22 July 2008

You Are Not Who You Think You Are

Ever since I read Proust was a Neuroscientist, I've been particularly stuck on one idea introduced in the chapter on the plasticity of neurons. The first cool fact is that all those things your parents and teachers told you about how your brain "freezes" at about age 12 and it will be exponentially more difficult to learn new things after that is just hogwash. Related to that (or, heck, maybe it was in a whole different chapter and I'm just remembering it this way, since this book also taught me how grossly unreliable memory can be) is the fact that neurons actually have a short and rapid lifespan so that "you" are constantly being passed on through successive generations of neurons. This just fascinated me, thinking of your identity, memory, executive function and so on being passed like a relay. Except, of course, it's more like a school or sports team because there are so many constituents - every year a class graduates and a new class enters, those still there try to impart the spitit and values and traditions of the school to the newcomers, but something is always changed in the process. Meanwhile, the institution itself continues to go on as a seemingly continous and fairly stable entity.

This idea of subtle and constant mutations in your brain was still stuck in mine as I have continued to read The Metaphysical Club, which covers a lot of philosophical ground related to the changes in ideas about individuality and identity. And that got me to thinking about how our personality and identity is constantly shifting, even though we tend to think of it as just plain constant. At my advanced lab with a sample size of one, I've had the opportunity to observe this in light of big changes. For example, a new job. After all, for most adults, your job is implicitly or explicitly a major part of your identity, though you often still consider yourself as very separate and even in opposition. Lots of people adopt the "This is just my paycheck" attitude, but over time that becomes less and less true, as the office culture quietly works on your brain for 40+ hours a week. But you'll probably never notice this until you leave, because you still conceptualize yourself as the person who walked in the door on Day 1 who just happens to be in this environment.

Now, as much as I like just pondering this in the abstract, I think it has some concrete applications. First off, it can certainly help account for the extremely low success rate of rebound relationships. In cases where it isn't an obvious silly fling, you are probably choosing what you think is a good partner - but is actually (at best) only a good partner for old You, ignoring all the changes that have come about during your last relationship. I think the same applies to many unhappy job seekers, who embark on what they think is a great to position that fulfills most of their needs and desires, only to find they have a whole new set of needs they hadn't even acknowledged.