Feb 12

“Me, Myself, and Why”: Jennifer Ouellette Self-Searching

…(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 WhyPsychology 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:

  1. 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.
  2. It’s nature and nurture, not one or the other…
  3. My brain scan—courtesy of neuroscientist David Eagleman’s lab—told me nothing about who I am…
  4. Being shy and being introverted are not the same thing.
  5. 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.”
  6. 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.
  7. [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.
  8. 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.
  9. When I die, and my brain shuts down for good, my self will cease to exist, because consciousness is emergent.
  10. 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:

Jan 10

Finding Your Own Identity: Lizzie Velasquez’s TED Talk, Plus

Finding your own identity is the theme of  24-year-old author and motivational speaker Lizzie Velasquez in her inspirational TED talk. Her point? You don’t have to be what others perceive about you or how they want to define you. Finding your own identity can be significantly challenging, but it’s a process worth undertaking.

Lizzie knows of what she speaks, having lived with an extremely rare kind of disorder all her life that prevents weight gain and has blinded her in one eye. It’s believed that what she may have is Neonatal Progeroid Syndrome, “a condition that causes accelerated aging and fat loss from the face and body” (The Huffington Post).

Because of how she’s been perceived, Lizzie has been the victim of widespread bullying—she was once called “The World’s Ugliest Woman” in a YouTube video watched by millions.

Lizzie, however, has risen above. One major and positive factor in her development has been her parents, who’ve always given her full support—indeed, to the point that she didn’t know when she first started school why others reacted to her so differently.

Below, Lizzie’s recent TED talk:

How does one actually become oneself? Sounds easy, but usually it’s not at all. Writer Anne Lamott has some advice and words of wisdom in her article called “How to Find Out Who You Really Are.”

We begin to find and become ourselves when we notice how we are already found, already truly, entirely, wildly, messily, marvelously who we were born to be. The only problem is that there is also so much other stuff, typically fixations with how people perceive us, how to get more of the things that we think will make us happy, and with keeping our weight down. So the real issue is how do we gently stop being who we aren’t? How do we relieve ourselves of the false fronts of people-pleasing and affectation, the obsessive need for power and security, the backpack of old pain, and the psychic Spanx that keeps us smaller and contained?

Here’s how I became myself: mess, failure, mistakes, disappointments, and extensive reading; limbo, indecision, setbacks, addiction, public embarrassment, and endless conversations with my best women friends; the loss of people without whom I could not live, the loss of pets that left me reeling, dizzying betrayals but much greater loyalty, and overall, choosing as my motto William Blake’s line that we are here to learn to endure the beams of love.

Other Selected Quotes On Finding Your Own Identity

Harvey Fierstein: “Never be bullied into silence. Never allow yourself to be made a victim. Accept no one’s definition of your life, but define yourself.”

Chuck Palahniuk, Choke: “We can spend our lives letting the world tell us who we are. Sane or insane. Saints or sex addicts. Heroes or victims. Letting history tell us how good or bad we are. Letting our past decide our future. Or we can decide for ourselves. And maybe it’s our job to invent something better.”

George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones: “Never forget what you are, for surely the world will not. Make it your strength. Then it can never be your weakness. Armour yourself in it, and it will never be used to hurt you.”