Below are three books about you. New scientist’s CultureLab has three short reviews up of books that encounter the question of personal identity (“Neuroscience clues to who you aren’t“). What I like about the selection of books being reviewed are the angles from which they come at the question, or at least the angle from which the editor put them together. Facebook profiles may allow individuals to define themselves through helpful tools of “likes” and about pages, and perhaps when someone asks us to introduce ourselves we resort to work, family, and location as defining characteristics, but getting at one’s real identity is incredibly elusive.
The first book, The Self Illusion: Why There Is No ‘You’ Inside Your Head by Bruce Hood gets at the question haunting philosophy, religion, and neuroscience. What makes you, you? Humans are complicated systems that when examined closely seem to make the individual disappear entirely. I am not the product of a single neuron, but of a massive nexus or intersection of factors. This is the age old problem of being and essence. If you get too general in your description, you lose the essence of the person among generalities (species) and if you are too specific, then you loose the person among atoms. Where is the self?
The second book, DNA USA: A Genetic Biography of America by Bryan Sykes looks at the collective world of genetics. The conclusion plays on the classic idea that America could become a melting pot. Sykes, a geneticist at the University of Oxford and founder of Oxford Ancestors, looks at DNA and discovers that we are all, as individuals, melting pots. In doing family history research, I’ve discovered just how difficult it is to get a full picture of my biological history. I’m Scots-Irish, Native American, Welsh, Italian, etc., etc., etc. Asking relatives what the family story is does not always make it easier. There are plenty that clam-up about it, understanding it to be no one’s business. Sykes encountered similar difficulties, noting that his “research has been hampered by Native Americans’ hostility towards genetic investigations into their roots, and finds this is partly because findings conflict with native creation myths.” DNA may be the best way to get at the details, but will it also make the question of essence more elusive?
The last book, Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception by psychologist Claudia Hammond, attempts to push the limits of neurobiology, hoping to get the human mind to give up the secrets of perceived time. Why does it move fast when we are having fun? For physics, neuroscience, and philosophy, the true nature of experienced time remains a complicated puzzle. How can you study the experience of that which guides your life? Psychologists have invented some incredible tests for getting at the experience of being a time-bound creature. But will these studies reach an impassible barrier?
All three books look interesting and I’m adding them to my TBR. I recommend reading about them over at the New Scientist’s CultureLab: Where books, arts and science collide.