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Self-Identity: Myth or Reality? Just WHO are YOU?

Uploaded 8/9/2021, approx. 23 minute read

Hello, Shoshanim. I know you are heartbroken. I know you miss me badly. You can tell me everything in strict confidence.

I am a professor of psychology and I am the author of Malignant Self-Love, Narcissism Revisited.

Back from my trips, you see, I am saddened and a lot more handsome than when I had departed. You can watch videos from my trip on my Instagram, Narcissism with Vaknin.

One word.

So today we are going to discuss identity.

Identity? Is there such a thing at all? Is it real? Or is it a confabulation by psychologists as deranged as I am? Is identity simply a convenient organizing principle? Or is it a real construct hiding somewhere within our minds?

I mean, those of you who have minds.

So, let's dive right in.

Modern psychology is permeated, suffused by concepts and constructs of dubious provenance and even less impressive evidence. Yes, I can say safely that the pseudoscience, known as psychology, is not exactly evidence-based.

Consider, for example, the individual. What on earth is the individual without, for example, social interactions? Consider the concept of personality. Consider the self. All of them are useful literary metaphors, but they are not science by any extension of the word.

Similarly, that we have a core identity is taken for granted by every psychologist and his dog. But do we? Do we really have an identity?

Identity diffusion and identity disturbance are perceived widely as real. They are, they actually permeate, seeped into the kind of infiltrated and insinuated themselves into various diagnostic criteria.

But like the internet, yes, like the internet, the brain is a distributed network. The brain is decentralized. The brain has built-in redundancies. Those of you who have brains know what I'm talking about.

Why would our brain-based psychology be any different? If the brain is decentralized, if the brain is redundant, why would the psychology that is kind of the software that runs on the hardware, why would the psychology be different?

A far more realistic model of consciousness and mind would revolve around a cloud. Yes, a cloud of self-states with permeable partitions, which allow for frequent exchanges of information, motions and cognitions. And these self-states are probably organized in scheme-like lattices.

I suggest that we don't have identities actually. We have assemblages of self-states.

But identity had been in use for at least 400 years. So I think I owe it some respect, at least in the sense that I should attempt to deconstruct it.

Bear with me. It's going to be a bumpy ride with Sam Vaknin.


And as a take-off point, I would like to recommend the movie The Ghost in the Shell, which is an animated feature. I've just watched it recently with a newly minted good friend.

But there's another movie, I think, which deals much more directly with the issue of identity. And it's the movie Shattered. Shattered, a 1991 movie. In this movie, there's a guy, a character, a protagonist. His name is Dan Merrick. His name is Dan Merrick. He survives an accident. And he develops total retrograde amnesia, amnesia regarding his past. His battered face is reconstructed by plastic surgeons. And with the help of his loving wife, he gradually recovers his will to live.

But Dan Merrick never develops a proper sense of identity. It is as though he is constantly ill at ease in his own skin.

As the plot unravels, Dan is led to believe that he may have murdered his wife's lover, Jack.

This thriller, Shattered, 1991, offers additional twists and turns.

But throughout the entire movie, we face a single paramount question.

Dan has no recollection of having ever been Dan. He has no recollection or experience of being Dan.

Dan does not remember murdering Jack. It seems as though Dan'svery identity had been erased by the accident.

And yet Dan is in sound mind. He can tell right from wrong. Should Dan be held morally and as a result, perhaps legally as well, should he be held accountable for Jack's murder? Would the answer to this question still be the same?

Had Dan erased from his memory only the crime but recalled everything else in an act of selective dissociation?

Do our moral and legal accountability and responsibility spring from the integrity of our memories?

If Dan were to be punished for a crime, he doesn't have the faintest recollection of having committed. Would he feel horribly wronged? Would't he be justified in feeling that he is wronged, that he is mistreated?

I mean, if I kill someone and then have no memory of it, really no memory. Not pretending, but really I have no memory of it.

