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Searching for the Science of Self

An interview with author Jennifer Ouellette

At a time of big science endeavors, such as the BRAIN initiative and the Human Connectome with goals of mapping everything about the brain in hopes of understanding how it works, one lone science writer has taken on the task personally. By utilizing tests that are available at public disposal, she sheds light on the nature of our psychological features and what can really be learned about identity from DNA sequencing, brain scans, and personality tests. How much information about personal identity can be gleamed from test results and how much of individual identity is still held within the yet-defined physics of consciousness?

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In her new book, Me, Myself and Why: Searching for the Science of Self, Jennifer Ouellette explores the concept of identity through scientific, medical and psychological testing on her journey of self-discovery. The L.A. based author (and the past founding director of the Science & Entertainment Exchange) is an expert at communicating tough scientific concepts to broad audiences, and here she uses personal narrative to appeal to her readers as she skillfully recounts her experiences.

I first became familiar with her work in 2001 through an article she wrote for Discover on the fractal patterns in the paintings of Jackson Pollock. Last week, I interviewed her about her new book during FQXi’s Physics of Information conference.

GN In your book, Me, Myself and Why: Searching for the Science of Self, you explore your own identity using the arsenal of what science has to offer. What sort of information did you gather on your journey of self-discovery?

JO Certainly this ended up being very much more of a journey than I expected, you know, initially I was going to just do a fun little book and I was going to take a bunch of tests. I was going to get my genotype sequenced, my brain scanned, take personality tests and things like that. I quickly realized that that was really just scratching the surface of self and identity. You can learn things from these tests but they’re usually measuring and quantifying some very specific thing, and when we’re talking about a human being, all those things become integrated.

So really, the book ended up being about how unique your conscious cogitative individual emerges out of the primordial ooze of genetic code and there are many, many levels as to how that happens. So, you start with genes and the genes manufacture proteins and all kinds of things and help your body. It dictates how the organism develops, the brain develops, and even in the womb it’s already starting to set up little synapses and things like that. Everything you experience once you’re born starts wiring your brain in unique ways. This determines things like temperament, habit, thoughts, memories–all these things–and as we get older and our conscious experience becomes richer, we take those experiences and those memories and we weave a story out of them.

So I kind of went from the most fundamental aspects of the genetic code and I ended up at the end of the book with how we use autobiographical memory to weave a personal story, and how that becomes how we shape our sense of self and our personal identity. 

There’s a lot of aspects of self and I think the most important thing that I learned was that self, we all think we know what we mean by self. It’s extremely difficult to define and you have to talk about it in very different ways. There is the public self or the private self, these days in the Internet age there is the online self and particularly if you’re in a virtual world and you build an avatar, the avatar becomes an extension of you. It becomes a representation of who you are. Some of the most surprising things I think I found in the course of my research was that the brain is very, very good at incorporating things into its map of the body into its sense of what is part of me and what is else, what is other. For instance, if you think of a blind man who uses a cane regularly, that cane eventually becomes incorporated in his brain as part of his body map. It becomes a part of him in terms of how he uses it and how it interacts with his body and helps him interface with his environment.

It turns out that things like a computer mouse and your own avatar, if you get a feedback mechanism going, under certain conditions, your brain will actually incorporate aspects of your avatar. The most famous example is Jaron Lanier who created a virtual lobster that had extra limbs. He was curious if he could figure out how to manipulate, in a virtual environment, those extra limbs, even though in reality he didn’t have them. And it turned out he figured out how to use micro movements and so his brain could in fact figure out how to manipulate an avatar as a representation of self even though that avatar had extra limbs that the human body didn’t have.

That’s amazing. That tells you a lot. That tells you immediately that our sense of self is a construct, which is not the same thing as saying that it’s illusionary, I think it’s very real, but it is certainly not your genetic code or simply your synapses or simply any one thing, it’s all those things integrated together that makes us who we are.

GN So feelings are an important part of who we are. Did any of the interpretations of the scientific, medical, or psychological tests change your feelings or concept of self?

