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Deconstructing Temperament

Continuing on from my attempts to devise a hypothetical underpinning for Flow, I now present the equivalent speculations for Temperament Theory.


This post will mean nothing to you unless you are familiar with either Temperament Theory or Myers-Briggs Typology. This post builds upon various previous pieces posted here, including:

This isn’t the first time I have attempted to tie Temperament Theory to neurology. If you are pretty clued up on the subject, you can read my amusing first attempt at speculating in this area, based solely on my understanding of the functions of digital neural networks.


The idea that people type perfectly into fixed patterns is not something most psychologists who work with Temperament Theory uphold. Rather, we all express these different patterns at different times, and to different degrees. But we can usually pick out a greater influence of one or more patterns over the others in the case of individuals. In this piece, I suggest that these behavioural patterns can be linked to a neurobiological substructure.

Rational (NT)

The Rational temperament is the easiest of the four behavioural patterns to link to neurobiology, since it is relatively clear that the elements of this pattern – precise abstract thinking, interest in efficient operations, pragmatism, focus on structure, problem solving – correlate with the actions of the decision centre of the brain (the orbito-frontal cortex), at least as a hypothetical assertion.

Since it now seems that areas of the brain vary in size according to the degree that they are used, it should be possible to test this claim by comparing the size of the orbito-frontal cortex in those who type as NT/Rational, to those who type weakly in this area.

Guardian (SJ)

Again, this one is not too difficult to speculate at the neurological level. The Guardian pattern is associated with organisations and logistics, the maintenance of procedures and systems, duty and trust, and goal-orientation. This strongly suggests a neural system linking the association areas (hippocampus) with the pleasure centre (nucleus accumbens).

Indeed, the Judging axis of Myers-Briggs (which is an aspect of the Guardian pattern), which is associated with goal-orientation seems to strongly correlate with increased reward (increased release of dopamine) from the pleasure centre.

The affiliative aspect of the Guardian pattern (belonging to organisations and identities) presumably relates to the social centre (hypothalamus), but again, linked to memory via the association areas. In other words: your memory tells you who and what to trust (based on your prior experience), and your hypothalamus thus generates trust and a sense of safety (belonging) when you are with those people you identify with.

Thus in the Guardian pattern established norms (learned by the association areas) create goals involving the maintenance of systems and execution of logistics, and these goals release dopamine, thus reinforcing those behaviours.

Artisan (SP)

Here, I have to take something more of an intuitive leap, but I believe the Artisan pattern can be understood in part through the mechanics of Flow I described last week. Since the Artisan pattern is process-oriented (expressed by the Perceiving axis in Myers Briggs, which becomes subsumed in the Artisan pattern in Temperament Theory), it seems reasonable to suppose that this behavioural pattern relates to the steady release of dopamine in the pursuit of uncertain outcome in preference to the pursuit of the goal itself. In other words: for people in whom the Artisan pattern is more strongly expressed than Guardian, taking actions is marginally more compelling than achieving goals. Perhaps it will transpire that the differential between the dopamine released during the pursuit of uncertain goals and the dopamine released on achieving a goal is less pronounced in the Artisan pattern than in the Guardian pattern.

The pattern itself is associated with the desire to have an impact through freedom of action, a concrete pragmatism, spontaneous creativity, hedonism, impulsiveness and sometimes compulsiveness. A weaker relationship between association areas and the pleasure centre, coupled with an increased influence of the sensory cortices (with their associated power to release dopamine via curiosity) may be a factor here.

Artisan is rendered as SP (Sensing-Perceiving bias) in Myers-Briggs terminology, but note that unlike the other Sensing pattern (Guardian, which is SJ – Sensing-Judging bias) there is no obvious role for the hypothalamus here. The Artisan pattern thus veers towards independent behaviour, in common with the Rational pattern (thus suggesting the basis of their common link, a focus on the pragmatic over the affiliative).

Idealist (NF)

Finally, the Idealist pattern is associated with abstract language use (in common with the Rational temperament), a search for meaning and significance, and a focus on motivations, with an emphasis on empathy and unity.

Sharing in common with the Guardian pattern the affiliative bias, it is likely that the social centre (hypothalamus) plays a role in this pattern, but whereas for Guardian I suggested a link between this brain region and memory (i.e. with the association areas), for Idealist this doesn’t seem to be the case. An Idealist is likely to feel a sense of unity with almost any person, which may reflect the role of the hypothalamus when it is involved in rather different neural connections. It is difficult not to suggest the mirror neurons as an element in empathy, and the parietal lobe has been linked with both mirror neurons and empathy, suggesting its involvement with this pattern.

