Do you ever have days where you just feel like you’re not ‘yourself’? You know, grumpy.. ill-tempered.. and people around you are noticing it.
In those moments, it’s almost like your identity has changed and another personality has crept into your being. But the caveat is that, had you slipped into another personality, you wouldn’t have recognized that something was off, and you probably wouldn’t have felt the need to apologize for doing/saying something out of character.
So when you deviate from the expected course and behave as if you were someone else, what’s going on? First, the stray from your most typical personality is temporary. Second, you have just demonstrated how complex the human self turns out to be.
Your multilayered self was actually multitasking. One task maintained your identity during the episode. Another monitored your thoughts and actions and detected significant departures from their desirable course.
You still have only one self and one identity to contend with. However, self, identity, and personality aren’t things; they aren’t objects, and they damn sure aren’t rigid. Instead, they are biological processes built within the brain from numerous interactive components in the form of mental images—and images can give rise to actions.
This sounds complicated—and it is—but let me break it down into bite-sized chunks. New research indicates that the protoself level corresponds to a gathering of information regarding the internal state of the body, i.e., raw emotions being experienced viscerally. It is constructed in the brain stem and signifies our physical existence in the world.
The next level, the core self, is indispensable for consciousness. It requires an interaction between the organism and its environment. It’s constructed in a yappity yap convo between the brain stem and a few parts of the cerebral cortex—home to our higher cognition. It yields a sense of the “here and now,” devoid of historical perspective. It gives us a consciousness of the moment and adds color/depth to what our bodies are emoting.
The third level, the autobiographical self, creates a coherent picture of our history, a narrative with a lived past and an anticipated future. The narrative is culled from real (and even imaginary) events, as well as past interpretations and re-interpretations of events.
You see, the self is not just about one individual; it contains multitudes. It incorporates people, places, memories, and predictions. That the brain manages to put together such a diverse combination of mental images is nothing short of astonishing. But with that, of course, comes the risk of inconsistency during the assemblage of this show. Everything is happening in real time, this isn’t a pre-recorded show. The result? A partial and temporary slippage into a “self” that is not our own.
The poet Fernando Pessoa, who wrote under several aliases, struggled with the tangled and abundant riches of his own self, often referring to each of us as ‘many.’ When Pessoa said, “My soul is a hidden orchestra; I know not what instruments, what fiddlestrings and harps, drums and tamboura I sound and clash inside myself. All I hear is the symphony,” his intuition was on point, as it highlighted the remarkable feat of a brain engaged in producing the symphonic results we call the conscious mind.
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