The kernel of self-awareness at the very root of your identity connects memories of the past with the fleeting sensations of the present, and a touch of anticipation for the future.
The question of whether this ongoing understanding of ‘you’ is as strong as it makes one is has plagued terrorists and psychologists throughout life. A new, smaller psychological study weighs in, looking at brain scans and finding that at least a small portion of you are actually compatible with aging and aging.
“In our study, we tried to answer the question of whether we were the same person throughout our lives,” says Miguel Rubines, a neuroscientist at the University of Complutens in Madrid.
“Together with the previous literature, our results suggest that one component remains stable while the other component is more sensitive to change over time.”
Self-continuity forms the very basis of identity. Each time you use the word ‘I’, you’re referring to a thread that stitches a series of experiences in a lifetime tapestry, representing the relationship between your youthful self that has yet to emerge.
Yet identity is more than the sum of its parts. Consider the metaphor of Theus’s ship or the paradox of Grandpa’s ax – a tool that replaced his head with its shaft, but it is still somehow the same ax that Grandpa’s.
If our experiences change us, replace every heart break and every promotion, every illness and every wind with parts of our identity, can we really say that we see ourselves as the same person when we were four years old?
You can be forgiven for thinking like the navel-vision sounds of a philosopher than science can address. But there is a view that psychology – and even the wiring of our neurological programming – can come out.
Rubines and his team focused primarily on the ‘how and when’ of neurology with familiar faces, relying on previous research to suggest that visual self-belief can serve as an indicator of making a connection with one’s own impression.
Known as the self-reference effect, we do a better job of remembering or recognizing information if it is somehow connected to us personally, such as seeing one’s own face in a photograph.
Despite the evidence supporting the existence of the phenomenon, the exact timing and mechanisms of the process in our minds is an open question.
Conflicting studies have highlighted various neurological processes to differentiate our own faces from others, for example, illuminating different areas of the brain, used to identify and attribute meaning to a set of familiar features.
Determining the types of neurological activity involved can tell us whether we are stimulated by our own facial beliefs, such as meeting an old friend, or making a real connection with the self he represents, both past and present.
To do this, the team conducted a validation task with a group of 20 students. Each was presented with his own face, the face of a close friend, and an unfamiliar face, with 27 pictures at different stages of life.
Each image flashes on the screen for one second at a time, during which the participant has to press a button to identify who they are looking at: self, friend or stranger. In the second trial, they were asked to identify a person’s life stage: childhood, adolescence, or adulthood.
Meanwhile, dozens of electrodes were engaged in brain-activating activity resonating with their gray matter, painting a map of the activity.
That map, and the response time of the participants, strongly suggests that our own impression – the spirit of ‘I’ – is updated throughout life, giving it stability. We’ve actually portrayed ourselves in fourth grade, and there’s no familiar image of a child sharing our memories.
In this study we found interesting similarities in how we would process the imprint of our past nature and the imprint of our close friend, hinting at how time can shape the imprint of our identity.
Of course it is important to note that this study was conducted on a small sample size and is far from the final word of the subject.
But there is a strict neurological underpinning for our self-awareness that is well-reflected by other studies that are drawn by time and experience that suggest there is also a cultural influence on how we perceive identity.
Significantly, the neurological descriptions of certain bits of the brain responsible for sorting themselves out from a stranger can help us better understand why some people do not share this impression.
Disruption in that thread of belief often defines conditions such as schizophrenia, increasing the risk of self-harm to individuals.
“This underscores the importance of basic and clinical research in the study of the role of individual identity, as it promises to be a more important concept than previously thought and can play a fundamental role in psychological assessment and intervention processes.” Rubians.
Some days we all feel a little uncertain about just who we are. Sure, there’s a good chance you’re always there in your mind.
This research was published Psychophysiology.