Who are you?
The question may seem effortless to answer: You are the citizen of a country, the resident of a city, the child of particular parents, the sibling (or not) of brothers and sisters, the parent (or not) of children, and so on. And you might further answer the question by invoking a personality, an identity: You're outgoing. You're politically liberal. You're Catholic. Going further still, you might invoke your history, your memories: You came from a place, where events happened to you. And those helped make you who you are.
Such are some of the off-the-cuff ways in which we explain ourselves. The scientific answer to the question above, however, is beginning to look radically different. Last year, New Scientist magazine even ran a cover article entitled, "The great illusion of the self," drawing on the findings of modern neuroscience to challenge the very idea that we have seamless, continuous, consistent identities. "Under scrutiny, many common-sense beliefs about selfhood begin to unravel," declared the magazine. "Some thinkers even go so far as claiming that there is no such thing as the self."
What's going on here? When it comes to understanding this new and very personal field of science, it's hard to think of a more apt guide than Jennifer Ouellette, author of the new book Me, Myself, and Why: Searching for the Science of Self. Not only is Ouellette a celebrated science writer; she also happens to be adopted, a fact that makes her life a kind of natural experiment in the relative roles of genes and the environment in determining our identities. The self, explains Ouellette in this episode, is "a miracle of integration. And we haven't figured it out, but the science that is trying to figure it out is absolutely fascinating."
This episode also features a discussion about a case currently before the Supreme Court that turns on how we determine, scientifically, who is intellectually disabled, and of the recent discovery of a 30,000 year old "giant virus" frozen in Arctic ice.