JO You know, I think that I had a much deeper appreciation for everything that goes into identity and self. I didn’t get deeply into emotional experience. I think there’s a tendency for people to think that neuroscience reduces it to a bunch of chemicals. You know, they say that being in love is basically just the cuddle chemical, you know oxytocin, in bonding and things like that, but clearly there’s more to it. I mean that might be the trigger and there might be emotional triggers, but we give those emotions meaning and we make them part of us. It becomes a little bit more real when we start working it into our story.

So there is the physical aspect of what’s going on in terms of self, but there’s also this other aspect, once we become conscious and we’re able to have memories and construct stories and have that kind of higher level cognition, we’re actually able to go back and shape our own sense of self. There’s constant feedback between the hardware and the software and what we make of everything.

It’s hard to find a good metaphor for it.

GN There are many tests available to the public now that can help them uncover information about themselves. Do you think any of the tests are of value?

JO It’s interesting. It’s a minimal value I would say. Certainly when I got the brain scan, that entire chapter on the brain scan is about a null result. I was participating in a group brain scan study that had not been completed by the time I wrote the book because science doesn’t care about my book deadline, science progresses at its own pace, but for group scans you need a statistically significant sample. So what they would do is take my results and combine it with everybody else’s and then try and find where we all converge to pinpoint what was going on during that cognitive study. They didn’t tell me what it was about, but I assume it had something to do with religion and empathy and prejudice and things like that, based on some of the questions they were asking.

For an individual scan, unless it’s diagnostic for medical reasons in which case they’re just looking at structuring for a tumor, it’s not really going to tell you much. My sinuses are very clear and I don’t have a brain tumor. I could have, I suppose, taken an individual scan. That’s a little bit trickier and I would have to take the same test hundreds of times in order for it to be statistically significant, so a lot of the chapter ended up being a little bit about the parts of the brain that contribute to the self as how we distinguish between self and other, how we map our body and things like that and the rest of it was about why the brain scan is limited. We’re not actually looking at the brain in action when we’re getting a brain scan. It’s a statistical representation of things that are going on in the brain. Does not mean to say that it’s not useful but it’s probably not going to tell me much about me personally.

The genetic test tells you a little bit more because it is a personalized code, but we’re still learning quite a bit about the genome. When we first mapped the human genome initially, everybody was like, “Yes! We’ve mapped the human genome and now we can unlock all the secrets!” As is usually the case in science, the minute we thought we had the map, we realized that genetics is far, far more complicated. It’s certainly not one gene, one trait. And how do you define a trait? Even for something as simple as height, which is a clearly defined trait and highly inheritable, there might be some environmental things like nutrition that play into determining height, but mostly it’s genetic. There is no one gene helpfully labeled “height.” There’s a whole bunch of genes coding for various proteins and somehow a bunch of those all come together and interact in interesting ways that determine your eventual height. Same thing for eye color.

When you start getting into behaviors and personality traits, it gets even more complicated. This whole idea of one gene one trait just does not hold up and that makes it very, very complicated. I didn’t even get into the phenomenon of epigenetics, we’re now learning that our experiences in our lives actually can go back and impact our genetic code. There is some evidence, although it’s still speculative, that the changes that our experiences make in our genes can sometimes appear to be passed onto our offspring. That’s amazing. We never thought that was possible.

The picture is way more complicated. What I did learn from the genotype that I took with 23andMe verified a lot of things that I already knew about myself–ethnic heritage and things like that.

GN Did being adopted play a role in your interest of uncovering information about yourself that may not have been available to you in any other way?

JO I’m an adopted child, so it was nice for me to personally see that the things that I’d been told orally or in writing by people who had taken notes on my family background, were verified scientifically by my genetic code.

