There is a reason why Socrates’ maximum “know thyself” is still considered one of the most valuable and profound premises of Western philosophy. Despite meaningful advances in psychology, physiology and neurobiology, the true nature of the self remains elusive and is still the subject of hypothesis, studies, theories and speculations. Despite renewed interest in the study of the self, who we are continues to be mainly a subjective experience, something that exists within the limits of our mind and can only be experienced by the person aware of being in a certain moment and time — the ‘I’ if you will — that cements the perception of our identity.
The problem is that the ‘I’ in ‘I am’ is a less stable entity that we would like to think, and for some neuroscientists it might not even be there at all. From ancient philosophies like Buddhism —that teaches the precept of no-self—, the philosophical thought of Spinoza,—that proposes the mind as the ‘idea’ of the human body—, to modern neuroscience that proposes the self as an hallucination of sorts where the brain treats something that is not there as if it was; the idea that the self is not real, since strictly speaking it does not exists, is getting more traction. But if the self is not real, how do we get the unequivocal experience of selfhood paired with the sense of a singular identity?
A definitive answer is not available yet, but there is extensive research that points out to the possibility that the self is almost entirely made from narratives, this is the stories that we tell ourselves about the kind of person we think we are and how we would like to be perceived by others. These narratives are the framework that allows us to make a coherent whole out of the multitude of desires, needs, fears, impulses, memories and
dreams that make up who we are. In other words, we tell ourselves stories that link together our life long experiences, and connect the mental images that make up our thoughts into an apparently continuous stream that we identify as our consciousness.
We tell and repeat self-stories that anchor us as the single point from where we make sense of the world, and nowhere is this narrative of the self more apparent than when we craft stories about our past. Neurological studies show that memory is essentially reconstructive, this is our memories are interpretations of people, events, things and feelings. A new version of the original situation is reconstructed every time we recall a memory, and these reconstructions are highly manipulatable. As our experience and self-image evolve though time, the memories will change and so will the narratives that accompany them. The same happens when we project our self forward, since future planning implies a memory of sorts that holds together images of thoughts and movements that are no different in nature from the memories of things that have passed.
Our self-story then will consolidate past and future memories and fictions into a coherent account, a theory about our person and our social role in regards to others. The stories that we tell ourselves constitute the base for understanding who we are and how to act in the world, therefore the way we create this narrative is of the uttermost importance. If these narratives are not handed down but created and the sense of self is not rigid but rather a highly adaptive construct, then we have a chance to consciously shape our selfhood. Self-stories are a space of possibility to step aside from our own assumptions about the narratives we can tell and how we can tell them, an invitation to see differently by identifying our own biases and move according to our own story and conception of the world, perhaps embracing more complex narratives that question the concept of a static reality to open up lines of flight to establish new ways of telling who we are.
This article is written by Jimena Mendizábal del Moral