General Interest

How Your Brain Creates Your Sense of Self

You were a kid, an adolescent and maybe today you’re already an adult. Most probably the way you perceive the world changed over time and many of the things you thought define you changed as well. But you still perceive yourself as… yourself. How do you keep feeling as being yourself if you’re constantly changing ? Is it only your own body that reassures you that you are still the same person?

Some characteristics seem to define us more than others. You may believe that speaking french, knowing how to cook and being a talented dancer are some of the things that define you, but losing any of these skills will not affect the fundamental essence of your self. You will remain the same person you were 3 years ago and no matter what you will be doing tomorrow, you will still be you.

Becoming aware of your own body is the first and the most important step in the construct of self concept. Our sense of self emerges when we are about 1 year old and it develops along with our self awareness. The first sign of self awareness is recognizing yourself in the mirror. Children start to distinguish their body parts and analyze how their movements affect the environment. This is the stage when the brain starts to build a map of the body, or put another way, it starts “mapping the reality”.

Your Brain Puts Together Incoming Sensory Information To Create The Physical Sense of Self

Looking from a purely evolutionary perspective, we have become the humans we are today due to our need to survive. Complex mechanisms as memory and consciousness were developed in our brains in order to make us better at adapting and evolving as a species. Memory helps us to keep track of the past experiences so we can predict and prevent situations in the future. Consciousness gives us the advantage of recognizing and sharing our thoughts and ideas.Our sense of self also seems to serve us well, as it maintains the illusion of us being an entity in its own right.

Neuroscientists could not localize the sense of self in a distinct part of the brain, as they did with other brain mechanisms. Instead, they found that the physical sense of self is centered on the brain’s temporalparietal cortex. This part of the brain integrates information from many senses and creates a unique feeling of living inside a body. Your physical self is constantly created by your brain by uniting all your sensations and localizing your body in space.

What Your Sense of Self Has To Do With Others

It is no news that our relationships shape our identity and the way we perceive ourselves. But the impact of others on creating a sense of self is bigger than thought. We interact with other people since we are born and every person in our lives leaves a mark on us. Although, this is not the only reason why interactions with others are important for our sense of self. Other people may be the ones who guide us to build our identity.

Interacting with other people would not be possible without having a sense of self. When you have a conversation with someone, you are basically exchanging ideas, but what would you exchange if you had no sense of self? It seems that our self integrity is a consequence of the many interactions we had in our lives. Other people not only confirm our existence , they help us, through interactions, to discover our true selves.

Some proofs of the fact that relationships help us build our sense of self were found when studying people with autism. The condition is associated with difficulties in understanding other people’s social cues, but it also seems to create problems with self reflection . Children with autism learn later to recognize themselves in a mirror and form fewer memories about their personal experiences (George, 2018). This shows an association between the ability to understand others and the ability to understand your own self.

How Pieces of Self Are Lost

Our brains make a really hard work to keep our sense of self unified. You take your sense of self for granted, while there are people who struggle to see themselves as a whole. Some conditions like Borderline Personality Disorder, Depersonalization Disorder and Cotard’s Syndrome cause people to feel like they don’t own their body or even to think that they lost body parts and are now dead ( Cotard’s Syndrome).These conditions arise from the brain’s inability to match different inputs or to construct a correct map of the body.

Certain psychedelic drugs can also alter your sense of self. LSD was proved to create ego dissolution, a experience of expanded sense of self. While taking LSD, people report a sensation of loss of the identity, as they feel that the boundary between their self and the rest of the world is dissolving.

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