‘Who are you?’ Instinctively you‘d probably answer that question stating your name, age, background, hobbies and job. Explaining who you truly are, is no topic for small talks. And there’s no shame in that. Your true identity is an inherently complex phenomenon. You are you — but how exactly is ‘you’ defined?
Imagine I rewound the tape of your life. Your trophies and certificates are pulled off the walls, unframed, and returned. Your children grow smaller, then vanish. You too become smaller. Your adult teeth retract, your baby teeth return, and your traits and eccentricities fade away. I keep rewinding still, until I’m halving and halving a colony of cells, finally arriving at that amazing singularity: the cell that will become you.
The question, of course, is what happens when we press ‘play’ again. Are your talents, traits, and insecurities so deeply embedded in your genes that they’re basically inevitable? Or could things go rather differently with just a few tiny nudges? In other words, we essentially originate from our genes, but how much of your fate do you allot to your genes, versus your experiences, versus chance?
“Unlike a drop of water which loses its identity when it joins the ocean, people do not lose their being in the society in which they live. A person’s life is independent, born not for the development of society alone, but for the development of his self.” — Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar
Your Identity Is A Gift
According to social scientists your identity is defined by both your genes and the learning of social roles through personal experience. Need a definition already? Try this: our identity is a continuous interplay between character traits, beliefs, peculiarities and behavior we show when coping with other people, but also when interacting with our self or with material, practical and psychological matters.
The German-American developmental psychologist Erik Erikson became one of the first to take an explicit interest in identity. The Eriksonian framework rests upon a distinction among the psychological sense of continuity, known as the ego identity (‘the self’); the personal idiosyncrasies that separate one person from the next (‘the personal identity’); and the collection of social roles that a person might play (‘social identity’). On some of his readings , the development of a strong ego identity, along with the proper integration into a stable society and culture, lead to a stronger sense of identity in general. Accordingly, a deficiency in either of these factors may increase the chance of an identity crisis.
‘Your identity is who you are, your inner you. And that‘s more then just the sum of your characteristics’, says Gerty Lensevelt-Mulders, psychologist and professor Scientific Theories, Methodology and Research. ‘Your identity is fueled by others. Take me as an example: I am a mother of three and grandmother of seven. Although these children are part of my identity, they don’t play a role in my characteristics. My appearances — psychologist, women, professor, mother — define my identity. I give meaning to those appearances based on my characteristics.’
The development of your identity starts with your own family, your parents and possibly brothers and sisters. After that it’s the schools you visit, the friends you make, the study associations you’re in, the sport clubs you go to and so on. But how exactly does that correlate? First off, you’re born with a natural aptitude for certain character traits.
Lensvelt-Mulders: “All your life you’re exposed to situations that strengthen or weaken your natural aptitudes. This way your identity develops. Parents play a big part in this development. Let’s say you’re curious by nature. With anxious parents, your curiosity will weaken. That’s because every time you hear your mother say ‘watch out, don’t do that’, your aptitude for curiosity is reduced.
On the other hand, when your parents allow you to do whatever you like, your curiosity is strengthened. You can imagine someone with a strong aptitude for curiosity picks a study journalism more easily than others. Choosing such a study then weighs in on the development of your identity as well — producing a snowball like effect.
There are more personal examples to illustrate this effect. When I am at a party for instance — people tend to hang on my every word when I talk about my job as a tax consultant. Think tax is boring? Stories about well-known companies or celebrities in their rat-race to tax minimization: they never fail to deliver. And the crowd’s reaction simply reaffirms my role — I. Am. A. Tax Consultant.
“Your work does determine your identity”, says Lensvelt-Mulders. “It starts with choosing your line of work. Where and who you work with both play a part in the development of your identity and the way you think about yourself. We all know unintended unemployment has a big impact on how you see your identity. When people lose their jobs, they generally go through a grieving process and reinvent themselves.”
Your Identity Flourishes In Independence
Advancing your identity could happen with other changes as well. Freeing yourself from your daily grind builds your identity. “Lots of youngsters feel the urge to travel, discover the world, or study abroad”, says Lensvelt-Mulders. It gets you out of your comfort zone. When you’re alone in the middle of India and you run out of money, that’s when you really need to figure out what to do yourself. Detaching yourself from what you’re holding onto shapes you. It changes your view on the world, it helps setting boundaries, finding the values and standards by which we expect to be judged. These are all parts of who we are. When you independently manage to get out of troubling situations, your self-esteem prospers. You feel proud and strong — ready to take on the world. The less meaningful these events are, the less impact it has on your identity.
Not only leaving the country on your own helps in the development of your identity. The same goes for youngsters leaving their family home. It’s no accident, many young people come out to their families when to go to college and start living on their own. Released from their parents and the environment they grew up in, they often feel acceptive of their sexual identity, no longer ashamed to admit it. Every person wants to be recognized in one way or another. So when you’re surrounded by people that are willing to provide you that recognition, it gets easier to development that part of yourself.
The things you go through in life and the way you respond, can really turn your self-image around. Life-changing experiences literally change people. An intense period — positive or negative — undermines your identity. The Neo-Eriksonian identity status paradigm focuses upon the twin concepts of exploration and commitment. The central idea is that any individual’s sense of identity is determined in large part by the explorations and commitments that he or she makes regarding certain personal and social traits. It follows that the core of the research in this paradigm investigates the degrees to which a person has made certain explorations, and the degree to which he or she displays a commitment to those explorations. A person may display either relative weakness or relative strength in terms of both exploration and commitments:
- Diffusion happens when a person lacks both exploration in life and interest in committing even to those unchosen roles that he or she occupies.
