…(O)ur sense of self is a construct, which is not the same thing as saying that it’s illusionary, I think it’s very real, but it is certainly not your genetic code or simply your synapses or simply any one thing, it’s all those things integrated together that makes us who we are. Jennifer Ouellette, author of Me, Myself, and Why, Psychology Today
For various reasons science writer Jennifer Ouellette became intrigued with self-identity. She writes in Scientific American about this leading to her new book Me, Myself, and Why: Searching for the Science of Self:
I had my genotype sequenced, visited neuroscientist David Eagleman’s lab to participate in an fMRI study, took a couple of personality tests, and peered at drunken fruit flies, courtesy of behavioral geneticist Ulrike Heberlein. But the self is a complex entity. So the book also covers online identity and our relationship to our avatars, as well as the murky waters of sex and gender. The final third of the book gets all meta, delving into consciousness and how we construct our personal narratives from the cloth of autographical memory. And yes, I even sampled LSD, to great comical effect.
In an article in Slate, Ouellette shares 10 things she learned about herself (and some of what she learned about other selves). Excerpts of her explanations are presented with each below:
- Genes are deterministic but they are not destiny…It’s even more complicated for personality traits, health risk factors, and behaviors, where traits are influenced, to varying degrees, by parenting, peer pressure, cultural influences, unique life experiences, and even the hormones churning around us as we develop in the womb.
- It’s nature and nurture, not one or the other…
- My brain scan—courtesy of neuroscientist David Eagleman’s lab—told me nothing about who I am…
- Being shy and being introverted are not the same thing.
- When it comes to the central question—are alcoholics born or made?—science equivocates by answering truthfully, “Eh, it’s a bit of both, actually.”
- We bond psychologically with our avatars and those bonds are stronger the more similarities we share with our pixilated alter egos.We need to be able to look at our avatar and feel “This is me.” But our identities are always in flux.
- [Regarding gender identity]…(R)igid binary thinking needs to change. Such stereotypes arise from lazy thinking, and while they might make it easier to deal with the complexity in the world, they also make it far too easy to lose sight of people as individuals—and they can cause very real psychological harm to those children who don’t fit the stereotypes.
- I become “that person” at the party if I take LSD. You know the one. Did you see that episode of Mad Men where they all dropped acid and that one woman was crawling around on the carpet? Yeah, that was me. I bonded with an oriental rug on a deep, molecular level, and yet it never calls.
- When I die, and my brain shuts down for good, my self will cease to exist, because consciousness is emergent.
- We are the stories we tell…Our memories might not be as accurate as we think—we fabricate and embellish even when we believe ourselves to be truthful—but this so-called autobiographical self is key to how we construct a unified whole out of the many components that contribute to our sense of self…If you really want to know who I am, let me tell you a story.
In the following book trailer, Ouellette gives a similar recap but in person: