above this ever-thickening forest to propose overarching models and frameworks for describing human personality. However, as of late 2007, no such "in-house" attempt has achieved substantial traction. And the forest continues to grow.

This paper suggests that an orthogonal approach to parsing this forest seems most promising. In other words, this paper suggests starting at a point outside of neuroscience, with a well-developed personality model serving as a machete with which to cut through the forest. Previous attempts to cut through this forest have started with the personality theories of Freud, Jung, and the MBTI. However, those attempts have revealed those theories to be rather dull machetes, and not up to the task.

This paper suggests that perhaps the most unlikely "non-scientific" personality theory known to date is in fact the sharpest machete, capable of cutting through well more than half of the forest. That non-scientific theory is known as the "Enneagram". It is the purpose of this paper to pique the curiosisty of one or more brain researchers toward looking into whether this particular sharp machete can indeed take us all the way through the forest.

The Enneagram

The Enneagram is a theory of human personality. Under this theory, all humans are assumed to possess a survival instinct, combined with a fear of non-survival. Although survival and non-survival are unitary notions, the Enneagram asserts that there are actually nine “flavors” or types of these instincts. These types define our personality. (Support for statements in this paper about the Enneagram comes primarily from three books: The Enneagram in Love and Work: Understanding Your Intimate and Business Relationships, The Enneagram: Understanding Yourself and the Others In Your Life, and Personality Types: Using the Enneagram for Self-Discovery.)

The Enneagram further asserts that each of us lives out our life as only one of these personality types. We don’t spend equal time sampling all or most of the flavors. At most, our personality might straddle two “adjacent” types. But certainly not more than three.

For convenience, “adjacency” arises from the numbers the Enneagram assigns to the nine types. Not surprisingly, these numbers are 1, 2, …, 9. “Adjacency” is defined in the expected way (i.e. 2 is adjacent to 1 and 3, while 1 is adjacent to 2 and 9, and so on).

These type numbers have precise meanings. Each corresponds to a particular pair of [desire, fear], or more formally, [attachment, aversion]. As noted above, the Enneagram claims that the root desire or attachment of humans is to their survival; the root fear or aversion is to their non-survival. But there are 9 different types of Basic Desire, together with 9 corresponding types of Basic Fear.

Without further ado, these nine types of [Basic Desire, Basic Fear] pairs are as follows:

Basic Desire

Basic Fear

Two

Loved

Unwanted

Three

Valuable

Worthless

Four

Significant

Insignificant

Five

Competent

Incapable

Six

Secure

Insecure

Seven

Satisfied

Pained

Eight

Strong

Weak

Nine

Peaceful

Lost

One

Good

Defective

Perhaps you’ve noticed that this list begins with type 2 rather than type 1. This is because the Enneagram experts say that the nine types can be grouped in interesting ways called “triads”. Two interesting triads mentioned by the experts are:

Triad 1: (2, 3, 4) … (5, 6, 7) … (8, 9, 1)

Triad 2: (2, 6, 1) … (3, 7, 8) … (4, 5, 9)

Sharpening the Enneagram

By the time one makes it through the interminable Enneagram books and has reached the obscure passages concerning the two triads mentioned above, the discussion has become rather skimpy and somewhat less than helpful. Accordingly, it is incumbent upon the reader of such books to flesh out the resonant meaning of these triads.

This is precisely what I have done. Specifically, I have looked closely at these two triads and considered what exactly is "interesting" about each. What I have found is that these triads elegantly allocate four mental states: self optimism, self pessimism, aware fear, and unaware fear. (An extended discussion on how I got from "here to there" is found in Chapter 3 of Personality and the Brain.)

"Self optimism" and "self pessimism" here are defined in the standard way, namely as sensitivity toward personal reward, and sensititivity toward personal punishment, respectively. Starting with this standard definition and applying it to the Enneagram meets no resistance. The Enneagram says that each type most often desires a certain "flavor" of reward known as the type's Basic Desire. The same goes for flavor of punishment and the type's Basic Fear.

Accordingly, concerning the Enneagram, self optimism can be understood as the sensitivity of a type to its Basic Desire, and the tendency of that type to associate this Basic Desire with self. For example, the 8 type is a self optimist because the 8 is sensitive to feeling strong, and tends to associate strength with self.

“Self pessimism” is the opposite. Self pessimism is sensitivity of a type to its Basic Fear, and the tendency of that type to associate Basic Fear with self. For example, the 2 is a self pessimist because the 2 is sensitive to feeling unloved, and tends to associate being unloved with self.

