Dec 30, 2012

The Illusion and Paradox of Identity

Having a unique identity and personality is one of the core characteristics of being human. Having an identity is not only a requirement to live in a society but also celebrated. People often talk about “finding” themselves, or knowing who they really are or what they really like, as if we are dealing with a new car without a manual and need to drive it in different conditions and places to figure out its “personality”, weakness and strengths. People also sometimes refer to life as a journey to find their “passion” or purpose as if it is lost somewhere in the universe waiting to be found. But of course, in reality, scientifically speaking there is no such thing as personality and identity independent of pure electrical and chemical signals in the brain.
To illustrate this point, imagine that all your memories have been wiped out, similar to Alzheimer patients. You have no recollection of your friends and family and your experiences with them. Now, ask yourself who you are and try to define your identity or personality. You might genetically have some inclinations. For example, some might genetically be more prone to depression or certain addictions or have a taste of certain foods. However, without memories and social networks the identity with, the self ceases to exist. As such, what we call identity is an evolving view we have of ourselves based on the stories we tell ourselves consisting of memories and the feedback we get from our social networks. For example, a comedian would say about his identity/personality that he/she is a funny person and tells funny jokes, but how does he know this? He knows this because of his memories of other people’s reactions to his comments and jokes. If no one ever laughed at his jokes he might not consider himself a comedian.

So it’s evident that it’s not the self that creates its own identity but rather the community (social environment, culture and traditions). So are we just zombies allowing our surroundings to define and create our identities and personalities which then we adopt as our own? Yes and No. Almost all humans are born into some type of culture, tradition and social network that help shape our childhood identities and personalities. But as we grow and are exposed to different cultures, experiences and people we begin to shape and take control of these exposures and hence shaping our identity. That said, some people are born into cultures or countries that are very homogeneous and very little difference in ideology or tradition between people. In these societies the identity of the self changes very little throughout life unless there are dramatic life experiences which might cause the self to question identity and beliefs. On The other hand, some people are born into very diverse environments and communities. Growing up in New York City for example can expose one to many different memes and communities. In this case one might develop a very fluid identity that is constantly evolving and adapting to latest trends or memes.

So far, we have established that self-identification is strongly correlated with personal experiences (some by choice and others unexpected), memories and social networks. All three of these factors, however, are dependent upon geography though it is becoming less so with the emergence of the internet and mobile technology. Most of us here in the West fall somewhere in the middle of the identity spectrum, inhibiting some strong ideologies while constantly evolving in other areas. For example, one can have very strong religious beliefs while constantly changing jobs and careers based on latest innovations and trends.

Having established the identity spectrum, now let's focus on three issues or paradoxes with identity:

One is that memory plays a critical role in forming identities and personalities. We constantly refer to our memory to remember how we reacted in certain situations or what other people's impression of us was in the past. That said, neuroscience and psychology tell us that memories are often unreliable and evolve over time. We do not remember abstract details of an event for example but rather the high and low emotional moments and circumstances. Also, with time, the level of detail of each memory fades and might even completely change. So, if we rely on our memory to tell us who we are then who are we if those memories are flawed, evolving and not always reliable?
The second dilemma with identity has to do with the internet in the age of social media. With constant exposure to media, information and online social networks, how does the identity pick and choose which trends to follow and which memes to ignore? In a sense, we are constantly bombarded (to use a software analogy) with software updates and upgrades and somehow we choose which ones to adopt and which to ignore. However, the very influencers that dictate these filters were once software updates themselves being filtered by an earlier operating version of our brain. Our culture then, not only exposes us to various trends and memes but it also tries to amplify and advertise [through media] certain memes as 'popular' or worth adopting. The motivations behind these meme facilitators (Big Media) and creators (Business) are typically profit-creation, influence or power. As more people identify with a certain meme or trend, populism and hype cause even more people to adopt this meme and make it spread and go viral.
The third paradox has to do with the unconscious part of our brain. Not only we rarely have awareness of what goes on in our unconscious but neuroscience tells us that most of our actions are in fact driven by our unconscious minds and our consciousness is only there as an observers and a justifier after the fact. We often make decisions unconsciously motivated by deep subconscious emotions, memories and insecurities and are only present consciously to witness the result of the decision and justify it by creating an often inaccurate story around it.

The irony of identity, hence, lies in the recognition that it is rarely driven by a completely self-aware and self-conscious self but rather by a complex set of variables and factors often unknown and inaccessible to the self. We in a way manufacture our own identity based on the story we tell ourselves, a story which often is an illusion and changes with times.  

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