Illustration: Maria Bruni
The topic of identity—what crafts it, what changes it—has always been fascinating on a deeply personal level for science writer Jennifer Ouellette, author of the new book Me, Myself, and Why. "I was adopted as a baby, so for me the nature-versus-nurture question is kind of haunting," she says. Ouellette turned herself into a human guinea pig, having her brain scanned, her personality tested—even experimenting with an illicit drug—in an attempt to understand what accounts for our sense of self. We wanted to learn more.
Q: Where does one start on such a mission of self-exploration?
A: One of the first things I did was get my genome sequenced. I spit into a tube, shipped it off to a lab, and a few weeks later received a report detailing what might be lurking in my genes. I learned that I'm at increased risk for macular degeneration—must start taking care of the eyes!—but at a somewhat decreased risk for Alzheimer's. Yet the more I talked to researchers, the more I learned that, even with genetic predispositions, there are still no guarantees. I had assumed that there's a gene for this or a gene for that, but it's not so cut-and-dried.
Q: Since genetics isn't the whole story, where did your research lead you?
A: Some of the most compelling work on identity is happening in, of all places, the 3-D virtual world Second Life. When people create online identities in these simulated spaces, few stray far from representing themselves as they actually are. And there's growing evidence that the more an avatar looks like you, the more you bond with it, and the more it may influence how you view yourself. Jeremy Bailenson, PhD, who founded Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab, helped discover that if a person sees diet and exercise making her avatar thinner, she'll feel more compelled to eat right and work out in the real world. It doesn't take long. Spending about five minutes with your avatar—watching her run on a treadmill, for instance—may lead to changes in what you think you're capable of accomplishing.
Q: In the book, you talk about trying LSD. Did you really learn anything, or was it an excuse to do something a little crazy?
A: It was all in the name of science, I swear! I was intrigued by the drug's mind-expanding properties, which I'd heard about for years. One of the striking things I noticed while on acid was that I had absolutely no self-consciousness regarding my body. I realized that on a basic level I was just a bunch of molecules, and I wasn't worrying about taking up space. At the risk of sounding drug addled, I found that to be one of the most rewarding parts of the experience.
Q: But you're not suggesting that people should start dropping acid, right?
A: Of course not, but I do think there are things we can learn from it. A 2011 brain imaging study of people on a psychedelic called psilocybin found that when the subjects were under the influence, their brain activity dropped, especially in regions that ground us in reality—which suggests that when you're not, say, on an acid trip, your brain is working to limit some stimuli so you can function properly. When those controls are removed, it can be a little disorienting, but neuroscientists think it could help them unlock mysteries about consciousness and self-perception.
Q: So much of this science is still evolving. Did any of it get you closer to understanding who you are?
A: I went into this with an assumption of what determined whether I was tall or outgoing or a lightweight drinker, and I thought doing a bunch of experiments would confirm my beliefs. But it became clear that tests alone couldn't tell me much about how the self evolves and emerges. I can choose to seek out experiences that will help me, say, overcome shyness or develop a new skill so that I can become someone I didn't think I could be 15 years ago. To me this means we shouldn't be afraid to question the things we believe about ourselves—that we'll never be good at this or that. The power to change may be even greater than we realize.
Get to Know Yourself
Published on January 12, 2014
We Hear You!