Note that self optimism and self pessimism are entirely different from social optimism and social pessimism. That is, no matter what one believes about the progress of society and where it seems headed, this say nothing about how one believes he or she will fare in that (rising or declining) society. These two very different types of optimism/pessimism should not be conflated.

As for "aware fear”, this concept means that the type is conscious of feeling uncomfortable when the type’s particular Basic Fear is triggered. For example, the 5 – an “aware fear” type -- fears being incapable, and is quite conscious of feeling incapable the moment the 5’s competence is threatened.

“Unaware fear” is the opposite. For example, the 1 is an “unaware fear” type which fears being defective. But when the 1’s goodness is threatened, the 1’s consciousness of feeling defective is slow to come. At first, the 1 is unaware of this Basic Fear being realized.

Under the model of this hypothesis, these four mental states are allocated among the 9 Enneagram types as follows (notice that Triad 1 runs along the rows; Triad 2, along the columns):

 

Self optimism

Self optimism & Self pessimism

Self pessimism

Unaware Fear

8

  • self optimism
  • non-self pessimism
  • unaware fear

9

  • self optimism
  • self pessimism
  • unaware fear

1

  • non-self optimism
  • self pessimism
  • unaware fear

Aware Fear

7

  • self optimism
  • non-self pessimism
  • aware fear

5

  • self optimism
  • self pessimism
  • aware fear

6

  • non-self optimism
  • self pessimism
  • aware fear

Aware Fear & Unaware Fear

3

  • self optimism
  • non-self pessimism
  • aware fear
  • unaware fear

4

  • self optimism
  • self pessimism
  • aware fear
  • unaware fear

2

  • non-self optimism
  • self pessimism
  • aware fear
  • unaware fear

The above table represents a sparse but complete description of the Enneagram types. Indeed, this descripion may prove useful only, or at least mostly, to neuroscientists. For example, the upper left quadrant describes the 8 type as a person who spends most of his waking consciousness in a state of self optimism, non-self pessimism, and unaware fear. The Enneagram books, for their part, describe this type more prosaically as the swaggering bully who is in denial over his own vulnerability. Although the latter description is more evocative, it is too ambiguous for research. Hence the "boiling down" of this type to self optimism, non-self pessimism, and unaware fear.

Certainly this latter description may seem dull and somewhat obtuse to Enneagram proponents. However, to neuroscience, it is anything but.

The Brain

Recent findings in neuroscience describe how [self optimism, self pessimism], and [aware fear, unaware fear] manifest in the brain. These two pairs correspond to two regions of the brain. These are the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) and the amygdala, respectively. The OFC lies above our eyeballs; the amygdala just inside our temples.

The brain is divided into a left side and right side. So there exists a left OFC and a right OFC, as well as a left amygdala and a right amygdala.

Fairly settled findings by Davidson, Harmon-Jones, and O'Doherty, among others, support the claim that the left OFC mediates optimism, while the right OFC mediates pessimism. (See the supported discussion in Chapter 5 of Personality and the Brain starting with "Optimism" ). A recent, rather thorough and well-constructed study by Glaescher and Adolphs suggested that the left amygdala mediates aware fear, while the right mediates unaware fear. (See the supported discussion in Chapter 6 of Personality and the Brain starting with the Glaescher/Adolphs paper .)

Further, it is well settled that individuals differ in a systematic way with respect to prefrontal cortex (PFC) asymmetry. (The OFC is a region within the PFC). This means that for some people, their left PFCs consistently exhibit more activity than does their right PFC. For others, the situation is reversed, with right PFC exhibiting more activity than the left. For still others, activity on both sides is relatively balanced. This asymmetry is akin to hand dominance. Some of us are left-handed, others right-handed, and still other are ambidextrous. Apparently, the same dynamic holds in our PFC. (See the supported discussion in Chapter 5 of Personality and the Brain starting with "Trait Asymmetry".)

As for the amygdala, this “dominance” dynamic has not been reported as of this writing. However, recent amygdala research provocatively suggests that this dynamic may indeed hold for the amygdala as well. (See the discussion in Chapter 6 of Personality and the Brain starting with "Trait Asymmetry in the Amygdala".)

No research of which I am aware has considered the interaction between OFC asymmetry and amygdala asymmetry.

Holes in the Brain

As the previous section notes, there remain holes in the brain research circa 2007. These holes prevent the Enneagram from cutting all the way through the forest of brain-personality research.

