Psychology has become a fascination for me in recent years, particularly trying to understand how the mind works. A class I sat in last year about love which focuses a lot on our relationship to others had me also asking the question “What about the
love we have for ourselves?” In talking to my colleague who teaches the class, she said to her knowledge, while many have done intensive studies both through surveys and neuroanalyses of the brain in relation to the love we feel towards others, she wasn’t aware of any studies that really studies our brain when we think about our own self. For instance I wonder, what areas of the brain activate when we start talking about ourselves? Is it the same area that activates when we talk about our mother? A frightening thought indeed. Like many questions it began to lead me down a whole other path of thinking as well about how we develop identity and about individualism. How do we become the people that we are? How do we know ourselves? Is our sense of self just an illusion?
In the first month or so it is clear that newborns don’t have a sense of self, and numerous studies have shown that they still see themselves as extensions of their mother. Essentially still in the womb, although the womb conditions have clearly gone through some big changes. 🙂 For the past few weeks I can clearly start to see changes in my son as he begins to engage in the world and starts realizing that he is an individual separate from others. Although filled with a lot of terminology I am less familiar with my colleague sent me a link to a paper that talks about the development of self (as well as other things). I found it interesting to learn that the sense of self is initial learned by imitating and watching the behavior of others. As social animals only through learning about others do we begin to get a sense of self. I found this to be a fascinating dichotomy. Because on one hand we think of ourselves as unique, which is at the heart of our individualism, but this uniqueness appears to come from the observations of others.
Now I am not suggesting that we don’t have some genetic uniqueness as well. Many parents report their children having a personality from very young ages that appears to be different from their own or their siblings. I have no doubt that this is true. But it could be that the children are picking up on personality traits that we don’t recognize (or admit) in ourselves or it could be that genetic differences influence how we perceive the actions of others and thus each child interprets behaviors and intentions slightly differently.
It seems to me that even if this would not be the case we would still all be quite unique because our lives are sum of a unique set of experiences. No person meets the exact same people, goes to the exact same places, and experiences the exact same education. We are all dynamic and constantly changing individuals such that even children of the same parents will experience their parents and different times in their lives when they have more or less experience, different skill sets, etc.
So it’s not that self is so much an illusion but rather that the concept of self perhaps has no value without the context of others, especially for a social species. We are constantly comparing ourselves to others, judging others, labeling and categorizing others, and while I can see the harm that this can sometimes, it seems that it is something we have been doing all our lives. Without doing that can we understand who we are as individuals without comparing and contrasting ourselves to
others? People tell you not to care what others think of you, but this seems like somewhat unrealistic advice. No matter how much a person protests that they don’t care, there is no question we all do care. What we really want to do is shrug off the people who think we suck and believe hook, line, and sinker in the people who think we are awesome. It seems to me that this is really hard thing to do given how much of our life we spend defining ourselves through our relationships with other people and so we must often take the good with the bad and then reflect on the interpretation that others seem to gather of our behaviors and actions.
I would love to hear the thoughts others have about this, and would love to get academic about it as well is you have any expertise to share. This I would like to be just one in a 3 part series as I am also fascinated, as an extension of individualism, by collectivism. After that I’d like to look at the somewhat more ethereal topic of duality.