Identity


The following are bits of writing from many sources such as personal correspondence, posts to on-line discussion groups, notes, and occasionally even some journaling. All of this is informal in nature, but contains some interesting and/or useful information.

Collective minds
You may recall from Sagan's "Dragons of Eden" the concept of our brains as "extra-genetic information." There's another more interesting extension of that idea I found in the interview with Malcolm Gladwell on the publication of "The Tipping Point," I mentioned earlier. He says:
"In the book I talk about "transactive" memory -- the idea that one of the places that we store a lot of the information in our memory is in other people. According to this theory, memory is a social construct: we store important pieces of it in our friends and our co-workers and so forth. This is part of a scholarly theory put forth by Daniel Wegner, a psychologist at the University of Virginia. There's an observation that he makes that I just find extraordinary: he says that one of the reasons that divorce is so painful is that in divorce each party is literally losing a portion of their mind, because if you live with somebody for a number of years, your memory and your emotions and so on are stored in your partner. When you break up a marriage, you literally break up a mind. The responses I've had from people about that insight have been amazing. I can't tell you how many people have told me that when they read that their own divorce finally made sense."
Another way to view this, one that I'm sure Gladwell would agree on since his book is about social "epidemics," is that, just as individual cells form organs, individual minds form something larger, and the products of a society are analogous to the products of, say, a brain (e.g., consciousness, etc.) in that they could only come out of this collective-mind. Actually, it reads kind of left-wing, but I would imagine that the seizure-like harmonic resonance between individual units is a good way of characterizing the pathology that is the GOP!

Collective Minds, continued
[from an email with Dani (who works with Alzheimer's patients)]
>When the caregiver becomes unable to *carry* the couple's memory/thinking, then it becomes very apparent that the other person is seriously impaired. Kind of a different concept, but similar, yes?
The interesting thing (and I'm sure this is obvious to you already) is that the "disease" (taking the root meaning literally) extends beyond the physical carrier of the afflicted individual. The fact that one person's brain is incapacitated has effects beyond the practical expectations. As Gladwell points out in that interview, this is why divorce is so painful.
There was a period where I woke up every morning (and sometimes the middle of the night) thinking the whole thing was a dream, that nothing this terrible could possibly be happening to me. A lot of the items on the "director's cut" of my personals ad alluded to newly "sprouted" parts of me: I cut my own hair, my bills are paid on time, etc. These were things that were originally part of someone else's brain that I had to acquire myself as I adopted these roles.

Identity
[Posted to the neuroscience group on MySpace.com]
>I see me in every person i meet. It's cool to know that others can feel this too. Isn't it awesome state to be in?
There have been a number of interesting studies that have shown parallels with this thinking. So many, in fact, that one can't help but think we're wired up to be empathic by nature.
For example, there was an fMRI study a while back (If anyone knows who authored it, please post a citation; thanks!) in which it was found that people's brains responded similarly (i.e., same areas with nearly the same intensity of activity) when observing someone feeling pain inflicted on them (e.g., a small electric shock) as when they actually experienced the same aversive stimulus themselves.
You can also view our brains as having internal representations of other people. Hence, you're able to have hypothetical conversations with your friends and guess what they would want for lunch or for their birthdays or whatever. There's an interesting extension of that idea I found in an interview with Malcolm Gladwell on the publication of his book "The Tipping Point." He says:
---
"In the book I talk about "transactive" memory -- the idea that one of the places that we store a lot of the information in our memory is in other people. According to this theory, memory is a social construct: we store important pieces of it in our friends and our co-workers and so forth. This is part of a scholarly theory put forth by Daniel Wegner, a psychologist at the University of Virginia. There's an observation that he makes that I just find extraordinary: he says that one of the reasons that divorce is so painful is that in divorce each party is literally losing a portion of their mind, because if you live with somebody for a number of years, your memory and your emotions and so on are stored in your partner. When you break up a marriage, you literally break up a mind. The responses I've had from people about that insight have been amazing. I can't tell you how many people have told me that when they read that their own divorce finally made sense."
---
There are a lot more people in our heads than we might think, apparently.
More than just a curiosity, there's a good reason for it: If we kill or ostracize people we know very well, we destroy a part of ourselves to a degree. This is something else evolution has conferred to hold societies together at the level of the individual.

