“I Am Whatever You Say I Am”?

It is gratifying when people see you just as you want to be seen.

But don’t count on it.

If you like to think of yourself as a gentle person of few words others may nevertheless find you boring and pathetic. You may like to think of yourself as curious and passionate about ideas, while others find you loud and arrogant. You may imagine yourself a real do-gooder, while people around you role their eyes, viewing your efforts as mere self-aggrandizement under the cover of moral pretense. You may fancy yourself a sophisticated wit with a clever ironic take on the world, while others find you juvenile and irritating.

However you present the narrative arc of your life to yourself, there will always be others who would tell your story quite differently. And among those, there may be some who would tell it exactly in the way that you dread it might be told.

Heightened awareness of this dissonance can feel unbearable.

How do people cope?

Some people isolate themselves from others: the less you expose yourself to others, the less opportunity others have to form and express an opposing opinion of you.

A person might, on the other hand, surround himself with people who will reliably mirror-back his preferred self-image. Securing high status in some sphere of life is very helpful in this regard: if others are compelled to placate you as a result of your power or prestige, if they want something from you like money, connections, or prestige-by-association, then you can count on them to calibrate their deference to your expectations.

The problem, of course, is that this requires you to suppress any knowledge of the fact that others are propping-up your self-portrait under duress. It will not be a problem, though, if you are sufficiently delusional or unwilling to consider seriously how others around you may be experiencing the world.

There is also the strategy of total war: tightly wound, back up, on edge, confrontational, ready at every moment to defend your idea of yourself against all challenges, and ready to quash even the slightest suggestion of an alternative. Where too many people go in this direction there may be violence at the end of the road.

None of these responses are admirable. But it is only in rare cases that a person appears always and entirely locked in one of these defensive postures. In our scientistic age, such extreme cases are usually described in terms of “mental disorders.”

Most of us, I assume, behave in the above ways to varying degrees throughout our lives depending on how well things are going. When things are not going well – when something inside you feels persistently and painfully unsettled, when you feel disrespected, invisible, demoralized, or that people unbearably see you in the wrong way – you are more likely to find yourself alone, surrounded by sycophants, or mired in one confrontation after another.

To be sure, isolation, the accrual of sycophants, and constant confrontation are not necessarily signs that things are going badly: you may be isolated for a long period of time trying to accomplish an important and admirable task, you may accrue sycophants as a result of some great achievement and be unable to shake them, and you may find yourself incessantly in confrontations because you hold a justifiable but unpopular view about something.

Be careful, though. These are also the very reasons that people who are not doing well and responding unadmirably often give to themselves in order to avoid being troubled by greater self-awareness (which would reveal that things are not actually going very well).

I assume that “greater self-awareness” is generally worthwhile, even at the expense of a comforting delusion. This is in part because I take a high level of self-awareness to be integral to an admirable disposition in social life, where there is always some dissonance between how you want to be seen and how others see you.

Along with a high level of self-awareness, it may be beneficial to have a sense that you are somehow affirmed, recognized, worthy of respect, or even loved from an impartial third-person perspective. The moral idea that you are a person worthy of equal respect like every other person can provide a good basis for a sense of self-respect. The political idea that the state, your country, recognizes you as a citizen among citizens with basic rights can support confidence in your fundamental dignity. The theological idea that God loves you unconditionally can be a basis for self-love.

Self-respect, confidence in your own fundamental dignity, and self-love are all stabilizing forces amidst the tumultuous relativism of how you appear to yourself and others.     

But third-person “common denominator” perspectives (like those derived from morality, constitutional law, and theology) ultimately provide minimal compensation for the failure of others to see you more precisely as you would like to be seen: as a tough guy, an intellectual, a victim who has survived great hardship, a good-hearted Christian, an intrepid free-thinker, an endearing schlemiel, wise, cosmopolitan, down-to-earth, smart, etc.

So what does an admirable response to “self-image relativism” look like? Here is a preliminary sketch:

An admirable person maintains relationships that challenge her preferred picture of herself. She cultivates an environment where she is recognized as the kind of person she imagines herself to be, but she is nevertheless happy to enter other environments where she is seen very differently. Her diverse relationships and spheres of experience function as “checks and balances” on her less admirable tendencies.

In general, she has a studied awareness of her usual reactions to the uncontrollable eyes of others: a sense for the little twitches of envy and resentment, the subtle compulsion to compete and dominate, the feeling of claustrophobia quietly compelling her to flee, and so on. She manages these tendencies with grace, finessing them to the margins of her mind so that they do not obstruct healthy interaction.

She places a reasonable amount of faith in others, assuming that they too are trying to manage themselves. She remembers that others are also vulnerable to the way that she sees them and she modifies her behavior accordingly. She tries to be charitable when others present themselves to her. But she knows when there is enough trust and mutual understanding to challenge another person’s self-image if needed. Thus, when she is challenging her spirit of friendship is self-evident.  

Big Think
Sponsored by Lumina Foundation

Upvote/downvote each of the videos below!

As you vote, keep in mind that we are looking for a winner with the most engaging social venture pitch - an idea you would want to invest in.

Keep reading Show less

Scientists discover how to trap mysterious dark matter

A new method promises to capture an elusive dark world particle.

Surprising Science
  • Scientists working on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) devised a method for trapping dark matter particles.
  • Dark matter is estimated to take up 26.8% of all matter in the Universe.
  • The researchers will be able to try their approach in 2021, when the LHC goes back online.
Keep reading Show less

Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

  • As a stand-up comedian, Pete Holmes knows how words can manipulate audiences — for good and bad.
  • Words aren't just words. They stich together our social fabric, helping establish and maintain relationships.
  • Holmes has a clever linguistic exercise meant to bring you closer to the people around you.