When people attempt to describe their sense of self, what are they actually incorporating into the resultant definition? Personality is perhaps the most common conception of self, with vast amounts of empirical validation. However, our sense of self runs deeper than such superficial descriptions of behavioural traits. The self is an amalgamation of all that is contained within the mind; a magnificent average of every synaptic transmission and neuronal network. Like consciousness, it is an emergent phenomenon (the sum is greater than the parts). But unlike the conscious, self ceases to be when individual components are removed or modified. For example, consciousness is virtually unchanged (in the sense of what it defines – directed, controlled thought) with the removal of successive faculties. We can remove physical brain structures such as the amygdala and still utilise our capacities for consciousness, albeit loosing a portion of the informative inputs. However the self is a broader term, describing the current mental state of ‘what is’. It is both a snapshot of the descriptive, providing a broad overview of what we are at time t, and prescriptive, in that the sense of self has an influence over how behaviours are actioned and information is processed.

In this article I intend to firstly describe the basis of ‘traditional’ measures of the self; empirical measures of personality and cognition. Secondly I will provide a neuro-psychological outline of the various brain structures that could be biologically responsible for eliciting our perceptions of self. Finally, I wish to propose the view that our sense of self is dynamic, fluctuating daily based on experience and discuss how this could affect our preconceived notions of introspection.

Personality is perhaps one of the most measured variables in psychology. It is certainly one of the most well-known, through its portrayal in popular science as well as self-help psychology. Personality could also be said to comprise a major part of our sense of self, in that the way in which we respond to and process external stimuli (both physically and mentally) has major effects on who we are as an entity. Personality is also incredibly varied; whether due to genetics, environment or a combination of both. For this reason, psychological study of personality takes on a wide variety of forms.

The lexical hypothesis, proposed by Francis Galton in the 19th century, became the first stepping stone from which the field of personality psychometrics was launched. Galton’s posit was that the sum of human language, its vocabulary (lexicon), contains the necessary ingredients from which personality can be measured. During the 20th century, others expanded on this hypothesis and refined Galton’s technique through the use of Factor Analysis (a mathematical model that summarises common variance into factors). Methodological and statistical criticisms of this method aside, the lexical hypothesis proved to be useful in classifying individuals into categories of personality. However this model is purely descriptive; it simply summarises information, extracting no deeper meaning or providing background theory with which to explain the etiology of such traits. Those wishing to learn more about descriptive measures of personality can find this information under the headings ‘The Big Five Inventory’ (OCEAN) and Hans Eysencks Three Factor model (PEN).

Neuropsychological methods of defining psychology are less reliant on statistical methods and utilise a posteriori knowledge (as opposed to the lexical hypothesis which relies on reasoning/deduction). Thus, such theories have a solid empirical background with first-order experimental evidence to provide support to the conclusions reached. One such theory is the BIS/BAS (behavioural inhibition/activation system). Proposed by Gray (1982), the BIS/BAS conception of personality builds upon individual differences in cortical activity in order to arrive at the observable differences in behaviour. Such a revision of personality turns the tables on traditional methods of research in this area, moving away from superficially describing the traits to explaining the underlying causality. Experimental evidence has lent support to this model through direct observation of cortical activity (functional MRI scans). Addicts and sensation seekers are found to have high scores on behavioural activation (associated with increased per-frontal lobe activity), while introverts score high on behavioural inhibition. This seems to match up with our intuitive preconceptions of these personality groupings; sensation seekers are quick to action, in short they tend to act first and think later. Conversely, introverts act more cautiously, adhering to a policy of ‘looking before they leap’. Therefore, while not encapsulating as wide a variety of individual personality factors as the ‘Big Five’, the BIS/BAS model and others based on neurobiological foundations seem to be tapping into a more fundamental, materialistic/reductionist view of behavioural traits. The conclusion here is that directly observable events and the resulting individual differences ipso facto arise from specific regions in the brain.

