Deric Bownds

Chapter 7

Minds and Selves

The discussion of mind development in the previous chapter placed emphasis on the developing brain selecting what works best, given its particular genetic background and the physical and social environment it encounters. In recent years, however, more and more experiments have revealed that the human brain is a curious and active creature, exploring its world and actively constructing responses. This chapter starts with a description of early stages in the formation of human selves---stages that correspond to maturational processes in our developing brain hardware. What emerges in the first few years, distinctive to us human animals, is the child as a storyteller, a narrative autobiographical self. The second part of the chapter examines, from several points of view, the question of what a human self is: how it might be distinct from the selves of other animals and how its nature has been revealed in clinical studies of brain-damaged adults. The third section describes the self as a modular entity, containing different classes of intelligences and even different personalities. In the final section, we shall try to pull together some ideas on nature and nurture in the formation of selves. Evidence has linked genetic factors to complex behavioral traits, and our fundamental working model of what a self is can be influenced by cultural surroundings.

Stages in the Development of Human Selves

During the first few years of life, human infants are in the process of growing brains that look very similar to other primate brains. There is no evidence that humans have neuron types or circuits that are fundamentally different from those of the great apes, for example, although more of the cortex is occupied by association areas. Frontal lobes and regions of the cerebellum are also relatively larger. Brain imaging studies show that subcortical structures are most active at birth; then occipital, temporal, and parietal activity corresponding to sensory-motor development increases most rapidly between 3 and 6 months; and a rapid increase in frontal lobe activity occurs between 8 and 10 months. At this time, long-range connections between major brain regions are being laid down. These may be the anatomical basis of an array of correlated changes that are taking place in language, communication, and cognition. During this period, faculties such as tool use, intentional communication, imitation, and retrieval of hidden objects retrieval are coming into play. Words are comprehended, and nonnative speech sounds are suppressed. Between 9 and 24 months, the density of synaptic connections between brain cells reaches 150 percent of adult levels, as a rapid acceleration occurs in the acquisition of vocabulary, grammar, symbolic play, and categorization abilities. By 48 months, overall brain metabolism has peaked, most grammatical structures have been acquired, and a period of stabilization begins. Brain metabolism and the density of synaptic connections then begin to decline, and they continue to decrease until, after puberty, they reach adult levels. The elimination of connections may be driven by a competition that favors the survival of those that are working best. Superior frontal cortex, involved in higher functions, continues to increase in volume from 8 to 25 years of age. 1

By the age of 12 to 18 months, humans have become little natural scientists, expressing an instinct to learn. Dolls that don't follow physical rules cause startle reactions, and basic aspects of objects are understood: how objects set in motion continue to move, how one object can support another placed on top of it, and how an object still exists even if another object blocks its view. A human baby looking in a mirror takes his or her image to be another child until the age of about 18 months, when it recognizes the image as its own. At this age humans also recognize any conflict between the tone an adult often uses when speaking to a child and the content of the spoken message (for example, saying "don't touch that" in a cooing, calm, and smooth voice). At around 2 years of age, the entire grammar of a language blossoms over a period of about 6 months. A simple experiment demonstrates that between the ages of 3 and 4, others are assigned a separate mind. At age 3 a child who observes matches being put in a crayon box says that a toy rabbit that was absent when this was happening also knows the box contains matches. The child is not able to conceive of the mind it attributes to the rabbit as being different from its own mind. At age 4 the child will say the rabbit thinks the box has crayons because the rabbit didn't see the matches being substituted for them. This is clear evidence for the development of an ability to ascribe minds holding beliefs (in this case, a false belief) to others.



It appears that we all begin as "little scientists" who pass through a sequence of stages in discovering facts about the physical world and the minds of other humans.


Contemporary studies, all influenced by Piaget's work on child development, have given rise to several different descriptions of stages in mental development. One model suggests that the ability to ascribe mental states to others develops in four sequential cognitive stages: an intentionality detector, an eye-direction detector, a mechanism for sharing attention to an object with another person, and a theory-of-mind mechanism. Using this scheme, autism might be described as a sort of "mind-blindness" caused by breakdown of the transition between the second and third steps, such that autistic people are largely unaware that other people have minds. 2 Another description presents the child as physicist, then mathematician, then psychologist, annotator, and linguist, proceeding from unconscious knowledge through conscious knowledge to verbally expressed knowledge. Each of these areas is suggested to be an internal module present in all humans. 3 A further categorization is of the sequential development of a so-called point mode (2--3 months) for sensing and controlling present environments, followed by a line mode (8--10 months) that adds future and past to the present. Then follows a construct mode (1--2 years) that detaches from specific place or time to generalize away from the "I." A transcendent mode (8--10 years) then makes it possible for the child to analyze patterns and relationships outside of a specific place and time. 4

Effects of Rich Versus Impoverished Environments

Development of many areas of the brain both in humans and in other developing animals is a function of the presence (or absence) of rich and varied interaction with the environment. Rats raised with multiple (rather than single) families or with toys (rather than without) have 10--20 percent thicker cerebral cortexes. Their brain nerve cells are larger and have many more connections. The effects of environment can persist in the adult; adult mice living in cages that contain toys, nests, tunnels, and play wheels have more hippocampal neurons than mice kept in a standard laboratory box that contains only food and water. 5 Many young animals devote 20 percent or more of their energy to play activities such as leaping, jousting, pouncing, chasing, and nipping. In these activities they expose themselves to predators, at some risk to their health and safety. Synapse formation, particularly in the cerebellum, is at its height during this play period, which also serves as rehearsal of many of the moves needed as adults: mock flight, stalking, and biting. In highly social species like monkeys, the young spend half their waking time at play, with males engaging in rough-and-tumble play while females emphasize chase games. How to win and lose and rules of submission and dominance are worked out. In humans and other animals there appears to be a critical period extending into early adult life for the formation of self-image and social skills. Nerve connections in the frontal lobes continue to multiply during this time. An important function of culture is to program young brains in social rules and procedures during this critical receptive period; those internalized social routines then remain relatively constant throughout adult life. There appears to be increasing acceptance of the idea that peer relationships are more important than parental or adult models in patterning social behaviors during this critical period. Adolescents are much more interested in being like other adolescents than in being like adults. 6

