Science writer Jennifer Ouellette explores the emerging science of the self, a body of research that examines not just who we are, but also…if we are.
Who are you?
The question may seem simple to answer: You are the citizen of a country, the resident of a city, the child of particular parents, the sibling (or not) of brothers and sisters, the parent (or not) of children, and so on. And you might further answer the question by invoking a personality, an identity: You're outgoing. You're politically liberal. You're Catholic. Going further still, you might bring up your history, your memories: You came from a place, where events happened to you. And those helped make you who you are.
Such are some of the off-the-cuff ways in which we explain ourselves. The scientific answer to the question above, however, is starting to look radically different. Last year, New Scientist magazine even ran a cover article titled, "The Great Illusion of the Self," drawing on the findings of modern neuroscience to challenge the very idea that we have seamless, continuous, consistent identities. "Under scrutiny, many common-sense beliefs about selfhood begin to unravel," declared the magazine. "Some thinkers even go so far as claiming that there is no such thing as the self."
What's going on here? When it comes to understanding this new and very personal field of science, it's hard to think of a more apt guide than Jennifer Ouellette, author of the new book Me, Myself, and Why: Searching for the Science of Self. Not only is Ouellette a celebrated science writer; she also happens to have been adopted, a fact that makes her life a kind of natural experiment in the relative roles of genes and the environment in determining our identities. The self, explains Ouellette on the latest episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast (stream above), is "a miracle of integration. And we haven't figured it out, but the science that is trying to figure it out is absolutely fascinating."
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