How does your brain become who you are? The self is shaped by genetic, psychological and cultural factors. But it is synapses, the connections between neurons in the brain, where our selves are stored. Synapses integrate us in space and timeby Joseph Ledoux / August 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2002 issue of Prospect Magazine
Who are you? The answer, of course, lies in your brain. But how your brain becomes and continues to be who you are, is still poorly understood. Neuroscientists have been quite successful in figuring out how pieces of the brain puzzle work (perception, movement, learning, emotion) but have not made much progress in putting the pieces together to build the kind of global picture of brain function that would be necessary to understand how one’s personal identity, one’s self, is represented in neural tissue.
The self has been of more interest to philosophers and psychologists than brain researchers. From Descartes through Locke and into modern times philosophers have stressed consciousness as the defining aspect of self. Carl Rogers, a pioneering self-psychologist, followed the philosophers in defining the self as “the organised, consistent conceptual gestalt composed of perceptions of the characteristics of the ‘I’ or ‘me’.” Many contemporary self-psychologists have a similar focus on self-consciousness. These psychologists do not deny that some aspects of mental life occur unconsciously, but they tend to minimise the importance of the unconscious.
Recently, there has been a growing interest in a more partitioned view of the self. One partition is between the minimum and the narrative self. The former is an immediate consciousness of one’s self; the latter a coherent self-consciousness that extends into the past and future. But these conscious partitions, which themselves may be based on different mechanisms, are, as Freud noted, only the tip of the iceberg. Terms such as the primitive, core, ecological and non-conceptual self, refer to unconscious aspects of personal identity that define who we are. The study of implicit or unconscious aspects of the self are now major themes in social psychology. In contrast to the narrative and minimal self notions, which depend on language to encode our awareness of who we are in consciousness, these implicit aspects of the self are not accessible for verbal self-reflection.