Owing, for example, to an accident. Should I still be accountable or should I still serve due time in prison? What about killing someone in a stupor? What about killing someone in an alcoholic blackout?

There are many, many states of consciousness that involve dissociation in selective amnesia, hypnosis, transient possession, hallucination, illusion, memory disorders like organic or functional amnesia, depersonalization disorder, dissociative fugue, dreaming, psychosis, post-traumatic stress disorder, and drug-induced psychomimetic states.

And this is a partial list.

Consider, for example, the following.

What if Dan were the victim of multiple personality disorder, now known as dissociative identity disorder? What if one of his altars, one of the multitudes of identities sharing his mind and body, one of his so-called personalities, what if this personality had committed the crime? Should Dan, the totality of Dan, the entirety of Dan, still be held responsible for the crime? What if the altar John had committed the crime and then vanished, leaving behind another altar, let's say Joseph, in control? Should Joseph be held accountable for the crime that John had committed? What if John were to reappear 10 years after he had vanished? What if he were to reappear 50 years 5-0 after he had vanished, having committed a crime? What if John were to reappear only for a period of 90 days and then vanish again?

And what if, what is Dan's role in all this? Who exactly then is Dan in multiple personality disorder? Who is Dan? Who are you? Who are you?

That's the question of identity.

Bodyism, of course, compares men to a river. Both men and a river retain their identity despite the fact that their individual composition is different at different moments.

The possession of a body as the foundation of a self-identity is a very dubious proposition. Bodies change drastically in time.

Consider, for example, a baby compared to an adult. Almost all the cells in the human body are replaced every few years with the exception of some parts of the brain.

Changing one's brain via brain transplantation also changes one's identity.

Even if the rest of the body remains the same when someone changes your brain in the future, you wouldn't be the same person.

And I must admit, most of you would benefit from such a procedure.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. That was my contemptuous dig of the day.


And so the only thing that binds a person together, the only thing that gives a person a self and an identity, is time. Time, or more precisely, memory across time.

When I say memory, I mean personality, skills, habits, retrospective emotions.

In short, all the long-term imprints and behavioral patterns.

The body is not an accidental and insignificant container. That's not what I'm trying to say.

The body constitutes an important part of one's self-image, self-esteem, sense of self-worth, sense of existence, spatial, temporal, and social, etc., etc.

We all need bodies, some of us, more than the others.

But one can easily imagine a brain in vitro, in a vial, in the lab. And this brain, bodyless brain, would have the same identity as when it had resided in a body.

One cannot imagine a body without a brain, or with a different brain, as having the same identity it has had before the brain had been removed or replaced.

But one can imagine the opposite, a brain without a body.

What if the brain in vitro, in the above example, the brain in the laboratory, in the vial? What if this brain could not communicate with us at all? Would we still think that this brain possessed a self, or is possessed of a self?

In other words, is the very concept of self critically dependent on the ability to communicate?

The biological functions of people in coma are maintained, but do they have an identity? Do they have a self?

And if yes, why do we pull the plug on people in vegetative states so often?

It would seem, as it did, for example, to lock the philosopher's lock, it would seem that we accept that someone has a self-identity if A, he has the same hard work as we do, notably a brain. And B, he communicates his humanity and is humanly recognizable and comprehensible in a world. He communicates this to us and manipulates his environment.

We accept that a person has a given, the same continuous self-identity, if C, he shows consistent intentional, willed, volitional patterns, and has memory in doing so, and B, for a long period of time.

So there's a series of cumulative conditions for us to accept that someone has an identity. He needs to be exactly like us. The resemblance is critical. The similarity is crucial.

Let's go through these four conditions again.

For someone to be perceived as having an identity, he must have a brain, the same hard work that we do. He must communicate his humanly recognizable and comprehensible in a world to us and manipulate his environment. He must show consistent volitional patterns and memory, and he must do this for a long observable period of time.

It seems that we accept that we have a self-identity, that we are self-conscious if A, we discern, usually through introspection, long-term consistent intentional willed, volitional patterns and memories in our manipulation relating to our environment, and B, when others accept that we have a self-identity.