- Foreclosure is when a person has not chosen extensively in the past, but seems willing to commit to some relevant values, goals, or roles in the future.
- Moratorium is when a person displays a kind of flightiness, ready to make choices but unable to commit to them.
- Finally, achievement is when a person makes identity choices and commits to them.
The Genetic Component Of Our Identity
Besides environmental factors, there are more forces at play. In the 1970’s, psychology professor Thomas J. Bouchard Jr. explored the genetic components of our identity. In his so called Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart he studied twins that were separated at birth. That helped him understand which characteristics could be attributed to genes, and which to environment or education.
For more then 20 years, Bouchard Jr. tracked 137 twins which were separated at birth or at a young age. Most intriguing was the case of Jim Lewis and Jim Springer. The Jim Twins were reunited at age 39, after being separated at birth, and found that they had lived almost identical lives. When the two twin boys were put up for adoption in 1940, at only three weeks old, their adoptive parents coincidentally named them both James. Both men came to be named Jim for short, and that was just the start of it. The two would grow up only 40 miles apart from each other, and go on to live lives that were spookily similar.
Both had beloved childhood dogs named Toy, and as schoolchildren, both had a proclivity for math and woodworking but were no great shakes at spelling. If their childhoods were uncannily similar, though, then their early adulthoods were truly remarkable. Both Jims married twice. The first time, they married women named Linda. When this didn’t work out and they divorced, they met (and went on to marry) women named Betty. Both Jim Lewis and Jim Springer had a son, and –I’m sure you saw this coming — both gave their boy the same name, James Alan (or James Allan in Springer’s case). Both Jims were heavy smokers, drove the same car (a Chevrolet) and had similar jobs in security. They even took vacations at the same Florida beach.
In 1979 the Jim Twins were reunited and Bouchard Jr. found that their medical histories and brain-wave tests were almost identical. So too were their results in a personality test. Fascinating, yet thrilling.
Nature Versus Nurture
The case of the twin brothers (and others like them) went on to influence theories of nature versus nurture, and how science thinks about the effects of hereditary over environmental factors. To the surprise of many scientist — who thought a person’s behavior was a response to education — social behavior appears to have a very large genetic component. One of Bouchard Jr.’s conclusions was that identity of twins separated at birth is on average 50 percent identical. Our identity is therefore strongly determined by our genes.
“We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? — Marianne Williamson
In the absence of a time rewinder (as referred to in the introduction), the next best thing is Julia Freund’s remarkable recent study. She placed genetically identical individuals (mice in this case) in both a common and an enriched environment with a 36 square foot footprint. Their behavior was monitored over a period of three months (about 10 to 15 percent of their lifespan), questioning whether systematic behavioral differences could still develop between them. An answer of ‘Yes’ would mean that there are sources of behavioral variability — ‘individuality’, if you will — that aren’t accounted for by the combination of genes and common environment.
What made this study different from, say, a study of human twins is that the subjects’ movements could be tracked in extraordinary detail over a significant portion of their lifespan. Each mouse was tagged with a radio-frequency ID transponder, whose location was monitored by one of twenty antennas. To study potential differences in behavior among the mice, the experimenters used a measure called ‘roaming entropy’. Basically, this captures how often you get out, and with how much variety. If you’re someone who mostly just darts between work and home, your roaming entropy is low. If you’re the kind of person who could conceivably be just about anywhere at any given time, your roaming entropy is high.
As the weeks progressed the population of mice started to diverge, with some mice being markedly more exploratory than others. If we take the tendency to explore as a kind of crude trait, then this is one trait that elaborates over time, in a way that isn’t strictly determined by genes or available resources.
The most interesting part of the study, however, came when the researchers examined the brain changes that paralleled the changes in exploratory behavior. Before ending the experiment, the mice were injected with a compound that’s selectively incorporated into dividing cells, and hence labels adult-born neurons. While most neurons are fashioned during early development, there are a handful of well-studied brain areas in which new neurons are continuously produced even in adulthood.
Remarkably, the most exploratory mice were also those who experienced the greatest proliferation of adult-born neurons. While the usual caution of correlation not implying causation applies here, the result is still intriguing. Even after the genetic die are cast at conception, and after the bulk of the neural scaffolding is laid down in early life, the brain maintains a trickle of raw potential through its ability to grow a limited number of new neurons. The experimenters conjecture that these neurons are involved in tailoring and tuning our behaviors, applying context-specific corrections and adjustments to the more hard-coded aspects of our behavior. In their words, the ways in which we live our lives may make us who we are.
Unfortunately, how that exactly happens remains indecisive. Julia and her colleagues acknowledge that any experiment addressing something as profound, contested, and metaphysically tangled as the nature-nurture question is going to generate more questions than answers.
Your Identity Is A Work In Progress
Although there’s no explanation for hereditary and environment to interact in identity-development, it’s clear your identity is formed by a complex combination of genes, environmental factors and experiences. Regardless, the experiments are a compelling reminder that our lives are a work in progress. Your genes are given at birth, but you’re exposed to an ever-changing environment. You grow up, go to school, study, travel, work, and gain experience throughout. As your brain is shaped by the choices you make, there is room for chance and clamor — room for you to be unique. That’s why our true identity only settles after our last breath.
“The truest success is but the development of self” — Charles Atlas
Peak times in our identity-development are unique moments throughout our life. When you reach puberty you start to blossom into a young adult, questioning your true self. Reaching the age of 30, or 40, are other unique moments when your identity starts to waver. Our identity keeps changing, even after you retire and spend the rest of your life working in the garden and staring through a window. I mean, you can’t stop the world from turning. People die, things happen. And again you question yourself who you truly are…