Growing up when and where I did shaped my self and my identity. Most of us feel this way. While we recognize the nature/nurture puzzle most of us admit that both our genetics and our experiences shape us.
Another one of the interesting people in my father’s church was a woman named Sheila. Unlike Pat, I don’t remember much of her, but I do remember one thing about her. She claimed to be able to remember being born.
I always found this to be a fascinating idea both because I thought we should remember being born, and because she was the only person that I had ever heard of make to make that assertion.
In his book “The Self Illusion” Bruce Hood addresses this question.
There are always the odd few (and, indeed, they are odd) who say they can remember being born—passing down the birth canal and being slapped on the bottom by the midwife. Most have no memory of self before their second birthday and, even then, the memories from around that time are fragmented and unconnected. It’s not that you have forgotten what it was like to be an infant—you simply were not “you” at that age because there was no constructed self, and so you cannot make sense of early experiences in the context of the person to whom these events happened.
Hood, Bruce (2012-04-25). The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity (p. 76). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
We know that even preborn babies can form memories. Babies after they are born can recognize music and the voices of their parents from their time inside the womb, but they have no “self” to hang those memories upon. The memories exist in their brain, but the yet to be developed conscious self hasn’t begun the job of cataloging and archiving memories which will make them accessible.
How are Google and other web search engines able to retrieve so much information on the Internet? They have spider bots that constantly crawl the web to catalogue and copy the information they find in the network. Until that spider bot is developed, information can be stored, but it won’t be accessible to other parts of the brain.
The You Above Your Pay Grade
When something breaks and I don’t want to pay for the labor and expertise of another to fix it I often try my own hand at being repairman. My average isn’t great. I’ll try to take the thing apart and see if I can somehow guess my way through to get the thing working again. So far I haven’t injured myself or my family and how-to videos on the web have been a great aid, but most of the time I need to humbly admit I am no expert and should stick to the things I know about.
In his book “Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain” David Eagleman explores the parts within you your brain doesn’t let you know about. We imagine that we are the bosses of ourselves and that being in charge means full and free access to all that we are. It seems this is not the case.
Our conscious selves ride atop a much larger, locked down, controlling brain that wisely restricts access to a variety of mission critical systems that we would be foolish to tamper with. Much of the mundane functioning of our bodies is run by our brain completely apart from our conscious selves. If we suddenly stopped breathing because we forgot, or if our heart stopped beating because we weren’t paying attention, we wouldn’t live for long. The brain and the body together have all kinds of deeply, interconnected systems shielded from the conscious brain. Our mind and our body wisely don’t trust us with our selves. This is vitally important for infants who have no conscious self with which to entrust.
If you watch infants and small children you see that they in fact are constantly working. They are working to figure out about their self. They learn how to operate hands and feet, where they end and other people begin, both physically and relationally. Beyond the physical the development of their self is one if their central projects. Our minds are wired for relationship and it is in fact in relationship that the self develops.
It seems that we are in fact hard wired to learn and learn through relationship. It is not the case that we are simply sponges taking in random information, we learn our world through relationships. If there isn’t a relational element to the learning, we ignore it. We implicitly trust that the other selves around us know something valuable and we are able to smartly read into this and learn from this. As Bruce Hood notes we do all of this without the help of our conscious selves.
To be able to copy others is one of the most powerful skills with which humans are born. From the very beginning, babies are sophisticated people-watchers, following adults around and copying their behaviors.
This is because humans have been programmed to imitate. If an infant watches an adult perform some new action on a never-before-seen object, a 1-year-old will remember and copy the behavior 1 week later.68 The child knows what the goal of the action is even when the adult is thwarted by some problem. In one study, a female adult looked and smiled at 14-month-old infants and then leaned forward to activate a light-switch on a box by bending over and touching it with her forehead. When presented with the light-switch box, the babies produced the same bizarre movement. However, if the woman had her arms wrapped in a blanket and did exactly the same movement with her forehead, the babies did not copy the head movement but activated the light-switch on the box with their hands. The babies must have reasoned that, because the woman’s hands were restricted, her goal was simply to press the switch. When her hands were not bound, however, babies must have reasoned that using your head was important for activating the light-switch.
Many animals can copy but none does so for the pure joy of being sociable. Copying is not an automatic reflex. Babies do not slavishly duplicate every adult action they see. If the adult does not smile and get the babies’ attention from the start, then babies don’t copy. Also, babies only copy adults who seem to know what they are doing. Initially, babies will copy the actions of an adult who is wearing a blindfold. The baby does not know that the adult cannot see. However, if you give the baby the blindfold to play with, then she doesn’t make the mistake of copying the blindfolded adult again. Babies know that a blindfolded adult can’t possibly be looking at anything worth paying attention to. In other words, babies will only copy adults when they are led to think that something is worth doing.
Hood, Bruce (2012-04-25). The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity (pp. 62-63). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
What we see through this is that we as people, even before the development of our conscious selves seem to be built for creative, social, joyful learning and development. We are built to learn and do and create and grow and develop and to do all of this in relationship with other selves. We do this even before we know our self and we do it for joy.
We Want What We Want
You may have also noted that this tiny creature, which has not yet developed the self that you and I experience and assume, wants. Every parent knows this. Mothers eat something and have a sense that the baby liked or didn’t like it. After the trauma of the birth passage the newborn wants the warmth and consolation of the breast. Infants express themselves clearly to their attentive parents communicating different things through different cries. This creature that has not yet developed a conscious self wants and has definite opinions about a whole variety of things.
My sister was trying to be a good mother by keeping her precious daughter from sugar. My mother didn’t share in this doctrine of sugar prohibition and on one hot summer outing introduced my niece to ice cream. The result was dramatic and predictable. Her eyes light up, she knew that she liked it, and she wanted more. My sister’s cherished ideals were bested by a frozen dairy product. Once enjoyed, my niece’s world was changed. The world was better with ice cream no matter what Mama said.
It’s not just food that drives us, of course. The process by which we are attracted so some things and not others is mysterious and often locked away from us by our tyrannical brains that refuse to explain themselves. We are attracted to things and we don’t know why. Some of our attractions are easy to understand, many others are not. As we begin to explore the construction of our selves and our identities these needs and wants will become foundational, and remember, they happen, as we saw, in relationship to the needs and wants of others.
We live in a formative triangle between our selves, the things that we want, love, need, or find powerfully attractive, and the other selves in our relational world. It is within the dynamics of these triangles that the stories of our lives, our purpose, our meaning, and joy and fulfillment, or despair will be found.