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When “I” becomes “she”.

She thought she knew herself. Her motivations, desires, memories and dreams. She wanted to believe that she was one of the unaffected, but the knot in her stomach told her what she already knew.

By 2052, doctors recommended that all women over the age of 30 obtain a yearly neurological report from their primary care doctor (much like the yearly lab work test for cancerous cells).

The scientific community had reached a consensus. Something had to be done. This was now a global problem and, without preventative measures, it was only going to get worse.

Neurological reporting for the purpose of risk assessment served a diagnostic function only, but at least it was a first step.

Mental health issues now affected every 1 out of 3 young people and, in case that figure didn’t sound dire enough, the risk of acquired mental illness only increased over the course of a life span.

One population in particular had it worse than any other: women over the age of 30. That risk doubled if a woman was divorced, eccentric, socially awkward, nervous, and/or intelligent.

“If left untreated,” doctors admonished their female patients, “by the age of 50 you will no longer be able to function in society.”

Because these women were highly intelligent, most of them ignored these warnings.

And so she sat down to read the story of her own brain. The whole thing felt odd, eerie and amusing, all at the same time.

It was as if her life had ended and God was now handing her a copy of her biography. Written by Him. Since she herself didn’t write it, she knew that God’s biography would be infinitely more accurate than any autobiography that she could ever hope to write. But this idea made her nervous.

She procrastinated reading it because she wanted to give it her full, undivided attention when she did.

It will be a diversion, she thought.

Reading about the workings of my brain will help me to understand myself better.

She soon realized, however, that this optimistic thought could be replaced with deeply concerning questions.

To read about how my brain functions will help me to understand myself better?

Who on earth was this “herself” that she would now be able to see more clearly?

If I come away from this report with a better understanding of myself, then who did I think I was before?

She had a strong sense of personal identity. The choices, the mistakes, the accomplishments, the justifications; those had all been hers. Or so she thought.

But if her sense of personal identity rested entirely on inaccurate beliefs — and if her own inaccurate beliefs differed substantially from the ways in which others saw her — then she did not know herself. Or, more precisely, she would know only how she appeared to others through the lens of herself — an unreliable narrator at best.

If someone can describe my thoughts and actions better than I can, she thought, then what does that say about the beliefs that other people have about themselves?

Is everyone wrong about who they think they are?

She knew that people were fallible. She had seen it before. People tend to overestimate their own attractiveness when looking at themselves in mirrors. When people listen to themselves speak, they hear a lilting radio announcer voice ringing in their ears.

But these perceptions change once they see their qualities and mannerisms as others do. They become embarrassed. They don’t like hearing a recording of this voice or seeing themselves in a photograph.

Do I really sound like that? Is my butt really that big?

Certain philosophers argue that personal identity, as a concept, doesn’t really mean much for them because they do not view their lives in a linear manner. They describe their lives as “flashes of memories and episodes” rather than as “one long narrative.” This is the person with no sense of personal identity.

These philosophers claim that if they were to see a picture of themselves from childhood, they would not feel any sense of connection with that child. If their mothers were to tell them that they had been mischievous when they were younger, they would shrug.

I only know who I am right now in this very moment, they say, which actually means:

I do not and have not ever known myself because time is always passing.

And it would end there.

She never liked the type of person who said things like that.


Note:

See “Let’s ditch the dangerous idea that life is a story” by philosopher Galen Strawson (originally published in Aeon magazine).

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