Impoverished environments appear to have the opposite effect of rich and varied surroundings: They suppress brain development. In humans exposed to early stressful or abusive conditions, retarded development of the hippocampus and impairment of short-term verbal memory have been observed. 7 Brutality and cruelty to children can cause changes to their brain chemistry, 8 altering the levels of neurotransmitters such as serotonin. Romanian orphans who experienced profound overcrowding and deprivation of adult touch and holding exhibited changes strikingly similar to those observed in baby monkeys removed from their mothers after birth and reared without parental care. Growth is stunted and social behavior profoundly disturbed. 9 The message here is that there are critical periods in human development during which not only primary sensory and motor pathways, but also pathways regulating complex social behaviors, are laid down. After these windows of opportunity for plasticity have passed, the brain becomes unreceptive to further major changes. Language, if not mastered by the time of adolescence, is never learned.



In humans exposed to early stressful or abusive conditions, retarded development of the hippocampus and impairment of short-term verbal memory have been observed. Brutality and cruelty to children can alter their brain chemistry.


The Role of Language

The learning of verbal language plays a central role in the development of human selves. The amazing plasticity of the brain allows this process to take place also in congenitally deaf children of normal intelligence, who have no difficulty learning a highly sophisticated sign language. Recent studies suggest that the amount of language to which an infant 6 months to 3 years old is exposed each day---from an engaged and attentive adult human, not TV or radio---is the most reliable predictor of later intelligence and social competence. 10 One suggestion 11 is that language ability forms during human development out of mimetic social sharing of signs and communicative behavior (see Chapter 5). 12 Event representations are taken to be the fundamental units of memory; very young children demonstrate quite good memories for recurrent features of common events. The basic idea is that the social communicative capabilities of the infant constitute the preparation for language. An autobiographical and narrative self then arises to make sense of reality. 13

The philosopher Daniel Dennett emphasizes that the fundamental tactic of human self-protection, self-control, and self-definition is telling stories---concocting and controlling the story we tell others and ourselves about who we are. This storytelling derives from the mythic personality discussed in Chapter 5. Just as spiders don't have to think consciously and deliberately about how to spin their webs, and just as beavers, unlike human engineers, don't deliberately plan the structures they build, we do not consciously and deliberately figure out what narratives to tell and how to tell them (unless were are professional storytellers or con artists). Our tales are spun, but for the most part we don't spin them. They spin us. Our human consciousness and our narrative selfhood are their product, not their source. The making of stories and myths leads humans to do something that no other animal does: to deceive themselves in a sustained way. All groups of humans create imaginary worlds and myths about life after death. This requires going against empirical reality and physical evidence. Different cultures do this in different ways, but they all do it.



Human selves and groups are suspended in webs of significance that they themselves have spun. We make sense of the world by telling stories about it, using a narrative mode to construe reality.


The Cerebral Hemispheres as Selves

Fascinating insight into the composition of selves comes from clinical studies of brain-damaged patients. Some such studies have shown that our two cerebral hemispheres can act as separate selves 14 and that one's normal sense of oneself as a coherent being is achieved by neurally connecting a family of distinct operations carried out semi-independently in each hemisphere. Recall that each of these hemispheres senses and influences the opposite, or contralateral, side of the body. They talk to each other via a thick bundle of nerve fibers called the corpus callosum. One treatment for epilepsy has been to cut this bundle. The surprising finding is that each hemisphere carries an independent awareness of the self.

Each hemisphere of a split-brain patient is aware of tactile stimuli applied to the opposite side of the body but is unaware of those applied to the same side. Conflicting or opposing commands can be given to each hemisphere, because the left ear reports to the right hemisphere and the right ear to the left hemisphere. The cognitive neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga and others have shown that distinctive features of the two hemispheres can be revealed by experiments on visual performance. They make use of the fact that our left hemisphere sees the right part of our visual world while the right hemisphere sees the left. Figure 7-1 shows how this happens. The left sides of our two retinas, which see the right visual field, send their information to the left hemisphere. The right sides of the retinas see the left visual field and send information to the right hemisphere. If we fix our gaze on the dotted line running through the word HEART in Figure 7-1 and arrange it so that the HE is projected on our right retina and the ART on the left retina, we report the word HEART because the two cortexes communicate, via the corpus callosum, to figure out the whole image.

Figure 7-1

This schematic drawing illustrates how it is that information from the right and left sides of our visual world is sent, respectively, to the visual areas of the left and right cerebral hemispheres. The left side of the left retina and the left side of the right retina, shown as the solid lines, send information about the right visual world to the left occipical cortex, and the right sides of the retinas, shown as the dotted lines, send information to the right cortex. If the bundle of fibers connecting the two hemispheres, the corpus callosum, is cut, then one side does not know what the other is seeing.

