The Modern Mind

The impact of culture on human experience

The Anatomy of the Mind

Identity as a mental process

In several earlier posts I have presented a central argument of my recent book that the mind is a process which is supported by the brain but cannot be reduced to it, since it is a process of cultural, symbolic stimuli originating outside the brain in the specifically human, cultural environment. In other words, the mind is culture in the brain. It is also individualized culture, because it results from and assures the adjustment of a particular animal organism to the cultural environment. The necessity of the human to adjust to the cultural environment (which for us is also the intra-species environment, to which other animals are adjusted genetically) and the specific nature of cultural, symbolic, environment in fact call for several interconnected processes, performing different functions in this adjustment, which together constitute the mind, and, since the mind, therefore, is not a homogeneous, but an articulated, process, one can speak of the anatomy of the mind. The central processes of the mind are patterned or systematic and can be seen as structures, by analogy to organs and organisms. The mind itself, though a process, can be likened to an individual organism, which exists in a larger structure/process, analogous to a species – a culture. Within the mind, culture, supported by the imaginative capacities of the animal brain, transformed by the symbolic environment into the specifically human, symbolic imagination, necessarily creates three such “structures.” These structures are compartments of the self or of I and include: 1) identity – the relationally-constituted self; 2) agency, will, or acting self, the acting I; and 3) the thinking self, I of self-consciousness.

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            Identity in this sense is symbolic self-definition. It is the image of one’s position in the socio-cultural “space” within the image of the relevant socio-cultural terrain. It contains and provides information regarding one’s social status and one’s standing vis-à-vis non-human symbolic presences, such as angels, ancestors, or the nation; one’s relevant others, mortal and immortal, individual and collective, and the types of relations one is supposed to have with them, one’s significant symbolic environment, including one’s immediate and more remote social and cosmic worlds, expectations one may have of one’s environment and vice-versa, conduct proper to one under various, likely to arise circumstances (i.e. foods one should like or dislike, clothes one is supposed to wear, questions one is supposed to ask and issues one is supposed to be interested in, emotions one may legitimately experience and ones of which one should be ashamed, people one may befriend, marry, respect, despise and hate, and so on). In short, one’s identity represents an individualized microcosm of the particular culture in which one is immersed, with the image of one’s particularly significant sector in it (which may include God and His angels, paradise and hell, or one’s immediate neighbors, colleagues, and fellow “Red Sox” fans) magnified and highlighted.

Identity is a logical implication of the nature of human environment. Since the primary environment for humans is cultural and since, above all, individuals have to adapt to the intra-species environment of the human society in which they happen to live, a cognitive map of this cultural social environment must be created in the brain. This cognitive map, which is the representation of the surrounding culture, and the social order (always in relation to the cosmic one), constructed on its basis, in the individual’s mind may be accomplished by something like place cells which are responsible for the spatial representations -- maps of the changing spatial environment -- in the brain of a rat. The individual’s identity is his/her place on this multidimensional symbolic map. Like the indication of the rat’s place on the spatial mental map, it defines the individual’s possibilities of adaptation to the environment -- or to refer to specifically human reality, “powers,” “liberties,” and “rights.” Because the cultural environment is so complex, the human individual, unlike the rat, is presented by the cognitive map with various possibilities of adaptation which cannot be objectively and clearly ranked. They must be ranked subjectively, i.e., the individual must choose or decide which of them to pursue. This subjective ranking of options is, in the first place, a function of one’s identity.

As the cognitive map is configured out of the information derived from the cultural environment, it is subject to change with some, but not all, of the changes in that environment. Only a most dramatic change of the map as a whole as a result of the virtual transformation of the environment is likely to affect one’s own place on it, that is, change one’s identity. This should be so because, at first, cultural stimuli enter the new human’s brain as a jumbled mess: their organizing principles must be figured out. As the child figures out the organizing principles of various symbolic systems and begins to deploy the symbolic imagination, he or she also figures out where precisely he or she belongs in the symbolic environment which is still in the process of being constructed itself. The significance of other objects on the map is then assessed in relation to that place. One’s identity organizes the mess and the cultural environment is observed from its perspective. This means that, rather than being determined by our experiences, the nascent identity ranks these experiences, storing those it selects for memory in accordance with their subjective significance and forgetting most of them altogether.

Because of its essential ranking function, identity must start forming early. However, the process of its formation may be long and is not always successful. Identity-formation is likely to be faster and more successful the simpler is the cultural environment in which it is formed – i.e., the fewer and the more clearly defined are the relations that must be taken into account in the relationally-constituted self. For instance, in an isolated village community, in which all the denizens are practicing the same religion, obey the same authorities, speak the same language, wear habits of the same kind, enjoy the same level of prosperity, it may be expected to form easily and quickly. But in a large cosmopolitan metropolis, in which people of different religions, political persuasions, levels of wealth, styles of life, and linguistic backgrounds mix, it would take more time and for many people would never be complete, especially, if the metropolis is also pluralistic and egalitarian, and therefore the cultural environment does not rank its different populations itself, but leaves all the ranking to the individual.

As a representation of the environment, identity should force itself upon the brain as any external stimulus. It as it were issues commands to the brain. Identity is a symbolic self-definition, a relationally-constituted self, an image a human individual has of oneself as a cultural being and a participant in a particular cultural universe. At the same time, it is clearly an essential element of human mental – cognitive, emotional, and pertaining to social adjustment -- functioning and health. Changes in certain peripheral aspects of identity are possible, but any change in its core (i.e., crises of identity, doubts about one’s identity, multiple identities) translate into mental problems, affecting one’s ability to learn and commit information to memory, the adequacy of one’s emotional reactions, and the degree of one’s social adjustment. Identity mediates between one’s natural or animal capacities to learn, memorize, adapt to the environment – the capacities of one’s animal brain – and one’s functioning as, in fact being, a person, one’s humanity. Obviously, an individual endowed with different natural mental powers from those of somebody else would learn, memorize, and adapt differently, but so most certainly would an individual with equal natural powers but a different identity. Similarly, a damage to one’s natural capacities (as a result of physical trauma or impaired growth) will undoubtedly be reflected in one’s mental performance, but a damage to one’s cultural identity (as a result of a traumatic experience, such as immigration or “loss of face,” or in consequence of impaired formation) will alter mental performance as dramatically.


Liah Greenfeld is the author of Mind, Modernity, Madness: The Impact of Culture on Human Experience

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Liah Greenfeld, Ph.D., is a professor of sociology, political science, and anthropology at Boston University.


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