During Week 2 of The Brain on PBS, David Eagleman explored the question of how the human brain builds self-identity and sought to answer the question, “What makes me, ME?”
The episode explored human development and stressed the importance of neuroplastic chages in the brain across our lifespan. Because human infants are born helpless and must acquire needed survival skills through on-the-job training our development starts in the womb, but continues after birth, experiences a second burst in the teenage years and continues, as a somewhat slower pace, for the rest of our life.
We have explored the consequences of being born helpless in a number of writings under the umbrella title of “Nimble Bodies, Nimble Minds.” Narrow hips and small birth canals caused by the upright stance, required the explosive growth of the human brain to take place outside of the womb and through interaction with the environment. This had two major consequences that contributed to human bodies and brains that survive and thrive because they are nimble and adaptive
First, being born helpless made human babies super-dependent on care and nurturing from mothers and from a range of “alloparents” or surrogate parents and caregivers, such as fathers, aunts, grandparents and even friends. Alloparenting is unique to human beings. The ultra-dependency require the super-development of social intelligence. We need brains that are nimble enough to negotiate myriad social interactions and relationships. We couldn’t survive unless we understood other people, were able to communicate effectively, and learned how to engage in cooperative behaviors with them.
The second major consequence was that our brains had to be highly plastic and flexible, capable of absorbing new learning on the fly and retaining useful memories. Since human babies have to develop outside the womb, we needed brains that rewired themselves to response effectively to the specific challenges that we encountered in our environment. This made our brains and bodies incredible nimble and flexible, capable of adapting themselves to any kind of environment that was encountered.
The remarkable plasticity of the brain has interesting and profound implications for our sense of Self.
Since what makes me ME is largely my brain, and since my brain is constantly changing in response to new stimuli, my identify, my SELF, is also continually in flux. My SELF is different from one moment to the next. Your SELF today differs from your SELF of yesterday because your brain has changed during that time. There is no fixed and permanent ME or YOU. Me is a state of becoming that continues until I die.
This is a hard concept for most of us who grew up under the influence of Western philosophies and mindsets, but it is very consistent with a core Buddhist concept of “anatman” or the self-less being. On this point, Buddhism and neuroscience are on the same page. There is no fixed self, but a constant unfolding of a new selfness with each passing moment. We are formed by what came in the past, what the buddhists would refer to as “the causal connectedness of all things.” And, we will be further changed by what is happening to us at this very moment.
So what makes me who I am is the sum total of the actions I have taken, the thoughts I have had and heard, the emotions I have felt and the experiences I have had. And, my brain and my Self will be changed by what I do, think, feel and experience today and in the future. This is why it is possible to build better brains. It is this incredible plasticity of the engine of our Self (our brains) that makes it possible to design healthier brains and brains that are increasingly capable of supporting ongoing personal development and enhanced social interaction. If we are thoughtful and deliberate about how the kind of plastic change our brains undergo, we can shape them to be healthier and happier. This is what MINDRAMP’s Better Brains by Design Initiative is all about.