Identity and the brain

I’ve long been interested in neuroscience so I was keen to see the programme on BBC 4 on Thursday night called The Brain: What Makes Me.  It featured American neuroscientist David Eagleman demonstrating how life shapes our brains, whilst at the same time our brains are shaping our lives.  It’s essentially another take on the nature/nurture debate, but the advent of modern electronic imaging now means that it is possible to actually show changes in the brain that occur as a result of life experiences as well as disease processes.

Unlike animals, humans are able to adapt to different environments that might, on the surface, appear hostile to human life (think deserts and the North and South poles).  Our brains help us adapt in order to survive. When we are born our brains are unfinished.  As Eagleman says, “It takes life to tune up our brains.”   In the first two years of a child’s life the brain whizzes frantically, making millions of connections between cells, but after this time the growth in connections halts and the brain starts pruning, in order to focus on a smaller number of links.  If those initial connections have not been made because of severe deprivation of care and stimulation in early years, then long-term damage is almost inevitable as in the case of the Romanian orphans.  If these terribly deprived children were adopted before they were two, they mostly recovered normal brain structure but those adopted later mostly have long-term problems, even when they have been cared for in loving families for many years.

In teen years the brain undergoes a transformation as it adapts to floods of hormones.  Social emotions go into overdrive and there is often poor impulse control and greater risk taking.  By age 25 this has mostly calmed down.

Until fairly recently it was thought that adult brains were fairly fixed entities but  research has now shown that what neuroscientists refer to as plasticity, remains.  Change is not only possible but it happens all the time.  Eagleman cites London taxi drivers who spend about four years learning the streets of London (doing The Knowledge) and whose brains are changed by the experience.  He also, perhaps more controversially, asserts that “Who you are or who you can be is a work in progress.  Our identity is constantly changing.”

This makes me think about the differences between personality and identity.  Maybe our fundamental personality (our approach to life and how we deal with it) is more laid down by genetics and heredity but who we are is much more fluid and open to the many influences of our upbringing, education and life experiences.  Changes in temperament, personality and ‘who we are’ are also vulnerable to diseases such as Parkinsons or a brain tumour and general ageing and deterioration that shapes our neural networks.

I personally feel very encouraged by what Eagleman says about the brain being a work in progress and feel that I recognise this from my own life where I certainly feel a very different person to the one I was growing up… and well into adult years.  In fact I feel I have ‘grown into myself’ if you like, feeling comfortable these days with who I am, but also aware of the changes that are to come.  I know that the whole issue of identity can be an intensely emotional one for donor conceived people, some of whom strongly believe that they cannot know who they really are until they know who they are genetically connected to.  I absolutely recognise that this is a very complex area.  Genetic connections are important but I would claim we are more likely to define ourselves as we get older by how others see us, by the relationships we have, some of which will be genetic and others not and what we have achieved in life.  Can those people we are genetically connected to but have never met really have such a profound influence when it is clear that both epigenetics (potentially triggering some genes to shut down and bringing others into play both before and after birth) and the impact of life experience on the brain play such important roles in shaping what the blueprint of DNA becomes, uniquely – ME, YOU… US.





About oliviasview

Co-founder and now Practice Consultant at Donor Conception Network. Mother to two donor conceived adults and a son conceived without help in my first marriage.
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11 Responses to Identity and the brain

  1. TAO says:

    I’d say yes, a profound influence indeed – based on the relatives I met well into middle age (and not having any non-identifying info at all prior to that). Not just physically, but similar likes (and dislikes), political leanings, religious (or not), interests, mannerisms, humour, manner of speaking (not accents)…it was eye-opening…

  2. Hi Olivia

    Many many years ago I attended a series of lectures at the Society for Analytical Psychology as an adoptive parent before becoming a counsellor about foetal maternal attachment, attunement, cognitive development and also a bit of synapse pruning during adolescence! I think it was one of the lectures by Dr Margot Sunderland that included the brain scan films at 29 weeks and 33weeks gestation and the developing maternal and paternal (second parent) relationships – it reinforced the way I work today promoting the need for comfiness with decisions around donor conception before trying to conceive and being supported at all ages and stages as children develop and question, celebrating any question as a time to provide factual reassurance and clarity around donors donating and parents parenting. There is no separation or abandonment in donor conception.

    Plasticity is what keeps therapists in business, the ability to change as an adult. you said “Genetic connections are important but I would claim we are more likely to define ourselves as we get older by how others see us, by the relationships we have, some of which will be genetic and others not and what we have achieved in life.” If our parents, the people we have a significant relationship with for a large part of our life, see our genetic connections as significant and this impacts the attachment and relationships before birth…is it any wonder that sadly some donor conceived people find it intensely emotional coming to terms with what being donor conceived means to them.

    My hope is that donor conceived people who are finding things difficult might be therapeutically supported towards acceptance.

    If the parents are comfy, the donors are comfy…then everyone models being comfy for any child conceived with donor assistance…how much easier life would be.


  3. gsmwc02 says:

    It’s definitely a balance between genetics and other people we come into contact with/life experiences that shape who we are. For there are certain personality traits and interests that my parents and brother have. The older I get the more I recognize some of my behaviors (both good and bad) are similar to my dad. But my wife has also had a major impact on the adult I’ve become. Also an my infertility experience has changed the person I am. I don’t have the same positive approach to life that I once had. Maybe some of it is due to my brain changing. I don’t know but it’s fascinating to think about it.

