The Shocking Truth about Identity

How surprises can alter our sense of self

Posted Jan 28, 2014

By the time you arrive home today, you may not be the person you are now. That’s because surprises can come at any time – and they set off chemical cascades that rearrange our inner landscapes, affecting our view of ourselves and of the world around us.

Think fast, answer quickly, one sentence only: Who are you?

As members of a species prone to think symbolically, the minds of most people contemplating their own identities flash on the work they do, the places they live, the people in their lives. Even on the kinds of cars they drive.

Rarely do they pause to consider their own physical form.

When they do, they usually think only about those attributes that set them apart: tallness or shortness, thickness or thinness, blondness or brunette-ness or baldness. Blue-eyed-ness or brown-eyed-ness. In part, that’s because our minds are honed to pick out differences before considering similarities. There are survival advantages, after all, to recognizing “otherness” – and recognizing it quickly.

Not surprisingly, evolution has endowed other brains to work the same way. 

Reward a lab rat for picking out only rectangles from an array of possible shape choices, and the rat’s brain first devotes itself to drawing distinctions from other shapes. Only later will the rat seek out similarities and become a connoisseur of rectangle-ness.

Over time, the rat will exhibit what scientists call peak-shift preferences for shapes epitomizing, even exaggerating, the concept of rectangularity. The rat will come to prefer longer, skinnier rectangles to more square-shaped ones in much the same way that people develop affinities for body types with particular characteristics like tallness or shortness, thickness or thinness.

Which brings us back to the fact that people tend not to consider universally human body traits when contemplating their own identities.

Few folks would answer the question, “Who are you?” by saying, “I’m a bipedal being with two eyes, a nose, a mouth, and four appendages, of which two are my favorite because they can manipulate my surroundings by means of an opposable thumb.”

Which begs the question: Why don’t we answer queries about identity based on what’s most fundamental about ourselves?

The answer has to do with what cognitive scientists call embodied cognition, the idea that our brains use our bodies to make sense of both the physical world of things as well as the abstract world of ideas.

This is true to such an extent that when we even imagine performing a physical action – as we might do when we abstractly contemplate making a decision about whether to act or not – brain areas involved in movement are stimulated just as if we were actually performing the action.

In short, our bodies are so integral to our thinking that we take them for granted. When the vast majority of our interactions involve others with bodies like our own, there’s no real reason for generic body type to stand out as an aspect of identity.

But it turns out that our bodies are key to our psychological sense of self. We just don’t think about our bodies in very deep ways unless and until we are forced to do so – usually by the shock of surprise.

Let’s say you are driving through farm country and, instead of cows and sheep grazing on the hillsides, you spot two unicorns jousting and witness a flying pig come in for a landing. Chances are, you’re going to hit the brakes – hard. Probably pull over, maybe get out and investigate. For sure take a few pictures. Definitely post them to Facebook.

Good thing you’re way out in the countryside because you’re going to need some time to get yourself (that’s Your Self, as in identity) together again. You’ll likely spend a whole lot of your remaining drive time re-envisioning your upended world and rethinking your place in it.

Neurons in your amygdala will be firing like crazy because that’s the area of the brain where shocking surprises, like the existential one you’ve just experienced, are registered. Precisely which neurons there are working hardest will be tough to tell because different sets of neurons respond exclusively to either pleasant or unpleasant surprises. Good luck with sorting that out.

Once you have, who knows who you’ll be then? Thoughts, feelings, and treasured beliefs will necessarily have done some significant morphing. And those things matter because the sense of self that you usually perceive as solid and stable is actually an ever-shifting landscape your brain works hard to construct and constantly to maintain.

Besides your amygdala, other areas of your brain will be doing some heavy calisthenics as well, because self-identity involves the weaving of a coherent life story from experienced events and – let’s face it – the unicorn thing and the flying pig thing are going to require some serious re-weaving.

Humans, it would seem, aren’t the only critters to become baffled by close encounters with otherness. Sometimes, the perceptual shoe ends up on the other foot – or paw, or flipper, as the case may be.

While working on a ranch, I once witnessed a dog’s first encounter with a horse. The dog, a smallish Siberian husky, had been busy chasing chickens when it rounded a corner and came to a screeching halt at the sight of a Quarter Horse.

The dog approached hesitantly, head down, chest protectively close to the ground. The horse, no stranger to canines, leaned calmly down to the nervous dog until the two were nose to nose. The husky shuffled and sniffed, alternately advancing and retreating with quick, darting movements, clearly tempering its fascination with caution. Was Fido experiencing the neural-chemical cascade of existential contemplation? Probably no telling for certain without reading its subsequent Facebook post.

Sometimes, close encounters are even more dramatic.

Before beginning my former career as a dolphin trainer, I was working at an oceanarium, picking up trash left behind by tourists at show stadium pools. The job gave me lots of opportunity to observe Atlantic bottlenose dolphins between show times, and I often spent my lunch breaks doing just that. I enjoyed watching them swim, emerging from behind a rock wall to cruise effortlessly through the water behind a wide glass panel at the front of the stadium pool.

One day, a trainer must have brought his dog to work because a shaggy Scottie mix trotted by the glass just as a dolphin emerged in an elegant glide from behind the rock wall. Suddenly, the two animals, dog and dolphin, were eye to eye, separated only by a few inches of stadium glass.

The cruising dolphin put on the brakes. Used his tail flukes like the deceleration flaps on an airplane. Tucked them beneath his sleek form and used the oncoming rush of water to pivot his entire body upright for a spy-hopping peek out of the water and over the glass.

The stop was so sudden that a second dolphin cruising behind the first didn’t have time to react. Their bodies slammed together like cars on a freeway, and the collision caused a chain reaction leading to a five-dolphin pile-up.

Within moments, five astounded pairs of eyes were staring in amazement at what was obviously their first encounter with a non-human terrestrial mammal. The shaggy Scottie was equally astonished. It jumped and barked and scrabbled at the glass until a trainer, alerted by all the commotion, came to lead it away.

It must have been a moment as surreal to each of them, dolphins and dog alike, as a close encounter with a unicorn or a flying pig might have been to us. But cultural wisdom tells us that truth is often stranger than fiction. And so we can expect our own identity-shaping surprises to emerge rather closer to home than the far off never-never lands inhabited by fantastic, fabled creatures.

And speaking of closer to home, just what does it mean when animals other than ourselves react outwardly to the shocking surprise of otherness with the same vigorous curiosity and bewilderment that we ourselves exhibit under similar circumstances? That, of course, is anyone’s guess. But be careful when you ponder – you might just emerge from your musings a changed person.

Copyright © Seth Slater, 2014