How can we become who we ought to be?

To the editor:

The question, “Who am I?” while at first blush may seem easy to answer, “I’m me!” becomes invariably harder to answer in course of further rumination on the subject.

Questions like, “What makes me, me? What makes me different than others?” or conversely, “What similarities do I have with other people? Am I a good person?” inevitably crop up.

Truthfully, I have been involved in a prolonged period of introspection on this subject, particularly on the latter question, which was prompted by a few life events I won’t divulge publicly, but these questions are inherently interesting to me and will be the subject of this piece.

For starters, I think the answer to the question “Who am I?” is largely reliant on one’s own personal worldview. I, personally, have adopted the philosophical standpoint closely correlating with that of physicalism/materialism, or the view that all there is consists of matter and its movement. Consequently, any aspects of the self will correlate with the matter of the brain and its “movement.” Since matter is always in flux, and given the paradigm of physicalism/materialism, the conclusion that people are liable to change over time is not hard wrought.

This brings up an interesting point, because it not only implies that any attributes of ourselves — our personality, habits, et cetera — are liable to change, but implies that, barring certain mental and/or neurological ailments, it is possible for positive change of ourselves to be attained. This is in stark contrast to certain individuals’ vision of the self as static; nonchanging. Furthermore, it’s interesting that the implications of this are somewhat similar to the oft-quoted Heraclites when he said, “No man ever steps into the same river twice, for it’s not the same river, and he’s not the same man.”

The question is then prompted: How can we use this concept for the betterment of ourselves? Dr. Willoughby Britton is a neuroscientist and researcher in the relatively new subset of that branch called, “contemplative neuroscience,” which studies how mindfulness meditation affects the brain. In a TEDx talk uploaded on YouTube in 2011, Britton conveys that, much like how our brain learns to efficiently and automatically perform certain motor functions, and how our muscles will, with enough practice, be able to do certain movements seamlessly, so too are our mental habits. In other words, certain thought patterns and habits we have are the result of constant “practice” in that area.

To demonstrate, most people have a tendency to be self-critical. Close your eyes for three seconds and think about your flaws. (Seriously, do it.) Chances are, you had a pretty easy time coming up with one (or more!) flaws about yourself. “You’re basically Olympic athletes of self-criticism,” Britton joked.

Britton contends that mental habits, much like muscles, are developed and fortified when we use them frequently, but are atrophied when we neglect to “use” them for a prolonged period of time. This implies that, with enough effort, and the development of more useful and positive mental habits, it might be possible to change ourselves for the better! Britton further cautions, however, that since most people likely weren’t previously aware of their tendency to be self-critiques to such an extent, what other mental habits — neurological networks — are we unintentionally strengthening? (Britton) I think the area of knowledge about what makes us, us is still being developed and is largely in its infancy, and we have a lot of work to be done. However, with that said, what hypothesis and theories and ideas we have about the subject at present are promising. Hopefully, in the future, perhaps we can view ourselves not in terms of who we are, but rather, who we ought to be.

Zion Moulder

Kendallville

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