Me, myself, and identity
If you ever look back at something you were proud of and think, "Boy, was that stupid!" then you're a different person than you were then. People tend to change political affiliations as they get older, their attitudes toward things changes, their ability to accommodate new ideas and to learn new things, their interests shift, they become more responsible and less interested in novelty, etc. The only thing they have in common are their memories, and even many of those don't make it from one moment to the next, just like the money you earn for yourself for later. Only characters in comic books have the kind of static passage through time we imagine for ourselves.

The "real" you?
One of my professors and I had this discussion in his neuropsychopharmacology class (dumb name for a course). He believed there was a "true self." I put forward the notion that, duh, we're the sum of many parts (i.e., brain regions) which manifest as different parts of our personalities. If any of these is/are shut down and/or another part(s) is/are preferentially activated, a person will exhibit a personality borne of this different "configuration" of pre-existing parts. These brain regions are always there. They may change over time in that they are affected by life experiences (e.g., learning, physical/emotional trauma, etc.), but they are all present at all times and can be selectively channeled by drugs, injury, surgery, electrical/magnetic stimulation, and/or any other method of selectively manipulating part of your brain such that you may appear to be a different person that you were previously So who are *you* today?

Changes
That's one of the surprising and most frustrating things about the human mind: You just can't let go of the things that make you who you are. Consider belief systems like racism and religions. It would be so much easier for people to get through life in certain circumstances if they would just let go of these ideas, but they can't, even when they have better alternative systems.
Did you ever see "American History X"? There's a great storyline in which Edward Norton refuses to speak to the black inmate he's partnered with in the laundry. They work there together every day, but he won't say a word. Still, the black guy is very good natured, so he makes a game of it. He keeps talking to Norton as though they're having a regular dialogue, even though Norton looks at him the whole time like he's going to kill him. Eventually, of course, Norton can't keep up the facade. His belief system is not firmly grounded in anything that can withstand this constant assault of evidence that this guy, this *black* guy is a decent human being. They gradually begin to talk, at first arguing, then cutting up with one another.
It's a great sequence that is at the heart of the transformation of all the characters in the film. The point is that it takes an effort to hang onto hatred, but people sometimes do because that's who they think they are at that moment, right or wrong.

An operational definition
"Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away."
-Phillip K. Dick

Abuse?
During the media coverage surrounding the Catholic church's decades-long debacle, NPR went to some experts on this subject. One surprising finding of one study was that more than half of the victims appreciated the experience and said they would probably repeat it if they had it to live over again. The study's authors pointed out that these actions were still criminal in that they were typically perpetrated on minors, willing or not.
Personally, I think these (i.e., the victims') feelings in this regard stem from the fact that their experiences are tied into their identity. To alter the past would be to break with their present self. We all learn from the past (though some are better at this than others), so, for example, I have similar feelings about my relationship with my ex. On one level, I wish I could erase the entire experience, but on another, I would be a different person if I had bypassed the knowledge I gained from those mistakes.

Labels?
I was thinking about this issue a couple questions back when I referred to myself as more right-brained in a romantic relationship. The interesting thing is that the right hemisphere is supposed to be all about emotion; when it is damaged, people tend to display less emotion and are less empathic. Curiously, the left hemisphere tends to focus on language, semantics, categorization. Someone who wants to "go steady" or something with a label, is applying two very specific traits, one from each half. By contrast, my lackadaisical attitude toward past relationships owes more to a attenuated response by my right brain and a similarly minimal interest by my left in applying a label to a relationship when a general "pattern matching" approach makes more sense. That is, when it comes to defining it, it's less a matter of rigidly examining criteria on some rubric than simply, "I know it when I see it."

Self-awareness
Something I realized recently is that there's this self-awareness that doesn't really come "online" until somewhere in college (at least for me). I was oblivious to a lot of things when I was in high school. I think also that there's a synergy between the onset of this awareness and our declining ability to store memories as richly that sort of imprints us to certain things during our early 20s. Before then, we lack awareness. After that time, our memories don't absorb things the way they once did. In my case, I really remember things intensely from my later years in college, yet I hardly remember much from my time working on my neuroscience degree.




Copyright Alexplorer.

Back to the index