How the Brain Creates The Story of Who You Are (And How to Own It)

August 19, 2020
Illustration of a brain with code in the background

In 2019 I attended a silent meditation course where I spent ten days in silence, isolation, and with nothing to do but to meditate. The course took place in a rural area of Spain, a place remote enough that you could gaze at the stars at night.

One afternoon halfway through the course I was meditating in my room. My task was simply to stay focused on the breath, but my mind was racing with thoughts. I was imagining what my colleagues were thinking about me doing this thing. I pictured what I would say to them at the end of the course, and what they would say back.

The conversations were vivid and intense, when suddenly… I snapped out of it. I regained agency over my attention, and I looked around: the contrast between the silence of the room and the loudness of my mind was striking.

My mind simply couldn’t stop writing the story of who I am, the story of my identity.

A social world

Let me ask you a question: "Who do you think you are?"

If you are like most people you would start by stating your name, profession, country of origin, family ties, civil status, political views, values, personality traits, interests, and important life events that made you who you are today.

An illustration of how identity is composed by several factors

All these elements create your identity, but is it really who you are? Many thinkers have argued that although our sense of Self feels real and authentic, it is actually just a complex story that our brain manufactures. Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies have been saying this for thousands of years: there is no unchanging, permanent self. But if that is true, why does it feel like it? And why did we evolve the feeling of a Self in the first place?

The answer might lie in our social nature. According to leading neuroscientist Karl Friston, as humans we developed a sense of Self in order to interact with one another:

“If I live in a world that is constituted by things like me, basically a social world, a community, then it becomes necessary for me to infer that it is me talking and not you talking. I wouldn’t need that if I was on Mars by myself, or if I was in the jungle as a feral child.”
A member of a tribe jumping high in the sky
Photo by Randy Fath

A Self is needed in order to co-exist and cooperate efficiently within a social group. To be a functional member of a tribe you need to understand where you’re from, what you do, what drives you, and where you stand in relationship to other people.

In other words, you need a story that quickly summarizes who you are. So the question is: at what point in our life do we start to manufacture this story?

The Social Self

In the book The Self illusion psychologist Bruce Hood points out that we don’t wake up one day with a complete sense of who we are. For example, in the first years of your life you didn’t even have a Self because as a baby you could not integrate your experiences into a meaningful story.

Now, as you read this article your identity probably feels continuous and reliable, but in truth its continuity is not a given either. For instance, if when you get older you have Alzheimer’s disease, you could suffer from memory loss and you would not be able to remember what you did yesterday or even recognize your family members. Your inability to put together a coherent story in space and time about who you are would severely compromise your sense of identity.

Picture of a brain sending signal against a background made of book pages

Your Self is a creation of the brain and so it depends upon its development and conditions. It is the result of a dynamic process that starts around age three, as we become aware that there is a “me” and there are “others” in this world. In fact, as theorized in 1902 by sociologist Charles Cooley, individuals create their sense of Self on how they believe others view them. He said:

“I am not what I think I am, and I am not what you think I am. I am what I think you think I am.”

In other words, our identity is a complex story that we co-author with the people we engage with throughout our life. We write it by sharing opinions at family gatherings, gossiping at work, signaling value on social media, or recalling memories when chatting with a friend. But we also write it in our own head, for example when we’re in the shower, replaying a conversation we had with our partner, wondering what we could have said differently, or imagining a future one, trying to anticipate what we are gonna say.

The brain breeds identity as if our life actually depended on it. However, since the narrative in our head is so loud and so ever present, and since we are constantly engaged in social behavior filtered by it, we often misperceive it as a real entity, when in fact it’s just a mental construct.

The identification with the Self can generate a lot of suffering: many people are haunted for a long time by negative narratives shaped by trauma, others never express their feelings or pursue their dreams because they feel trapped by what they think other people expect from them, others spend their lives valuing more how they look in the eyes of other rather than how they actually feel.

Our mind can be our greatest friend and our greatest enemy.

A better story

The most important thing I’ve learned during that meditation course is that pain rarely exists in real life, it’s often just the result of our inner dialogue and how we interpret things. Every time I felt insufferable, anxious, or overwhelmed I looked around me and try to point with my finger at what was causing my pain: it didn’t take long to realize that I was creating it all along.

An illustration of a person meditating with flowers coming out of her head

Stilling the monkey mind that breeds our Ego is no easy feat, and honestly, it’s not even the ultimate goal: as long as we live in a social environment we need an identity to interact with each other.

However, if our identity is just a story in our head, we can at least stop taking ourselves so seriously, judging ourselves harshly, or pretend to be people that we are not. With patience and mindfulness we can indeed reclaim authorship over our own story and craft more empowering identities for ourselves.

Choose your Self wisely.

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