Who Am I? An Exploration of Self

On Thursday, April 28, experts from the sciences and humanities converged at the New York Academy of Sciences for an enlightening conversation about the notion of self. The sold-out event, “A Self Fulfilling Prophecy: Linking Belief to Behavior,” was the fourth discussion of a six-part series “Perspectives on the Self: Conversations on Identity and Consciousness” that seeks to address the question, what is the self, exactly? Moderated by Esther Sternberg from NIMH, the panel included Simon Critchley, The New School University; Shaun Gallagher, University of Central Florida; and V.V. Raman, Rochester Institute of Technology.

This panel was tasked with answering the questions: where is self in the brain? Is there an exact spot? And how is it developed? Panelists largely agreed that the self is not formed in isolation in the brain, but rather is a social entity, shaped through interactions and relationships. Self is “as much the overall effect of our neural network as our interactions with the outside world,” said Raman.

Defining the relationship between the brain and the self is an ongoing conversation in the science community. Some, such as Gallagher, a professor of cognitive sciences and philosophy, postulate that self may not be in the brain, but be “more distributed in the body and environment.” He encourages the use of multiple disciplines to explore the idea of self, believing that using only one offers an incomplete picture. Other scientists, such as neurobiologist and Dana Alliance member Joe LeDoux, believe the self and personality to be interchangeable, derived from synaptic connectivity. “We are our synapses,” writes Ledoux in his book The Synaptic Self.

Contributing to this debate, some brain researchers are taking the question of self straight to the labs. As reported in our 2010 briefing paper “The Unhealthy Ego,” scientists are using brain imaging and self-reference experiments to study the neurobiology of self, linking it to the medial prefrontal cortex.

Clearly there is not a working definition of self, neither in the sciences nor among other disciplines such as philosophy and religion. Critchley, a professor of philosophy, warned of allowing science to extend itself over all phenomena, suggesting instead that practical ideas of self (a more casual sort of definition) may be separate from rigorously scientific interpretations.

For more ideas about sense of self, please read my previous blog, “People as Puppets.”

–Ann L. Whitman

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