A likely additional element is the fusiform gyrus, a part of the temporal lobe about which there is still some dispute, but which has been linked to both language skills and abstraction (as well as face and body recognition and the processing of colour information). Informally, I have observed a greater interest in colour among people who express Idealist, which might serve as an additional supporting factor, however tenuous at this point.

Summary of Components

Modern Temperament Theory works on the basis of three axes of comparison: abstract versus concrete language skills, affiliative versus pragmatic actions, and structure versus motive focus. Each of the four Temperament patterns is distinguished by these three axes, even though in principle only two would be required to generate four patterns.

Based upon my hypothesis above, the following links between these axes of distinction and various areas of the brain would be suggested:

  • Abstract: either decision centre/orbito-frontal cortex (in Rational) or language centre/fusiform gyrus (in Idealist) or both with different degrees of emphasis.

  • Concrete: either the various sensory cortices, or the memory association areas/hippocampus, or both (in both Guardian and Artisan).

  • Affiliative: hypothalamus (in both Guardian and Idealist), coupled either with the memory association areas (in Guardian) or empathy regions i.e. mirror neurons/parietal lobe (in Idealist).

  • Pragmatic: probably the orbito-frontal cortex (in both Rational and Artisan), either in isolation (in Rational) or in concert with the memory association areas/hippocampus (in Artisan).

  • Structure: either decision centre/orbit-frontal cortex (in Rational) or the memory association areas/hippocampus (in Guardian), or possibly both with differing degree of emphasis.

  • Motive: either mirror neurons/parietal lobe (in Idealist), or anticipation of reward in the context of the pleasure centre/nucleus accumbens, possibly with an adjunct role for the orbito-frontal cortex (in Artisan).

Of course, some of these correlations begin to look somewhat forced if the hypothetical mechanisms can be validated, but this was always likely to be the case in such a coarse-grained system.

This in turn allows us to suggest the equivalent substitutions for the Myers-Briggs axes as follows:

  • Introvert/Extravert: currently not covered in this hypothesis.

  • Sensing/Intuitive: identical the Abstract versus Concrete distinction, above i.e. memory association areas/hippocampus and sensory cortices for Sensing versus decision centre/orbito-frontal cortex and/or language centre/fusiform gyrus.

  • Thinking/Feeling: compounded from Pragmatic-Structure versus Affiliative-Motive, above, that is, decision centre/orbito-frontal cortex versus hypothalamus and/or mirror neurons/parietal lobe.

  • Judging/Perceiving: pleasure centre/nucleus accumbens, in two modes: goal-oriented (i.e. seeking maximum dopamine) in Judging versus process-oriented (i.e. seeking continuous supply of dopamine during pursuit of uncertain reward) in Percieving.

Notice how the correlations for the Myers-Briggs axis have little in common with the axes of comparison in modern Temperament Theory, reflecting the different assumptions behind both systems.


According to the hypothesis presented here, the following components represent the underlying elements of the neurobiological systems which in turn generate common recurrent patterns of observable behaviour reported by both Myers-Briggs typology and modern Temperament Theory:

  • Pleasure centre (nucleus accumbens)

  • Decision centre (orbito-frontal cortex)

  • Language centre (fusiform gyrus)

  • Association areas (hippocampus)

  • Sensory cortices

  • Social centre (hypothalamus)

  • Mirror neurons (parietal lobe et al)

As a game designer and not a neurological researcher, I am not in a position to investigate this further, but a research team consisting of both psychologists and neurobiologists should be able to investigate these claims, should anyone be sufficiently motivated to do so.

That just about does it for the speculative neurobiology for now. I'll try and get some specific games-related pieces onto ihobo in the near future.


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No comments yet!
It took me a while before I had the time and was in the right mindset to read this article.

More fascinating stuff. It makes me wish I was a research psychologist so I could test your hypotheses. :)

Thanks for the kind words! I don't suppose anyone will get around to testing this any time soon, if at all, but it's a shame as it would do much for the perceived legitimacy of these models to complete the research.

On the other hand, I feel that if these hypotheses are even close to the mark, new models might be required. And in that regard, look out later this year for BrainHex, our new player model for videogames. :)

Best wishes!

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