If asked to name what is seen, however, a split-brain patient says ART because the left hemisphere is the seat of language and can issue a report. The HE part of the word cannot be expressed because it is shown to the right hemisphere, which cannot speak. The mute right hemisphere does know what is going on, however, because the subject will select a picture of a man from a series of photographs if asked to match what is seen. If the letters DOG are flashed to the right hemisphere, the subject can select a model of a dog with the left hand. These simple language operations can be carried out by the right hemisphere, but more complicated ones cannot. Although the right hemisphere cannot talk, it can perceive, learn, remember, and issue commands for motor tasks. 15



Imagine for a moment what it must be like to be the right-hemisphere self in a split-brain patient. There you are, trapped in the right half of the brain in a body whose left side you know intimately and still control and whose right side is now as remote as the body of a passing stranger. You want to tell the world what it is like, but you can't. You are cut off from verbal communication, which is generated from the left hemisphere of the brain, to which you have lost your direct connection.


The splitting of the visual world between the two hemispheres has been used as the basis for a series of experiments with what are called chimeric photographs. If the right visual field contains, say, a woodland scene and the left shows an erotic nude, the subject verbally reports seeing the woodland but becomes agitated without knowing why. Sometimes an explanation for this arousal is invented, or confabulated. In such a case, the left hemisphere is using its language competence to report the best story it can make up, given the circumstances. Conflicts between the two hemispheres can become even more dramatic. One patient who was prone to aggressive emotional outbursts, which are usually associated with the right hemisphere, used this hemisphere to command his left hand to pick up a hammer to attack a researcher. A struggle then ensued between the two functional selves present, as the right hand, controlled by the left hemisphere, moved to restrain the left! We could not ask for a clearer demonstration of two selves in one brain.


The entity that we call our self can expand or contract. In expansion of the self-boundary, we take something "out there" as though it were part of ourselves: a car, job, house, or reputation. Any threat perceived to that entity then is felt as a threat to our very survival. Simple to say, but very basic. Perhaps you recall how you felt when the first scratch appeared on the finish of a new car you were extremely proud off. You may also recall instances of self-boundary contraction. "I didn't do that! That wasn't the real me talking. Yes, the words came out of my mouth, but I refuse to recognize them as my own." These boundaries are influenced by whether we are feeling good or bad about ourselves. When asked to identify their own voices from a series of recordings, subjects with high self-esteem claim to own other people's voices, whereas depressed subjects claim too few voices as their own. And all the while, in both cases, the galvanic skin response shows that the information is being tallied correctly by the autonomic nervous system.



You might try the following experiment with a group of friends: Put a paper sack on the desk and ask the group to imagine that something very important and valuable to them is in the sack, perhaps a gift from a loved one. Carefully close the top of the sack as though to seal in its value, and then---without warning---suddenly smash your fist down on the sack to crush it. You might hear an excited gasp or two. After apologizing for causing this discomfort in the service of the demonstration, ask your friends what they felt. Did they experience contraction of the chest and front flexors, and a slight feeling of pain and loss?


Observations on patients with brain lesions suggest that the experience of self and self-boundaries requires a continuous sensing of body states. Most patients commonly experience the loss of an ability (such as the ability to recognize faces, to see colors, or to read) as something happening to them and describe it in the sorts of terms one would use in describing a back problem. They see the problem afflicting their selves. However, in extreme cases of anosognosia (denial of a part of the body, frequently associated with damage to the right parietal lobe), 16 the problem is not referred to the self; it is denied. When a right-hemisphere lesion blocks sensing and movement of the left side, the existence of the left arm can be denied, or a story can be fabricated to explain its presence. One suggestion is that the emotions associated with monitoring discrepancies and anomalies are located in the right hemisphere. This perhaps underlies the fact that some anosognosic patients with right-hemisphere lesions who deny the existence of parts of their bodies are much more likely to engage in elaborate and fanciful rationalizations than either normal individuals or those with left-hemisphere damage. 17 The idea is that the job of the left hemisphere is to make up plausible stories. If something goes wrong, it denies or confabulates to try to make aberrant information fit in. The right hemisphere detects anomalies and, if they become serious enough, forces the left to start from scratch with a new story line. Damage to the right hemisphere can delete this editorial function.

Experiments on split-brain subjects of the sort we have mentioned also reveal the role of the self as a presentation manager, a story-line generator. In split-brain patients, an instruction to "walk" can be flashed to the right hemisphere (some patients, especially left-handed people, retain the ability to understand simple linguistic commands with their right hemisphere). The linguistic, speech-generating left hemisphere has no knowledge of this instruction. When the patient gets up and begins to walk about the room and is asked why, a rational (though bogus) explanation is generated, such as "Uh, I'm going to get a Coke."

Similar behavior can be elicited from normal subjects in hypnosis experiments. A subject under hypnosis can be given a posthypnotic suggestion for a trivial activity, such as an instruction to crawl about on the floor. After coming out of hypnosis, the subject might be engaged in a normal activity, such as drinking coffee with the experimenter, and then suddenly say something like "What a fascinating floor pattern" or "I want to check out this rug" and then proceed to crawl around on the floor. It would appear that programs in the brain, on the basis of the information available to consciousness, present a plausible story to account for the subject's actions. "I'm acting out a hypnotic suggestion" is not part of the available information.



Our self and body images can be altered by sensory incongruities or conflicts. Here is an experiment you could try with some friends: Sit at a table with your left arm resting on the table to your left but hidden from your view by a screen. Have another person sitting to your right place his or her left arm on the table directly in front of you (alternatively, a rubber model of a left hand and arm can be placedin front of you). Now, a third accomplice uses two small paintbrushes to stroke both your hidden hand and the hand of the arm you can see in front of you, synchronizing the timing of the brushing as closely as possible. If you are like virtually all of the people that try this test, you will soon start to feel as though the touch you can feel is in the position of the hand you can see and that this visible hand is your own! Your brain has altered its representation of your body in space, and you are feeling a phantom limb, just as amputation patients sometimes do. You are literally having an "out of body" experience. If a drop of cold water is applied to your hidden hand, the cold can sometimes be felt in the location of the new hand.

