What Makes Us Who We Are: Neuroscience and the Self

The idea of the mind is a relatively modern concept. In medieval times, it was believed that people were divided in two parts, the physical body and the spiritual soul. With the emergence of the scientific revolution and thinkers such as John Locke, the mind and secular life became an important topic in discussions about self-awareness. Since then, we have been trying to understand not only what it means to possess a mind, but also the neuroscience behind it.

That was part of the message at “My Neurons, My Self,” a panel discussion at the World Science Festival in New York City. Three eminent neuroscientists and a philosopher provided insight into the “mind-brain” problem, focusing on what defines the self. “What we don’t have yet is a way of bridging mental experience with the brain in a coherent model that allows for mental intention; we still are a ways off from solving the mind-brain problem,” said George Makari, M.D., director of the Institute of the History of Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College, in introducing the panel.

Joy Hirsch, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry, comparative medicine, and of neuroscience at Yale University, has been conducting experiments in what she called the “social synapse,”  or what occurs in the brain as people communicate. Her lab uses near-infrared spectroscopy, a technique that places laser emitting optodes and electrodes around the skull to free subjects from the scanner to monitor the brain while people interact. They found that two brains in communication work in sync, alternating between word comprehension and reception, or speech and production. Hirsch believes these two different approaches shows a new way to look at the self, as part of a larger collective consciousness, overlapping with the selves of others.

Jesse J. Prinz, Ph.D., director of the City University of New York Philosophy Lab, provided a different perspective on the idea of collective consciousness. When asking people what they believe most defined the self, the most popular responses were terms such as values and morality. If these elements change, a person is truly different, and self is changed, said Prinz. He believes that values are not only intrinsically valuable, but are also an important way for people to signal who they are to others. He observed:

How many of you who are Bernie supporters discovered that a close friend supports Hillary and had this jarring moment where you really wonder: can I be friends with this person anymore? There is a way in which our selves are not just individual things, they’re all about forming these social connections.

He also argued that decisions like who a person votes for are influenced by an array of social factors such as where a person lives, their religion, education, or upbringing. Therefore, examining social influences on the development of the self should be as important as examining the workings of the brain, he said.

My Neurons

Daphna Shohamy, Ph.D., an associate professor in the psychology department at Columbia University, focused on memories as a way to define self. “We are what we’ve learned and remembered from our experiences,” she said. She described an experiment which tested how memories link together and build upon one another. Her lab used a video game with common elements to examine how the brain reacted when one element was repeated. Shohamy found the hippocampus, associated with memory and inference, was active, but so was the striatum, a part of the brain concerned with habits and planned actions.

This connectivity suggests that memories feed into behavior, sometimes subconsciously. Martha J. Farah, Ph.D., director of the Center for Neuroscience and Society at the University of Pennsylvania and a Dana Alliance member, added that the idea of “chaining of memories” could be what kept the self constant. The self is a filter, based on our memories, that affects future experiences, she said.

The panelists gave their own interpretations about the self, but noted that there is still no precise definition. “If by self we mean something that does endure over time, some essence of a person that makes them the same person, I’m not sure there is such a thing,” said Farah.

The full program is available for streaming online. For more coverage of the World Science Festival see: Moral Robots: How Close Are We?

– Ali Chunovic

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