    • Marilynn says:

      Through it all you remain yourself though. Your Identity is unchanged despite lifes experiences possibly changing your views and people who you identify with and find similarity to or who you feel greatly influenced by. Character and personality grow adapt but identity is outside personal control. Affiliation seems more like the right word for the things you describe or Olivia described. That over time the individuals we choose to affiliate ourselves to changes thru external influence but we cannot escape our identity as being fixed. It would be very disorganized if people could change their legal identity vs just a name. Criminals could just no longer be the guy who committed a crime because they did not want to be perceived as bad and face consequen

      • gsmwc02 says:

        Who I am has evolved over time. My identity has evolved as well based upon being in different stages of my life. Relationships have changed. My approach to life has changed. Sure there are some traits that haven’t changed but who I am now is not the same person I was even five years ago.

        That’s just me though.

  4. Marilynn says:

    In reuniting families I often hear people talk about having a false or assumed identity that they are forced to live with due to falsified birth certificates that proport to be health records but in fact carry the names of adoptive or other unrelated people with legal parental authority. Identity legally is something supposedly based in fact that can’t be changed by law or by surgery or personal preference. For instance your identity is the same even if you get married and change your name or get adopted and change your name or just change your name. Your Jane Jenkins daughter of Jenny Smith and John Jenkins even if you are adopted and renamed Paula Roberts or get married and take your husbands last name and become Jane Peters. If you have a sex change and do all the legal paperwork to change your driver license to say your name is now Joe Peters man instead of Jane Peters….in the end your true identity is Jane Jenkins daughter of Jenny Smith and John Jenkins. Society needs a factual basis for identifying people that is not up to the individual or any court to play around with; it’s important to be able to determine who someone is really and then say but they have been living under the assumed identity of another person either legally or illegally.
    I think what people I help find profoundly frustrating is that they are not legally allowed to get back to square one and have their true factual unchangeable identity documented and recognized first and foremost. I don’t think most people I’ve spoken to would have minded being someone’s adopted kid or someone’s legal charge but they very much mind not getting to just have their real identity recorded as the child of their bio parents so they can be who they really are and then also be someone else’s adopted child, or step child or foster child or spouse or whatever else a person can legally be in relation to people other than their parents. It’s part of the big lie even when they are told the truth. I think it’s probably especially frustrating to be told the truth but not have identifying documentation reflect that truth but rather a legal construct that skiped recognizing their true identity and represents them not as who they really are but who other people wanted them to be. It should not matter that their parents did not want to be parents, they ARE parents….they can choose not to behave like parents and then subsequently have their authority stripped but they shouldn’t get to pretend they are not just as a teenager should not pretend they are old enough to drink with a fake ID. Truth is not subject to change based on personal preference or the desires of others. This is the most difficult aspect for individuals whose parents are not named on their identifying documents is having to be forced to play the roll of who others want them to be instead of just getting to be themselves.

    • gsmwc02 says:

      Pieces of paper and legalities don’t define who a person is. At least to me that is a pretty shallow view of who we are as people. Identity is more complex than that.

      • Marilynn says:

        Again iin the legal sense identifying people is tied to something assumed to be medical fact then the issue of who tat person is affiliated with adds to a character sketch of an identified person.

  5. Marilynn says:

    You said you claim we are more likely to define ourselves by how others see us. This is interesting because identity is not suppose to be something that individuals define for themselves. We can differentiate ourselves from other people by our behavior and through our relationships with individuals we are and are not related to, but we don’t get to make stuff up about our identity and expect others to treat it as gospel if it’s not actually true for others as it is for us based on preference. If a man has 100 children and knows it and fails to disclose this fact to his bride when she asked “do you have any kids?” when they were dating, and she later finds out he lied he cannot expect her to not think he lied just because now he says ‘well I’m not named father on their birth records”. How others see us or want to see or not see us does not actually change the facts of who we are in relation to them or other people in the world. It’s important as you know to be as honest as we can be in representing ourselves to others. This is in fact why you feel it is important to ‘tell’ so that people won’t be mislead into believing they are the offspring of their mothers spouse, for instance, because they will be misled if he is identifying himself to be their father and it has a domino effect on the known and unknown identities then of a whole family. True identity is not impacted nor is it defined by how others see us – someone may see us as being their child but if it’s not true then are they just denying who we really are in relation to them and others? Do we cease to be the child of our father sibling to our siblings cousins to our cousins grandchild to our grandparents all based solely upon what one person desires us to be in relation to them?
    If people want to act like something about themselves or others is true if it’s not or is false when it’s true, that’s fine but they should not have the power to force others to live a lie just because they prefer their narrative to reality. Someone mad at their mom can’t go have her name removed from their birth record just because they don’t see her as being their mother because negating the mother child relationship then negates the other kin relationships that flow from that and everyone else’s reality shouldn’t have to be forced to pretend just because one person does not think of his mom as his mom. Calling someone donor conceived is much the same, their father does not think of himself as their father and so is not named on their birth record and so an entire family of people has their identity messed with because one man does not feel like admitting the truth. How others see us is not a logical basis for legal identity because then what ends up happening is people’s legal identities are subject to the whims and preferences of whoever has the most power when they are born or throughout their lives. People in power then control the legal identity of others based on how they see them. Its not equitable the way truth is.

    • oliviasview says:

      Marilynn. I will say two words to you. Genetic determinism. You believe in it, I don’t and nor do many others. We are all so much more than the sum of our DNA. ‘The Truth’ is that each of us was made in the beginning by the sperm from one man and the egg from one woman. How we choose to name and place each of those people in our lives is up to each one of us. I believe that each person gets to say who they are, taking into account all the influences that they feel are important to them (including of course genetics!). In the words of psychotherapist Adam Phillips, “The past influences everything but dictates nothing.”

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