Variations on this experiment show that we can similarly displace our experience of our nose---or even of our entire head. These demonstrations show how our body image, despite its apparent durability and constancy, is a transitory construct that can be altered by the stimuli we actually encounter.


Selves Are Modular Constructions

From a variety of sources, we obtain clues that human selves consist of several semi-independent modules. Genetic and developmental studies reveal a set of core intelligences that together assemble an "I." The psychologist Howard Gardner has suggested that several intelligences should be distinguished as basic to our different areas of competence: logical-mathematical, linguistic, spatial, musical, bodily kinesthetic, and personal-interpersonal. 18 Evidence for the distinctiveness of these intelligences comes from studies of their development and also from observations on geniuses and on idiot savants (who are born with some exceptional abilities but are retarded with respect to others). 19

To take just a few examples, evidence for logical-mathematical intelligence comes from the demonstration of innate mathematical ability in human infants, who can perform simple addition and subtraction at the age of 5 months. 20 It is also supported by the existence of individuals who are precocious by genetic endowment. Pascal was forbidden by his father to speak about mathematics. Therefore, he made simple geometrical drawings on the walls of his playroom, devised his own mathematical terms and axioms, and rediscovered the propositions of Euclid. 21 The presence of a genetic component in musical competence is suggested by infant prodigies such as Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Saint-Saens. Nijinsky, Barishnikov, and Marcel Marceau offer examples of precocious kinesthetic intelligence. Note, however, that the argument for a genetic component in the exceptional behavior of these individuals has to be tempered by that fact that some were exposed to distinctively different early experiences, preferences, opportunities, habits, training, or practice. 22

The multiple-intelligences model suggests an array of core computational capacities, such as phonological and grammatical processing for language, and tonal and rhythmic processing for music, rather than the general intelligence, or so-called g factor, of the IQ psychologists. 23 In some cases, these computational capacities might be largely localized to specific regions of the brain, for some are compromised by damage to specific brain areas. Others might be spread more widely across different areas. Recent genetic studies, mentioned below, do provide support for a heritable component of general intelligence, perhaps due to variations in very basic parameters that influence the whole brain, such as nerve signal conduction or the ease of making new nerve connections.

The Example of Musical Intelligence

Let's focus on music for a moment. It is tempting to compare human music to bird song, for which there are definite brain specializations. The function of bird song is communication, and song may have preceded speech in humans, as a component of the mimetic intelligence that existed before the appearance of grammatical language. As we all know, music is strongly linked to emotion. The first musical instrument was the human voice, but there is evidence for musical instruments (pipes and flutes) dating back to 50,000 years ago, and there is presumptive evidence of the role of music in organizing work groups, hunting parties, and religious rites. The development of musical skills, like that of the other proposed modules of intelligence, follows a stereotyped course, so that, for instance, 4-month-old babies are sensitive to consonance versus dissonance, 24 6-month-old babies detect musical patterns, and 2-year-old children spontaneously pick up and sing songs to themselves during play.

Clinical evidence points to a modular musical faculty. There are numerous cases of brain-damaged children, some autistic, who have exceptional musical ability. Injuries to the right frontal and temporal lobes can cause difficulties in discriminating tones and reproducing them (amusia). In some subjects who have damage to areas in both the left and the right temporal lobes (where auditory circuits dealing with pitch reside), speech and auditory faculties seem normal, but the subjects cannot recognize specific music or songs. 25 However, they still can follow rhythm and the emotional content of the music. The Russian composer Shebalin developed a severe Wernicke's aphasia but remained able to compose competently. In the last 4 years of his life, Maurice Ravel lost the ability to compose or play music, but he could listen to and appreciate musical pieces. 26

The mechanisms for apprehending and storing pitch, like a set of tones, are separate from those used for the sounds of language. Remembering a set of tones is not compromised by random verbal interference, but it is disrupted by random competing tones. Musical composers describe themselves as constantly having tones in their head, generating musical phrases without thinking about it. These lines of evidence for functional and anatomical modules of musical competence cannot be taken to mean that it is an isolated faculty, however, for musical activity interacts with other intelligences. Listening to Mozart results in better performance on spatial tasks, and 3-year-old children given weekly piano lessons register 80 percent higher scores in spatial and temporal reasoning than average. 27

How Many Selves to a Customer?

While we are considering information on known or proposed modules of selves, let's look at the variety of selves or intelligences that we might contain from another angle: the idea that each of us is not one self but many different semicomplete selves. You probably have been jarred occasionally, when in a critical mood, upon realizing that the style of your speaking and criticism is very similar to the way in which you were corrected by your parents. Or, after being subjected to sudden criticism, you may find yourself cringing just the way you did as a child. We all seem to have a continuous experience of an "I," but the "I" in place (the resident self) can change from moment to moment. It is as though we are made up of a club, or a board of directors, one of whom is in command at any given time. 28 Members of this board can include our present and past personalities, as well as the personalities of others who are (or were) important in our life. The hint that our continuous experience of an "I" is a fiction is its troublesome instability: the fact that we can act as though we were different people at different times and often seem relatively powerless to control who we are and when. This is because the "I" consists of a succession of emergent personalities, and which one presides at any particular time depends on the circumstances.



