Ten Things I Learned While Writing a Book About the Self

The state of the universe.
Jan. 30 2014 1:03 PM

Ten Things I Learned About Me

And maybe about you, too, while writing a book about the self.

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6. My avatar alter ego, Jen-Luc Piquant, might be more like me than I realize. Avatars are a virtual extension of the self. We bond psychologically with our avatars and those bonds are stronger the more similarities we share with our pixilated alter egos. We need to be able to look at our avatar and feel “This is me.” But our identities are always in flux. My avatar, which I use for blogging and Twitter, is part of me, but she is not the totality of me, and she may not even be who I am at the moment.

7. I was an incorrigible tomboy growing up, so it’s probably a good thing I wasn’t born in the 17th century, where my dress and behavior would have been deemed “unnatural”—unless I had the good fortune to be born into French aristocracy, where such peccadilloes were tolerated, if not fully embraced. But deeply ingrained attitudes about gender still infuse every aspect of society today, and it remains socially unacceptable, for instance, for little boys to love princesses or Easy-Bake Ovens. That rigid binary thinking needs to change. Such stereotypes arise from lazy thinking, and while they might make it easier to deal with the complexity in the world, they also make it far too easy to lose sight of people as individuals—and they can cause very real psychological harm to those children who don’t fit the stereotypes.

8.  I become “that person” at the party if I take LSD. You know the one. Did you see that episode of Mad Men where they all dropped acid and that one woman was crawling around on the carpet? Yeah, that was me. I bonded with an oriental rug on a deep, molecular level, and yet it never calls. Also? It’s really hard to take handwritten notes when you’re tripping on acid because your hand keeps melting into the paper.

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9. When I die, and my brain shuts down for good, my self will cease to exist, because consciousness is emergent. It is a real thing—I think, anyway, although some very smart people disagree—but it is still a product of that constant flow of neural information in the brain. “No matter, no mind,” as neuroscientist Christof Koch has phrased it. The world will go on without us after we die—a monstrously heartless thing for it to do. This terrifying thought is at the root of our primal fear of death: We just can’t imagine a world without “I.”  We cope by finding our own way to create meaning out of our allotted time on this Earth.

10. We are the stories we tell. We all construct personal narratives, and we spend our lives working and reworking them. Our memories might not be as accurate as we think—we fabricate and embellish even when we believe ourselves to be truthful—but this so-called autobiographical self is key to how we construct a unified whole out of the many components that contribute to our sense of self. You can sequence my DNA, scan my brain, subject me to a battery of personality tests, but you won’t find my essence in any one of them alone. Stories provide that unifying interpretive layer. If you really want to know who I am, let me tell you a story.

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