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Who Am I? The Cortex and Identity

The cortex's flexibility allows a person to modify identity, but watch out.

Key points

  • The programmability of the human cortex allows a person to change identity.
  • Modern society encourages people to become whatever they want to, and the cortex allows such metamorphoses.
  • Adopting a cortical program that is wrong for the rest of a person can create serious psychological problems.

For thirty-two years, Bernhard taught and advised working adult students in a program at a large state university. Students in the program designed individualized degrees and could acquire university credit by writing about what they had learned from their experiences. Most of the students wanted to make a change in their lives. Some wanted to advance in their organizations. Others were sick and tired of what they had been doing and wanted something new. Most of all, they wanted to see themselves in a new light—as capable people with skill and expertise and, sometimes, as seekers of truth. Often they created new identities that they carried into the world after they graduated.

Such transformations are possible only because the cerebral cortex is programmable. Its programmability lets us change beliefs, behaviors, allegiances, and philosophies and modify the way we present ourselves to others. It’s what allows us to create new selves. But this flexibility is a double-edged sword. If you can change so much about yourself, who are you really? Who is the you being changed? Who’s doing the changing? And how will these changes fit with your emotions? The other parts of your brain? Your genetic proclivities?

The programmability of the cortex can lead people to try to adopt identities that work against their personalities and emotional needs. Here’s an example. One student, we’ll call him David, had had a miserable college experience. His father, an engineer, had made it clear that he would pay for David’s college education only if David pursued a degree in engineering. After struggling with the engineering curriculum for two years, David dropped out. He didn’t know what he wanted to do or be, but he knew he wasn’t cut out to be an engineer. Meanwhile, his sense of self was profoundly shaken.

Fortunately, David’s story ends well. He discovered where his real abilities and interests lay and an identity he was comfortable with them. But others who have tried to reprogram themselves without taking their desires, needs, and abilities into account have paid with low self-esteem and depression.

For the ancient Greeks, the power to metamorphosize belonged to the gods and goddesses. The goddess Circe, for example, could turn men into swine; Daphne’s father, a river god, changed her into a laurel tree so that she could escape the ardor of Apollo. Our society, on the other hand, encourages ordinary people to transform themselves. Indeed, children are often told they can be anything they want to be. This approach to life has produced great wealth for some and stunning scientific achievements. But the dark side, for many, is chronic dissatisfaction and identity confusion.

Our hunter-gatherer ancestors didn’t have this kind of problem. They didn’t have to re-imagine who they were or how they fit with others; they had what might be called “inherited identity.” They knew they were members of a specific band, related by blood or marriage to all the other members of the group. And they didn’t have many options to choose from. A Netsilik hunter couldn’t suddenly realize that he wasn’t cut out for standing motionless over a seal breathing hole for hours in the dead of winter and decided to try his hand at real estate in California.

The human cortex was formed in hunter-gatherer times, but it hadn’t yet reached the level of control—of the environment and of identity—that it has today. Back then it was the servant of survival.

Today it is in the service of itself. The cortex is programmable and astoundingly flexible. It may adopt a program that changes your life for the better by making it possible for you to jettison old habits—programs that aren’t working for you. But the cortex can also cast you into a slough of despond if it adopts a program that is wrong for the rest of you.