I was very interested in the medical risks because as an adopted child, you spend an entire lifetime being asked by doctors what your family’s medical history is and you have no answer because you don’t know. So it was helpful for me, but even then, a lot of that [genetic code] is based on preliminary studies. We still don’t really know how genes contribute to disease–how much or in what combinations. Again, I think one of the first genes discovered for disease was Huntington’s and that’s a very simple picture. If you have a particular variant of that gene, you’re either going to get Huntington’s, and if you don’t, you’re not going to get it. But it’s almost never that simple. Usually, it’s like height or the eye color, there’s a whole bunch of genes that contribute. Even for something like breast cancer, we know two or three of the major groups of genes responsible, but you can have those genes and never get breast cancer, or you can get breast cancer and not have those genes. So again, it’s a very complicated picture.

So what 23andMe did was they have risk factors and they assess your risk, a kind of mathematical analysis, and they break it down. They group the results based on how strong and robust the various studies are that had been done for the genes. Some of them are very speculative and it’s a small sample size and study. Others are a little bit more robust, so you can’t just use this as an oracle. Our picture of what goes into what makes us who we are is still evolving scientifically.

GN And so, you’re saying that there are some practical things that could help somebody who has been adopted and doesn’t have access to their biological roots.

JO Right. And it depends on your perspective, I think. I found it very helpful, but I know that there’s at least one case (I just saw a blog post last week) of a young woman who had taken the 23andMe analysis who had been adopted and it turns out her biological father is also on 23andMe. It compares your genetic code with everybody else on the database and alerts you to potential relatives and usually they’re third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh cousins and she basically found someone who was clearly her father biologically, and if you’re not prepared for that…

That gets played up as a risk. It’s disruptive, but I wouldn’t call it a risk. You choose that this is something that might happen. You might discover things about yourself. You might discover that the person you thought was your sister isn’t your sister…things like that, those things can happen. Surprises can happen–family secrets. But on the whole, I found it very, very helpful. Most of the relatives that I’ve found have been like fourth cousins, so, yeah.

GN Still, that’s nice.

So we’re at this very important physics conference and it’s been said that physics can’t fully account for human consciousness. Has your research given you new insights into the nature of consciousness, the facets and forces that shape our reality?

JO You know it’s very interesting. One of the colorful chapters in the book that kicks off the more meta discussion, things like consciousness and autobiographical self and storytelling, was an experiment where I dropped acid for the first time in my life.

GN Did your experience with LSD alter your understanding of yourself or reality?

JO The funny part of doing that experience was that I just don’t do drugs. I don’t like them, I don’t like snorting things up my nose, I don’t like holding smoke in my lungs, and I don’t like sticking needles in my arm unless it’s a necessary medical procedure. So that rules out most drugs for me. But acid you just pop a pill. I was intrigued because I’d done a lot of reading on the history, I’d read Albert Hofmann’s original book, and several neuroscientists told me that they themselves were intrigued because they felt that the affects that acid has on the brain actually dissolves your sense of self. It dissolves the boundary between self and others, so you really do feel as if you are integrated with the whole universe. You realize that your molecules and all the other molecules in the world are all kind of one in the same.

What was interesting to me was that despite all of that, even if I closed my eyes, if there was a physical disembodiment that happened, or if I just kind of merged with everything, there was still an “I”. That intrigues me. I still knew that “I” was me. That’s consciousness. That’s what we were talking about in the session this morning and that’s a mysterious thing. I write about some of these things in the book and I kind of focused it on the fundamental human question. We’ve all lost loved ones and many of us have witnessed the dead body. We realize that the person that we knew is gone and we have this very real sense of something essential having departed.

There’s something there, but that someone is gone. The “soul” is how it’s traditionally been called. What is that? That is consciousness. So I ended up talking to various neuroscientists and neurophilosophers, including Christof Koch who is here, and looked at some of the studies that have been done in terms of the neural correlates. The studies that he mentioned on sleep and anesthesia have physics to it, which was very interesting to me, not just Giulio Tononi’s work on information integration (which is very key). You see that same kind of integration in terms of how the brain is organized in small world networks. Consciousness is an emergent property, which is not the same thing as saying it’s an illusion. I think that the term illusion gets thrown around. There’s a layperson sense that illusion means something that’s false. I think that is not how someone like Christof uses it, but it can be misleading.