Delving deeper into this neurology, the sense of self may have developed as a means to an end; the end in this case is predicting the behaviour of others. Therefore, our sense of self and consciousness may have evolved as a way of internally simulating how our social competitors think, feel and act. V. Ramachandran (M.D.), in his Edge.org exclusive essay, calls upon his neurological experience and knowledge of neuroanatomy to provide a unique insight into the physiological basis of self. Mirror neurons are thought to act as mimicking simulators of external agents, in that they show activity both performing a task and while observing someone else performing the same task. It is argued that such neuronal conglomerates evolved due to social pressures; a method of second guessing the possible future actions of others. Thus, the ability to direct these networks inwards was an added bonus. The human capacity for constructing a valid theory of mind also gifted us with the ability to scrutinise the self from a meta-perspective (an almost ‘out-of-body’ experience ala a ‘Jimeny the Cricket’ style conscience).

Mirror neurons also act as empathy meters; firing across synaptic events during moments of emotional significance. In effect, our ability to recognise the feelings of others stems from a neuronal structure that actually elicits such feelings within the self. Our sense of self, thus, is inescapably intertwined with that of other agents’ self. Like it or not, biological dependence on the group has resulted in the formation of neurological triggers which fire spontaneously and without our consent. In effect, the intangible self can be influenced by other intangibles, such as emotional displays. We view the world through ‘rose coloured glasses’ with an emphasis on theorizing the actions of others through how we would respond in the same situation.

So far we have examined the role of personality in explaining a portion of what the term ‘self’ conveys. In addition, a biological basis for self has been introduced which suggests that both personality and the neurological capacity for introspection are both anatomically definable features of the brain. But what else are we referring to when we speak of having a sense of self? Surely we are not doing this construct justice if all that it contains is differences in behavioural disposition and anatomical structure.

Indeed, the sense of self is dynamic. Informational inputs constantly modify and update our knowledge banks, which in turn, have ramifications for self. Intelligence, emotional lability, preferences, group identity, proprioreception (spatial awareness); the list is endless. Although some of these categories of self may be collapsible into higher order factors (personality could incorporate preference and group behaviour), it is arguable that to do so would result in the loss of information. The point here is that to look at the bigger picture may obscure the finer details that can lead to further enlightenment on what we truly mean when we discuss self.

Are you the same person you were 10 years ago? In most cases, if not all, the answer will be no. Core traits may remain relatively stable, such as temperament, however arguably, individuals change and grow over time. Thus, their sense of self changes as well, some people may become more attuned to their sense of self than others, developing a close relationship through introspective analysis. Others, sadly, seem to lack this ability of meta-cognition; thinking about thinking, asking the questions of ‘why’, ‘who am I’ and ‘how did I come to be’. I believe this has implications for the growth of humanity as a species.

Is a state of societal eudaimonia sustainable in a population that has varying levels of ‘selfness’? If self is linked to the ability to simulate the minds of others, which is also dependent upon both neurological structure (leading to genetic mutation possibly reducing or modifying such capacities) and empathic responses, the answer to this question is a resounding no. Whether due to nature or nurture, society will always have individuals whom are more self-aware than others, and as a result, more attentive and aware of the mental states of others. A lack of compassion for the welfare of others coupled with an inability to analyse the self with any semblance of drive and purpose spells doom for a harmonious society. Individuals lacking in self will refuse, through ignorance, to grow and become socially aware.

Perhaps collectivism is the answer; forcing groups to co-habitate may introduce an increased appreciation for theory of mind. If the basis of this process is mainly biological (as it would seem to be), such a policy would be social suicide. The answer could dwell in the education system. Introducing children to the mental pleasures of psychology and at a deeper level, philosophy, may result in the recognisation of the importance of self-reflection. The question here is not only whether students will grasp these concepts with any enthusiasm, but also if such traits can be taught via traditional methods. More research must be conducted into the nature of the self if we are to have an answer to this quandry. Is self related directly to biology (we are stuck with what we have) or can it be instilled via psycho-education and a modification of environment?

Self will always remain a mystery due to its dynamic and varied nature. It is with hope that we look to science and encourage its attempts to pin down the details on this elusive subject. Even if this quest fails to produce a universal theory of self, perhaps it will be successful in shedding at least some light onto the murky waters of self-awareness. In doing so, psychology stands to benefit both from a philosophical and a clinical perspective, increasing our knowledge of the causality underlying disorders of the self (body dysmorphia, depression/suicide, self-harming) .

If you haven’t already done so, take a moment now to begin your journey of self discovery; you might just find something you never knew was there!