Can you recall a moment when, with a start, you realized that you were feeling and speaking not from a present-centered adult perspective, but rather exactly as you did when you were a small child. And at other times, have you suddenly thought while you are speaking, "I sound just like my parents"?


Descriptions of how we develop these processes, from Freud's analysis to the present, have a number of common themes. Although different schools use different jargon to describe the process and to generate therapies that typically come into vogue for 5--10 years, they all share the theme of modeling the expression of several humans, sometimes called ego states, within us. As an example, you may have heard of "transactional analysis," a popularized incarnation of Freudian therapy that peaked in the 1970s. It describes a parent ego state that is imprinted on our brains when we are young and that has two main components: a nurturing, caretaking parent and a critical, judgmental parent. This parent ego state contains the rules for outward behavior toward others. Rituals seen in the parents are internalized, as are the parents' inward instructions to self. The child ego state consists of permanent records in our brain of the way we experienced our own impulses as a child and how we felt about the world. It contains at least three components. A "natural child" is affectionate, impulsive, sensuous, uncensored, curious but also fearful, self-indulgent, self-centered, rebellious, and aggressive. A "little professor" is intuitive, creative, manipulative, and playful. Finally, an "adaptive child" accommodates to the demands of parents and the social world, being courteous and compliant, avoiding confrontation, procrastinating, and withdrawing. Finally, an adult ego state is meant to be the "reality-testing machine" that is centered in the present rather than being a read-out of the more primitive parent state or child state. This adult ego state is the executive that chooses whether a novel output or one from the parent or child state is appropriate. It is the component that psychotherapies attempt to strengthen.

This sort of description of the self as made up of many selves does not explain how any particular self works. Indeed, the field of psychology has entertained a series of theories that have rarely outlived more than a few generations of their proponents. Most psychological explanatory theories, such as psychoanalysis and the postulating of the Freudian unconscious, have not been cast in a form that can be either proved or refuted. 29 Some psychologists have been criticized for inappropriately trying to imitate the quantitative analyses that are often possible in biology and physics. One example, mentioned below, is the attempt to describe a very complex and modular phenomenon, intelligence, by a single number, the IQ or intelligence quotient.

Yet another perspective on the issue of how many selves each of us has comes from considering apparent fractional as well as multiple personalities. There is the case of the twin sisters in York, England, who live together in a hostel and seem to act together as one individual, collaborating in single speech acts in sequence or in unison. It seems natural to regard "them" as more of a "her." Oliver Sacks describes two brothers, identical twins with IQs of 60, who, only when together, and communicating by a variety of tics, twitches, head bobbing, and rolling eyes, could perform prodigious feats of mental calculation.

More striking are the many purported cases of multiple personality disorder. The model has been that traumatic childhood experiences such as physical or sexual abuse cause a child to decide that the horror is happening to someone else and thus generate several independent personalities. In the case of Billy Milligan, an Ohio jury determined that he could not be punished for the crime (rape) committed by one of his parts. There are anecdotal reports of changes in patterns of allergies, phobias, and movement habits between different personalities. The newer name for this condition, dissociative identity disorder, reflects uncertainty over whether a patient identifying himself in multiple ways is really displaying identities that constitute personalities. 30 Indeed, handing down the diagnosis of multiple personality disorder, which started in the 1950s, has proved to be a fad that has subsided. The condition appears mainly to have been the product of suggestible patients, misinformed diagnoses, and incompetent therapy involving suggestive techniques such as hypnosis. 31 Several well-publicized epidemics of altered behaviors, in addition to dissociative identity disorder, have the curious feature of being reported largely for Northern American and European populations. While some of these (such as seasonal affective disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, chronic fatigue syndrome) appear to have a biological basis and probably occur more widely, others are more problematic (such as the numerous cases recently reported of recovered memories of sexual abuse, satanic ritual abuse, and alien abductions). 32

Selves, Genes, and Environments

This and the previous chapter have cited numerous examples of how the human mind can end up in different possible configurations. To what extent are these configurations captive to the genetic instruction we are born with, and to what extent are they patterned by our physical and social environments? Numerous studies have argued that several components of human personality tend to remain constant throughout an individual's life and have a heritable component. Such stable traits include novelty seeking, harm avoidance, reward dependence, persistence, extraversion/introversion, emotional stability, and sexual orientation. 33 Most of the work to date has correlated overall genetic constitution with behavior, but more recent studies have noted correlations between mutant forms of single genes and behaviors such as nurturing, novelty seeking, and drug addiction. Studies on identical twins raised apart sometimes reveal similarities in detailed mannerisms that may reflect their shared genetic and intrauterine hormonal environment. There is clear evidence from studies that compare identical (monozygotic) with nonidentical (fraternal, dizygotic) twins that genetic factors account for at least 50 percent of the difference in general cognitive ability (including social cognition) between individuals. It may be that variations in a higher faculty such as social cognition are actually the consequence of more general underlying differences in attentional or motor mechanisms of the brain. 34 Although there is some evidence that general intelligence correlates with higher brain metabolism, faster conduction velocities, and bigger brains, there are no generally accepted links between differences in most cognitive performance and variance in underlying brain mechanisms.