If you think about an emergent property, it’s something that arises out of the interactions of a whole bunch of smaller parts that then get integrated, and what comes out of that is an emergent property. The way I like to think about it is something like temperature, or a material property. Gold, for instance, is made up of individual atoms and molecules. It’s not made out of temperature, but the interactions of all those give rise to a property that we recognize and can measure and experience as temperature.

Consciousness might be something like that. When Max Tegmark is talking about struggling with how subjective experience might emerge out of atoms and molecules and quarks, that’s what he’s struggling with. Tononi is trying to find a way to quantify how rich our experience is by how much information is actually present. The small world network is what distributes the information and what makes everything integrated, the hardware so to speak. A small world network is kind of a buzzword, but basically almost anything that’s really efficient, like the electrical grid or the airline system, is organized as a bunch of central hubs, a lot of really tiny local short-range connections, and a few really key long-range connections. That means that in order to come to Puerto Rico, we do not have to take a bunch of little small trips 15 times to go across the country. We can go to one hub and then hop to a different hub and then get the local connection in order to get to this lovely island.

So, but if one of those hubs breaks down, (we all know what happens to the airline when Chicago O’Hare shuts down) it’s havoc. It ripples throughout the system. Apparently what happens when we sleep is those long-term connections get shut down. Christof showed the study this morning where you actually could see that the brain could still detect an electrical stimulus, but it was local. It wasn’t being integrated, it wasn’t being distributed throughout the brain and being integrated, and so therefore we are not conscious, we’re not wakeful.

To me, that is the interesting basic science, but it does not answer the hard problem which is how we wake up and our “self” pieces itself back together, for which there are very specific stages for how that happens and neuroscience is really just beginning to pick at that particular problem. I interviewed Patricia Churchland and she said that when it comes to the brain, physics has been around for arguably a couple of thousand years now, but she said neuroscience is basically pre-Kepler in that we haven’t even had our Copernican revolution yet and we’re just beginning to suss out that there are moons around Jupiter, so I’m very, very excited about what we’re going to learn going forward in the future on this [consciousness]. I think Koch and Tononi are the people that are going to blaze the way because theirs were really the first interesting good ideas that I think have really gotten people thinking that this might be something science actually has something to say about.

GN So, at one point, Max Tegmark said matter that brings about feelings equals consciousness. How do you feel about that?

JO I think his ideas are preliminary, he’s clearly drawing on Koch and Tononi’s work. I don’t think I’m in any position to comment on that to be honest, because even Max would say that it’s very preliminary. But, it’s a very interesting idea and I think that that sort of speculation and exploration is what needs to happen to take the very beginnings that we’ve got here and move it forward. People have got to do something bold like Max’s talk today. I think it doesn’t actually matter whether Max is right or wrong, what matters is that he is taking these ideas and he’s playing with them and he’s trying to extend them in interesting ways, and that absolutely needs to happen.

GN What I wanted to bring this back to is in the science of self, feelings come out from every direction as an important indicator of consciousness and I was wondering where that left you at the end of the book with your explorations and feelings. Did you feel a sense of enlightenment? 

JO I was enlightened, although I’m not sure I was enlightened emotionally. I would say that it really increased my sense of awe at how any of us even exist. Seriously, I mean it’s an incredible thing.

GN Life itself.

JO Life itself, and not just basic life, but thinking, feeling, cogitating, the fact that I can write a book, the fact that I can enjoy a film, the fact that we can create these things, the fact that we can do mathematics, the fact that we can then turn the camera back on ourselves and say, “Why are we the way we are?” and really start to probe something as fundamental as consciousness. That alone takes us to a higher level of consciousness, of conscious awareness in order to do that. And the fact that we’re now getting to the point where we can actually talk about these things in terms of information integration is mind-boggling. So that was the biggest emotional thing. It brought about a certain humility, because clearly, I went into this thinking it would be kind of a fun, light book and it is a fun book. There are fun, amusing parts, but it also is a very, very deep thing and I ended up with a much deeper appreciation and humility about the kind of work that’s being done and just what an amazing construct we are.

GN Thank you.


Gayil Nalls, Ph.D., is an interdisciplinary artist based in New York.


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