How Is Individual Identity Shaped by Collective Knowledge?

Neuroscience research on how we absorb cultural info into who we (think we) are.

Posted Dec 23, 2019

No matter who we are, we depend on a complex social environment for who we are and become. Individuals are born into a nested series of contexts, from family to friends, education to broad political, cultural and religious influences. Feral children, deprived of human contact, do not achieve their full potential. Traumatized individuals and groups, likewise, experience identity often delimited by adversity.

Is Individual Personality an Illusion?

It is easy to see ourselves as individuals, especially in cultures which exalt individual accomplishment. While we have an innate brain-based predisposition to focus on ourselves, this may merely be a bias that conveys a survival advantage, unique individuality being a ghost in the machine.

If the self is inherently social, we may not be able to directly grasp it because of limitations on what we can directly experience and know (Sullivan, 2016, original lecture 1944):

And so actually, the thing which distinguishes the human being from the human animal is the incorporation in the poor human animal of vast amounts of culture, of socially meaningful, rather than biologically meaningful entities, which exert very powerful influence on all subsequent performances of the creature." 

Moreover, “for all I know every human being has as many personalities as he has interpersonal relations” (Sullivan, in Bromberg, 1996). With the complex and unknowable social influences which go into who we are, how do we know where we stop and social identity begins? Or are they two sides of the same coin?

Behind the Scenes

How does the individual brain jack into the collective, tap into rich cultural legacies? Cutting-edge research in Nature Human Behavior by Gangepain and colleagues (2019) explores how candidate brain areas encode cultural information into an individual's sense of self.

They asked 24 participants to tour the Caen Memorial Museum. The next day, they scanned their brains while unexpectedly prompting them to recall elements of the visit. Brain activity was correlated with different representations of WWII-related information—collective, individual, historical—on Wikipedia for a “semantic” network of a general fund of knowledge regarding WWII. The different categories of information each went into a distinct network of meaning, called an RDM or "representational dissimilarity matrix", used in making statistical comparisons.

The collective RDM, for instance, was generated from analyzing all 3,766 news bulletins broadcast on French television from 1980 to 2010. The individual RDMs were generated by having participants spatially arrange the 119 images they’d seen within circles on a computer screen by how each participant thought they were related to each other. The historical RDM was generated by clustering expert data on WWII, and so on.

Researchers focused on two areas in the frontal cortex involved with social information and schema generation—the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (dmPFC) and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC). 

The vmPFC governs “schema processing,” key to neural networks that organize abstract information into usable formats. VmPFC is involved with the integration of different pieces of information, simulating the future, and tagging experience with emotion and significance.

The dmPFC processes social knowledge, including the ability to imagine the other's mind (“mentalizing”). The dmPFC is involved with constructing narratives and distinguishing group and individual perspectives.

Research Findings

Visiting the Memorial connected individuals with collective understanding, rather than some other body of knowledge. Compared with those who did not, the people who visited the Memorial had more closely correlated individual and collective RDMs. The collective RDM differed from the historical and semantic (Wikipedia) RDMs, an important distinction because what we glean from collective knowledge is often different from what is true and accurate.

They verified that the dmPFC activity uniquely correlated with the collective RDM, even after controlling for other RDMs and sources of error. The dmPFC was uniquely correlated with the structure of collective information, reflecting information structured within the television news reports about WWII available to participants over the course of their lives. DmPFC was stronger in older participants, suggesting that collective understanding increases with age.

VmPFC activity correlated with multiple RDMs, tying together—in this case—collective information, semantic information and the individual experience of touring and recalling the Memorial. VmPFC activity did not exclusively correlate with collective RDM. 

Overall, dmPFC activity was uniquely correlated with the common connection between collective and individual RDMs, and not one more than the other. The dmPFC blended inner and outer information, mediating identity between individual and collective, helping to construct coherent narratives imbued with meaning and emotion and integrating this information in concert with the vmPFC into general frameworks for understanding oneself in social contexts.

This research suggests that the dmPFC encodes the unique relationship between the individual and collective, demonstrating the scientific basis, perhaps, for mystical connections with collective systems of meaning. This work, which requires confirmation as it is early, nevertheless provides a rational basis for understanding how unconscious social forces ground individual identity. It suggests that what we may see as unique to ourselves is at least a combination of collective and personal influences, if not more fundamentally relational than individual.

Identity Politics and Neurobiologically-driven Groupthink?

Collective understand often differs critically from the facts, an Orwellian problem that is supercharged in this era of fake news. Collective schemas have a top-down effect on individual identity, which most people don't consider, leaving us vulnerable to identity manipulations.

This has important implications for collective decision-making and how we collaboratively envision the future, skewing how we respond to threats and take advantage of opportunities, deal with climate change, social justice and prejudices, and ultimately approach the evolution of our own species with greater adaptability and resilience, armed with relevant neuroscience.

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