Framing the Issue of Nature and Nurture

We need to be aware of a potential fallacy lurking in the debate over whether certain character traits, and, in particular, general intelligence as measured by the IQ test, have a genetic basis. That possible fallacy is the assumption that a complicated behavior such as intelligence can be measured by a single number, and that it has been described precisely enough to be measured. Intelligence probably consists of several dozen abilities influenced by many different genes, each affecting more than one character. Until we understand this complexity, we can't even begin to sort out roles of nature and nurture. IQ tests are a crude estimate of intelligence in the same way that pulse, blood pressure, and body temperature provide an overview of general health. A physiologist or physician can proceed to tests of liver function, heart function, and so on, but the ability of a psychologist to dissect the components of intelligence is much more crude. 35

In many studies, the implicit assumption is that some fraction of our behavior is caused by heredity and some fraction by environment and that the problem is simply to assign the proper percentage to each. Unfortunately, this assumption frames the issue in a misleading and oversimplified way. A more appropriate description of what is going on is that our genes generate options that are tested as an environment provides input that results in behavior. The usefulness of the behavior in enhancing survival and reproduction determines what supporting neuronal pathways become permanent.

The author Robert Wright puts this in more simple language by using an analogy: Heredity provides us with a set of genes for different traits that you could imagine as being like control knobs on a stereo amplifier. 36 At different times during development, different sets of knobs appear and then disappear. The important thing is that which knobs are selected for use and how these knobs are tuned depend on constant interactions with the environment---what settings are most successful in guiding our behavior, seeing food, getting it to the mouth, communicating with other humans, avoiding predators, and so on. There is genetic variation among humans, which leads to slightly different sets of knobs that are tuned more or less broadly.

We must also consider that there are random events in the development of cells and nervous systems that are neither genetic nor environmental influences in the usual sense. One example, given in Chapter 6, is the relative placement of male and female embryos in utero that can influence female testosterone levels and brain development. Knowing the genetic basis of a character does not enable us to predict how changeable that character might be by random, individual, or social circumstances. This means that mere proof of the heritability of a trait yields very little information about how malleable it might be.



It is not practical or useful to try to separate the contributions of environment and genes to our behavior, because they feed back on each other in an intricate dance that begins in utero and continues through puberty.


Finding a correlation between a behavior and a gene is emphatically not the same thing as finding a gene for the behavior. The philosopher Elliott Sober gives the example of people who knit and people who do not. 37 With few exceptions, knitters have two X chromosomes (are females); people with one X and one Y chromosome (males) almost never knit, at least in contemporary American culture. This does not mean that we have discovered genes for knitting. Finding a gene or collection of genes that incline an individual to a given behavior means that the behavior in this sense is "natural," but it says nothing about its relevance, usefulness, or acceptability in prevailing circumstances. 38

Physical Environments and Selves

The influence of physical environment, social environment, and language on the formation of human selves is perhaps easier to appreciate than the influence of genetics, and it is especially striking when one notes the different cognitive habits and construals of self that are found across the world. An illustration of the effects of different physical environments comes from noting the relativity of more complex sensing and acting. Those who grow up in "right-angle" cultures with rectangular rooms and shapes are more susceptible to the illusions shown in Figure 7-2 than are those in Stone Age cultures who live in circular dwellings in the rain forest. People raised in dense forest, where the relevant visual world is mainly within 50--100 feet, can become alarmed and confused upon seeing savanna for the first time. Distances of miles cannot be processed, and a herd of buffalo in the distance is likely to be interpreted as a colony of ants.

Figure 7-2

(a) The Müller-Lyer illusion. The vertical lines are the same length. Most people, however, report that the left vertical line is longer than the right, because the left figure is taken to indicate a corner receding from the viewer and the right figure to indicate a corner projecting toward the viewer. (b) The Ponzo illusion. Here the horizontal lines are the same length, but because the lines are between converging straight lines (like a railroad track), the top line is usually reported as being longer. This is a reasonable interpretation of cues supplied to a nervous system that has been trained to interpret perspective and distance involving lines and edges. (c) The Devil's tuning fork. Most Westerners cannot reproduce this drawing, but African tribespeople who don't share Western conventions about interpretation can reproduce it with little difficulty.

Cultural Influences on Self

Different cultures can define self, others, and their interdependence in strikingly different ways. 39 In many Asian cultures, interactions among people predominate in the experience of cognition, motivation, and emotion. The definition of self emphasizes the relatedness of individuals to each other. The role of a self is to blend into harmonious relationship with others. American and European culture downplays this interdependence to construe the self as an independent entity with unique inner attributes. The role of a self is to discover and express its distinct potential. Not surprisingly, notions of what are healthful and what are abnormal behaviors vary between cultures. 40 Anorexia nervosa seems as culture-bound to America as amok (acting wild and crazy) is to Malaysia. The Japanese malady taijin kyofusho---a morbid dread that one will do something that embarrasses other people---has no counterpart in Western culture or diagnostic systems. Hopi Indians define five different types of depression that do not match those enumerated in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.



Our nervous systems form in an ecological dialog with our physical and social environment. Our brains are shaped by the particular world they grow up in, just as they in turn shape that world. 41 Their cognitive structures are heavily influenced by culture. The regions of the brain engaged by ideographic Chinese and those engaged by phonetic English are different. The premotor cortex of a professional football player is different from that of a biblical scholar.


Many of you reading this book have a sense of individualism and self-consciousness patterned largely by Western European civilization since the 17th century. All human minds were in a somewhat different world before then, and many still are. It is striking that the idea of the self as "a permanent subject of successive and varying states of consciousness" doesn't appear in the Oxford English Dictionary until the 17th century. This is not to say, however, that the actual nature of human selves was different before that time. Older classical essays suggest that the writers had selves very similar to our own, but the great majority of people were immersed in a more collective group identity, just as in the contemporary Asian cultures mentioned above. A number of preindustrial societies have little notion of a person as a separate entity. 42 Both the Old and the New Testament of the Bible often portray humans not as active agents of individual decision or choice but rather as passive pawns of an active God.

