Feb 25, 2012

Who Am I? Memory and Beliefs

This post was inspired by a conversation I had with a good friend over text message about the role of memory and beliefs in our identity. People always talk about finding their true self and identity. Some travel to find themselves, some experiment with different styles of living, drugs and food, others turn to religion and spirituality, all for the sake of finding the true self as if it were lost somewhere in the universe waiting to be found. The reality is that the self is not lost, instead it is shaped by experiences. A solid, static self that represents all of our true likes, dislikes and beliefs does not exists. Our minds are always changing, evolving and adapting based on external experiences, memories of those experiences and how they are processed through the prism of our beliefs.

"Memory tells us who we are and if it's not recorded in memory it doesn't matter, regardless of whether it happened or not"
The problem here is that our memories of events and experiences also change and evolve over time, which leads to the identity paradox, that is if we identify ourselves through our memories then that identity is on a very shaky foundation if those memories are constantly changing in our brains. That being said, there is another player in our brains that helps create our identity, that is our core beliefs and ego. As we grow older through childhood to adulthood and beyond we start forming strong core beliefs that protect and elevate our ego. We start adopting ideologies, theories and beliefs about how the world works and our relative place in our social networks to others. The stronger those beliefs, the stronger is the prism that we process and understand life events through. This prism doesn't just filter input and data to match our core beliefs but also alters our memories so we tend to forget those memories that are in conflict with our core beliefs and always remember the ones that support them. Republicans for example, filter out all data or input that does not support their political views and forget historical facts that does not agree with their current positions. Same goes for democrats or liberals. It can also be generalized that this is the reason why old people tend be suborn, conservative and less open-minded. Their beliefs have been formed and strengthened throughout their lives and now their view of the world is very much through this strong prism of lifelong beliefs.

"Inside my head is a world that is shaped by my ego and identity that though is often influenced by outside input it also picks and chooses which input to record and which to ignore to mach that ego and identity.."

Now we see the gift and curse of having strong beliefs. They make our lives simpler and easier to comprehend by constantly filtering input and memories to match our beliefs and hence elevating our ego and self-esteem. However, they make us less logical and rational of decision makers since we tend to not consider all arguments and facts and only intake and remember those that agree with our core beliefs. On the flip side, having no or weak beliefs is equally nuanced. A person with no strong beliefs has no prism or filter to process life inputs through and hence has to consider all data and information it receives and is often paralyzed in analysis when making decisions and tends to be more uncertain and anxious about life, recognizing the randomness and unpredictability of life. So here we have the strong belief type who is generally happy and irrational versus the weak belief type who is generally rational and logical but depressed. This phenomenon has not changed much even in the age of the internet and information. Instead of making us all rational thinkers and independent individuals, the internet has created more niche communities for people with strong beliefs to join, socialize and connect, hence, strengthening each others strong beliefs on a particular subject or theory.
"So if what your ego says doesn't match the outside world, which wins? The self or the subject always wins because it has to, ego and core beliefs must be maintained and protected at all costs or a conflict rises that leads to depression.  Now if the outside world is disagreeing with something that's not a core belief, the inside world will adapt and change accordingly"
So at this point you might ask, what makes some people have strong beliefs and some weak or no beliefs. My personal opinion is that most of us had strong beliefs as kids about how the world worked (magic, good and evil, Santa Claus, fairness of life, etc) and as we grow older depending on our life experiences, social networks, surroundings and our parents we start updating our old beliefs and adopting new ones. If most of our early life experience revolved around certain way of thinking or belief (such as growing up in Muslim family in Pakistan) with no other view points to challenge it, we begin to form stronger beliefs around those repeated patterns we observe around us. However, if our childhood experiences expose us to many different beliefs (growing up in New York city), life styles, and ways of thinking, then we tend to keep an open mind about which beliefs to adopt as we grow older. We don't necessarily endorse one belief versus another but we take bits and pieces from different beliefs that we allow them to evolve and change based on external input over time. Strong beliefs are also formed through major life events such as a death of a loved one. Such extreme events tend to shake and question our core beliefs and mental filters or the lack there of and some either create much stronger beliefs and filters to protect themselves even more against uncertainty of life and emotional pain or strongly question all their beliefs which often leads to abandoning those old strong beliefs for new ones or none at all.

"Odd as it may seem, I am my remembering self, and the experiencing self, who does my living, is like a stranger to me." -Daniel Kahneman

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