THE first time a baby smiles, at around 2 months of age, is an intense and beautiful moment for the parents. It is perhaps the first sure sign of recognition for all their love and devotion. It might be just as momentous for the baby, representing their first step on a long road to identity and self-awareness.
Identity is often understood to be a product of memory as we try to build a narrative from the many experiences of our lives. Yet there is now a growing recognition that our sense of self may be a consequence of our relationships with others. “We have this deep-seated drive to interact with each other that helps us discover who we are,” says developmental psychologist Bruce Hood at the University of Bristol, UK, author of The Self Illusion (Constable, 2012). And that process starts not with the formation of a child’s first memories, but from the moment they first learn to mimic their parents’ smile and to respond empathically to others.
The idea that the sense of self drives, and is driven by, our relationships with others makes intuitive sense. “I can’t have a relationship without having a self,” says Michael Lewis, who studies child development at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick, New Jersey. “For me to interact with you, I have to know certain things about you, and the only way I can get at those is by knowing things about me.”
There is now evidence that this is the way the brain works. Some clues come from people with autism. Although the disorder is most commonly associated with difficulties in understanding other people’s nonverbal social cues, it also seems to create some problems with self-reflection: when growing up, people with autism are later to learn how to recognise themselves in a mirror and tend to form fewer autobiographical memories. Tellingly, the same brain regions – areas of the prefrontal cortex – seem to show reduced activity when autistic people try to perform these kinds of tasks, and when they try to understand another’s actions. This supports the idea that the same brain mechanism underlies both types of skills.
Further support for the idea comes from the work of Antonio Damasio at the University of Southern California, who has found that social emotions such as admiration or compassion, which result from a focus on the behaviour of others, tend to activate the posteromedial cortices, another set of brain regions also thought to be important in constructing our sense of self (PNAS, vol 106, p 8021).
The upshot is that my own self is not so much about me; it’s as much about those around me and how we relate to one another – a notion that Damasio calls “the social me”. This has profound implications. If a primary function of self-identity is to help us build relationships, then it follows that the nature of the self should depend on the social environment in which it develops. Evidence for this comes from cultural psychology. In his book The Geography of Thought (Nicholas Brealey, 2003), Richard Nisbett at the University of Michigan presented lab experiments suggesting that Chinese and other east Asian people tend to focus on the context of a situation, whereas Westerners analyse phenomena in isolation – different outlooks that affect the way we think about ourselves.
Researchers examining autobiographical memory, for example, have found that Chinese people’s recollections are more likely to focus on moments of social or historical significance, whereas people in Europe and America focus on personal interest and achievement. Other studies of identity, meanwhile, have found that Japanese people are more inclined to tailor descriptions of themselves depending on the situation at hand, suggesting they have a more fluid, less concrete sense of themselves than Westerners, whose accounts tend not to rely on context in this way.
Such differences may emerge at an early age. Lewis points to anthropological reports suggesting that the “terrible twos” – supposedly the time when a child develops an independent will – are not as dramatic in cultures less focused on individual autonomy, which would seem to show that culture sculpts our sense of self during our earliest experiences.
These disparities in outlook and thinking imply that our very identities – “what it is that I am” – are culturally determined. “I’m a male, I’m an academic, I’m a senior, I’m married, I’m a father and grandfather: all of these things that I define myself as are really cultural artefacts,” says Lewis. Clearly there is no single pan-cultural concept of selfhood. Yet Hazel Markus, who studies the interaction of culture and self at Stanford University in California, points out that human personalities do share one powerful trait: the capacity to continually shape and be shaped by whatever social environment we inhabit.
While the evidence for “the social me” continues to mount, not everyone is convinced that it is always helpful for our well-being. To the writer and psychologist Susan Blackmore, the self may be a by-product of relationships. It may simply unfold “in the context of social interaction and learning to relate to others, which may inevitably lead you to this sense that I am in here” while bringing some unfortunate baggage along with it. She points out that the self can compel us to cling neurotically to emotions and thoughts that undermine our overall happiness.
Letting it all go, however, would mean undoing the habit of a lifetime.
This article appeared in print under the headline “Why are you?”
Michael Bond is a New Scientist consultant in London
via The self: Why are you like you are? – life – 28 February 2013 – New Scientist.