By the same token, many patterns of modern life that you might assume to be "natural" are actually of recent origin. The Western idea of "home" as an enclosed nurturing space for one family derives specifically from Amsterdam in the late 17th century. 43 The work week, with its rigid separation of work and leisure, is an artifact of the Industrial Revolution. 44 Homosexual culture as a distinct social category was an invention of the late 19th century. Our cultural arrangements have an overriding influence on what we consider normal, and we frequently (and mistakenly) overextend this concept to include "natural" or "biological."

The Relativity of Thought Systems

A discussion of this sort is not complete without some reference to current discussions of the relativity not just of selves, languages, and social customs but of all knowledge. One extreme position has been to label Western science as just another system of magic that has only as much legitimacy as any other social construct. Popular forms of irrationalism have become so pervasive that conferences of concerned scientists have met to address the issue. 45 Because we are immersed in our world and our nervous systems are shaped by a complex interplay between our whole bodies and that world, how can anything we know be considered absolute?



Our view of reality is framed by the limitations and peculiarities of our sensory apparatus, the prejudices of our presuppositions, and the restrictions of our language and culture. 46 We form our ideas of what is correct or true from a network of unconscious, as well as conscious, bits of information taken in from the environment. 47


The relativistic position is that we frame our understanding in terms of very restrictive and culturally specific metaphors---that the way we have been brought up to perceive our world is not the only way. Still, even the most severe social constructionist would probably grant that there are indeed immutable facts about the natural world, even if our accounts of them can depend on capacities and vocabularies that are socially constructed. It isn't terribly useful for different cultures to try to step outside of some core perceptions such as "rocks are hard," "two plus two is four," and "gravity defines up and down." On the other hand, there is no obvious reason why different cultures should not arrive at different conventions of a more superficial sort, such as those reflected in gender roles or metaphors like "time is money," "labor is a resource," "love is a journey," and "problems are puzzles."

The coherence of any system of thought rests on its stability. Does it work? Is it useful? Science distinguishes itself from mystical or magical traditions in that it seems to meet this criterion of stability, or usability, better. Most of us probably believe that cultures based on some kind of scientific rationalism will be more adaptable---and thus more stable---than those based on magical world views.


We have now patched together part of a picture of the active construction of developing selves. Starting from the activity-dependent early wiring of our brains, discussed in the last chapter, we all proceed to develop as "little scientists." A human child's increasing competence in dealing with its physical and social world passes through a set of stages so stereotyped that it is hard to escape the conclusion that these stages rely on genetically specified components. However, the expression of these components---the competence and connectivity of the brains that actually grow---can be enhanced by rich physical and social environments or inhibited by impoverished ones. The contributions of specific brain areas to determining the nature and boundaries of the self are revealed by brain lesions that can cause a dissociation of the "selves" sensing and controlling the two sides of the body, or that can cause denial of a physical part of the self. The left hemisphere is revealed as a "presentation manager" that can sometimes go awry and confabulate bogus explanations in order to make sense of contradictory experiences or sensations.

Genetic and developmental studies suggest that several semi-independent core intelligences contribute to our repertoire of abilities, and psychological studies present the model of each of us as a "committee of selves," only one of which is usually the spokesperson at a given moment. An appreciation of the complexity of selves and their molding by physical and cultural influences reveals that much of the public discussion over genes and behavior is simplistic and misguided. Debate over learned versus innate mechanisms comes into sharpest focus in studies on language development, and we will conclude our discussion of this topic when we cover brain mechanisms of language in Chapter 11. The great variety of selves that humans can form, and the significant cultural differences in perception, mental categories, and selves construed as independent versus interdependent entities, show the importance of social factors in constructing selves. To proceed further in describing human minds and selves, we must now examine more of the details of their structure and function. Therefore, in Part III of this book, we will expand on the metaphor of each of us as a society of mind.

Questions for Thought

1. The philosopher Daniel Dennett makes the point that our brains spin stories about who we are, just as spiders spin webs or beavers build dams, without consciously and deliberately thinking about how to do it. Our narrative selfhood is the product of this process, not its source. Do you agree or disagree with this? Why?

2. Suppose you meet a person whose hemispheres you know to have been separated by surgery to cut the corpus callosum. Say you ask this person to look straight ahead and then, without glancing to the side, name a common object you hold up at the right edge of his or her visual range. Could the person do it? Why?

3. This chapter discusses the ideas of multiple intelligences and multiple selves within an individual human. What kind of evidence supports these models? Do you think one of these concepts is more plausible than the other?

4. Cultures vary in the relative value they place on the independence and the interdependence of individuals. Try to imagine yourself living and experiencing first one, and then the other, extreme end of these options. From each perspective, what sorts of explanations might you offer for your behaviors? What might be the roles, from each perspective, of personal introspection and awareness of personal motives ?

Suggestions for Further General Reading

Donaldson, M. 1992. Human Minds. New York: Penguin Press. One account of stages in the development of the human mind.

Pinker, S. 1997. How the Mind Works. New York: Norton. Chapter 5 of this book discusses some of the evidence that humans come equipped with genetic predispositions to learn intuitive physics, biology, and psychology.

Dennett, D.C. 1991. Consciousness Explained. Boston: Little, Brown. The discussion of the boundaries of selves is drawn from Chapter 13 of this book.

Gazzaniga, M.S. 1998. The split brain revisited. Scientific American 279(1):50--55. A review of studies on patients whose separated cerebral hemispheres act as two semi-independent selves.

Gardner, H. 1993. Multiple Intelligences: The Theory in Practice. New York: Basic Books. This book discusses evidence for the existence of semi-independent intelligences, such as logical-mathematical, linguistic, spatial, musical, and so on.