Specifically, the most pressing "holes" concern amygdala trait asymmetry, and OFC asymmetry versus amygdala asymmetry. The first hole would be filled by research showing that, just as with OFC asymmetry, individuals differ on a persistent basis with respect to asymmetric amygdala activity. That is, are some people left amygdala dominant? Others right amygdala dominant? Still others more balanced in activation?

The second research hole can be filled only if the first is filled. That is, upon the confirmation of trait amygdala asymmetry, a next obvious question is how OFC trait asymmetry interacts with trait amygdala asymmetry. For example, it could turn out that left OFC dominant people are left amaygdala dominant; right OFC, right amygdala; and balanced, balanced. If this narrow tracking between OFC and amygdala dominance proves to be the case, then the entire hypothesis of this paper would fail. That is, in that event, the road to the brain for the Enneagram would not go through the OFC and amygdala alone.

On the other hand, it is possible that OFC dominance and amygdala dominance will prove to be loosely coupled, allowing for any type of OFC dominance to be paired with any type of amygdala dominance. If that proves to be the case, then the last tree will have fallen, and the Enneagram will have taken us all the way through the forest.

A Home in the Brain

Should the holes in brain research discussed in the previous section be filled, then the Enneagram will have found a home in the brain. That home may look something like the following:

 

Left PFC

Left & Right PFC

Right PFC

Right Amygdala

8

  • left OFC dominant
  • right amygdala dominant

9

  • OFC balanced
  • right amygdala dominant

1

  • right OFC dominant
  • right amygdala dominant

Left Amygdala

7

  • left OFC dominant
  • left amygdala dominant

5

  • OFC balanced
  • left amygdala dominant

6

  • right OFC dominant
  • left amygdala dominant

Right & Left Amygdala

3

  • left OFC dominant
  • amygdala balanced

4

  • OFC balanced
  • amygdala balanced

2

  • right OFC dominant
  • amygdala balanced

Although this prospective home may seem a little uncomfortable to many current propenents of the Enneagram, history suggests they'll get used to it.

As for the neuroscience, a home in the brain for the Enneagram would bring breathtaking coherence to what presently seems an all but unparseable field. For an example of such coherence, consider the schematic diagram below which equates to the table above:

 

Left PFC

Left & Right PFC

Right PFC

Right Amygdala

8

A 0
0 A

9

A A
0 A

1

0 A
0 A

Left Amygdala

7

A 0
A 0

5

A A
A 0

6

0 A
A 0

Right & Left Amygdala

3

A 0
A A

4

A A
A A

2

0 A
A A

The foregoing schematic is evocative. For example, one aspect of the Enneagram not mentioned above is that when a type feels sufficiently insecure, that type “shifts” to a second type. Note the possibility that this aspect of the model may well serve to explain why test-retest reliability of PFC asymmetry falls in the range only of 65%-75% (see the supported discussion in Chapter 5 of Personality and the Brain on test-retest reliability.)

As an example of these Enneagram security shifts, when the 7 feels sufficiently insecure, the 7 shifts to the 1 (i.e. the 7 acquires attributes of the 1).

Look closely now at the schematic for the 7 and for the 1. Notice anything? They are left-right mirror images with no overlap. In fact these two types are the only such pair in the entire Enneagram.

Now consider that the only type within the Enneagram model that is prone to manic-depression, also known as bipolar, is the 7. This shift between mania (the left side of the moon) and depression (the right side of the moon) is nicely captured by the schematics for the 7 and the 1.

Similarly, compare the 8 with the 6. The 8 schematic runs Northwest to Southeast; for the 6, it’s Northeast to Southwest. These schematics are opposites in a different way. Could these two types be opposite in temperament?

Sure enough, in the Enneagram model, the 8 is the swaggering bully who, among all the types, is most often considered “courageous”. The 6 is the fearful anxiety hag, who, among all the types, is most often considered “cowardly”.

What about the 4? For the 4, all four corners of the schematic light up. What is the 4’s temperament? The Enneagram answers as follows: the 4 is the theory’s  “drama queen”. Again, the type is elegantly evoked by the schematic (ie. a brain "lit up" at all corners).

Conclusion

Circa 2007, the Enneagram model of human personality dovetails with close to the full length and breadth of the neuroscience research forest on brain and personality. The most promising present path for the Enneagram through this forest goes by way of OFC and amygdala asymmetry. But as of today, that path remains blocked, waiting for further research. Specifically, two questions remain:

  1. Is amygdala asymmetry a trait?
  2. If so, are OFC trait asymmetry and amygdala trait asymmetry loosely coupled?

History awaits the answers.