Reading on More Advanced or Specialized Topics

Elman, J.L., Bates, E.A., Johnson, M.H., Karmiloff-Smith, A., Parisi, D., & Plunkett, K. 1996. Rethinking Innateness: A Connectionist Perspective on Development. Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press. This book reviews several human developmental sequences and argues that they reflect powerful learning capacities rather than detailed genetic specifications.

Kempermann,G., Kuhn, H.G., & Gage, F.H. 1997. More hippocampal neurons in adult mice living in an enriched environment. Nature 386:493--495. One account of how environment can influence brain growth.

Ramachandran, V.S. 1995. Anosognosia in parietal lobe syndrome. Consciousness and Cognition 4:22--51. A further discussion of the left hemisphere as the story-maker that imposes consistency on the world, whereas the right hemisphere contains a "questioning" mechanism that monitors anomalies and discrepancies.

Bouchard, T.J. 1994. Genes, environment and personality. Science 264:1700--1701. A brief review of evidence that genetic factors influence behavior.

Markus, H.R., & Kitayama, S. 1991. Culture and the self: Implications for cognition, emotion, and motivation. Psychological Review 98(2):224--248. A discussion of the cultural relativity of the construal of self as independent versus interdependent.

1. Much of this summary is abstracted from Elman et al. 1996, pg. 284 ff.

2. Baron-Cohen, 1995.

3. Karmiloff-Smith , 1995.

4. Donaldson, 1992.

5. Kempermann et al., 1997.

6. See Harris, 1998.

7. Mukerjee, 1995.

8. Goleman, 1995b; Chisholm, 1995.

9. Blakeslee, 1995b.

10. Blakeslee, 1997.

11. Recall that we discussed this model in chapter 4.

12. Nelson, 1996.

13. Bruner, 1986. For a brief review on how environment shapes the IQ and language development in human children, see Wickelgren, 1999.

14. For material on hemispheric specialization see: Kandel et al, 1991, Ch 53,54; Gardner, 1987, pg. 275; Gazzaniga and LeDoux, 1978; Springer and Deutsch, 1993; Efron, 1990,Hellige, 1993;

15. This drawing is a modification of Fig. 3.2 in Ornstein, 1972.

16. Anosognosia is the denial of a part of the body, frequently associated with damage to the right parietal lobe.

17. Ramachandran, 1995, pg. 39.

18. Gardner, 1983. He has recently further evaluated the multiple intelligences hypothesis in Gardner, 1993.

19. See Birbaumer, 1999, for brief review of some studies suggesting that the exceptional performance of some savants is made possible by their circumventing inhibitory conscious `executive' brain functions and having access to lower level information processing.

20. Bryant, 1992

21. Witelson et al, 1999, have performed an elegant study on Albert Einstein's brain and found that the inferior lobules (or bulges) of the parietal lobe were larger than normal and less cleaved by a branch of the Sylvian fissure. This is the area that supports abstract mathematical and spatial reasoning. The speculation is that Einstein's parietal lobes expanded early in prenatal development, giving him larger, undivided lobules that accomodated richer and more tightly integratede circuits for mathematical and spatial reasoning.

22. One speculation about savants is that they can circumvent conscious `executive' brain function and have access to rapid low-level information processing of the sort discussed in Chapters 8 and 12. See Birbaumer, 1999.

23. The issue of specialized versus general intelligence is a complex one, which I am not really addressing here.

24. Zentner and Kagan, 1996.

25. Shreeve, 1996.

26. Sergent, 1993

27. Rauscher et al., 1995

28. Ornstein,1991, has a discussion of the issue of "the mind in place" in Chapters 20,21, and 23.

29. Gellner, 1985.

30. Sapolsky, 1995.

31. See Schacter, 1996, pg 236 ff.; Ofshe and Watters, 1994; or Cohen, 1996.

32. Showalter, 1997; Pope, 1997. I don't mean to suggest that

33. Bouchard, 1994;Cloninger, 1994;Cloninger et al., 1996;Eley and Plomin, 1997 Horgan, 1993a.

34. Lesch et al, 1996; Cloninger, 1994. There is clear evidence from studies that compare identical (monozygotic) versus non-identical (fraternal, dizygotic) twins that genetic factors account for at least 50% of the variance in general cognitive ability (including social cognition) between individuals. For a review, see Gottesman, 1977. Skuse et al. 1997 (see summary by McGuffin and Scourfield, 1997), show an effect of an X-linked locus on social cognition in women with Turner's syndrome. It may be the case that variations in a higher faculty such as social cognition are actually the end consequence of more general underlying differences in attentional or motor mechanisms of the brain. While there is some suggestion that general intelligence correlates with higher brain metabolism, faster conduction velocities, bigger brains, etc. (see Deary and Caryl, 1997), there are not generally accepted links between most cognitive performance and variance in underlying brain mechanisms.

35. These points are taken from Ramachandran and Smythies, 1997.

36. This analogy is taken from Wright, 1994

37. I heard this example used by Elliott Sober, a philosopher of science.

38. Levins and Lewontin, 1985.

39. Markus and Kitayama, 1991.

40. Goleman, 1995c; Berrios, 1996; Stix, 1996.

41. Calvin, 1990.

42. Storr, 1988, pp. 77-80

43. Rybczynski, 1986

44. Rybczynski, 1991.

45. MacIlwain, 1995. See also Koertge, Ed., 1998.

46. Interesting writing on this point can be found in the tirade from chapter 5 of Berman, 1984, as well as in Ferris, 1992, and Ornstein, 1986.

47. Polyani, 1962.

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