People like Herbert Meade and Foyer Bach analyze this crucial second component.

For us to feel that we have a self-identity, this self-identity needs to be acknowledged by other people. If all other people around you had behaved as though you don't exist, as though you are transparent, you would not feel that you exist. You would feel that you have no identity. You would feel that you are slowly evaporating, disappearing, an invisibility cloak.

Dan, remember Dan, the accident-prone protagonist in the movie? Dan probably has the same hardware as we do, the brain. He communicates his humanly recognizable and comprehensible in a world to us, which is how he manipulates us and his environment.

And so Dan, clearly as a self-identity, but Dan is inconsistent. His intentional willed volitional patterns, his memory, they are incompatible with the intentional patterns and the memory demonstrated by Dan before the accident.

There's a Dan before the accident and a Dan after the accident, and they're utterly incompatible.

Though Dan clearly is possessed of a self-identity, we cannot say that he has the same self-identity that he had possessed before the crash.

In other words, we cannot say that he, that he indeed is Dan.

Dan himself does not feel that he has a self-identity at all.

Dan discerns intentional willed patterns in his manipulation of his environment, but due owing to his amnesia, Dan cannot tell if these patterns are consistent or long-term.

In other words, Dan has no memory.

I recommend that you watch my lecture, Identity and Memory. It's a university lecture, but still accessible.

The lecture is available on my YouTube channel, Identity and Memory.

There are two sides of the same coin. They may even be synonyms.

Moreover, in the case of Dan, other people do not accept him or regard him as Dan. They have their doubts whether it is really Dan because they have no memory of Dan as he is after the crash.


So, the interim conclusion, having memory is a necessary and sufficient condition for possessing a self-identity.

And yet, resorting to memory to define identity may appear to many people to be a circular and totally logical argument.

When we postulate memory, don't we already presuppose the existence of a remembering agent with an established self-identity? I mean, who is doing the remembering? Someone with an identity.

Moreover, we keep talking about discerning intentional willed volitional patterns of behavior, but isn't a big part of our self in the form of the unconscious where there are repressed memories? So, a big part of what constitutes the self is inaccessible to us.

You can't access your unconscious. If you can't access your unconscious and it is full of memories, you can't access a big part of your identity.

Who is doing the discerning, the intentional, the willed, the volitional behaviors? Who is committing them?

This alleged agent, someone with agency, has no access to the unconscious, which is 95%. That's the exact figure. 95% of our memories and of the information that we are getting from the environment.

95% is not accessible to you.

So, in which sense do you have an identity?

Don't we develop defense mechanisms against repressed memories and fantasies, against unconscious content incongruent with our self-image and self-deception?

Yes, we do.

Not only, not only, we do not have access to our unconscious, we actively defend against it.

We do not allow ourselves to access our unconscious because the outcomes could be very traumatic.

Even worse, this hidden, inaccessible, dynamically part, dynamically active part of our self is thought to be responsible for our recurrent discernible patterns of behavior.

In other words, it's the unconscious that very often determines your behavior, not your will, not your volition, not your conscious part.

But if you don't have access to your unconscious, who are you? Who is this agent that is committing these behaviors?

Your unconscious is hidden, defended against, repressed, and yet it's active, it's dynamic, and it generates behaviors.

In which sense are these behaviors yours? How can you own these behaviors if you don't have access to the part of you that is generating them?

The phenomenon of post-hypnotic suggestion seems to indicate that this may indeed be the case.

The existence of a self-identity is therefore determined through introspection by oneself and through observation by others of merely the conscious part of the self, never the unconscious, which is the bigger part.

But the unconscious is as much a part of one's self-identity as one's conscious part, consciousness.

What if, due to some hoax, cosmic divine hoax, what if the roles were suddenly reversed? What if Dan's conscious part were to become his unconscious, and his unconscious part were to become his consciousness? What if the roles were reversed? What if all his conscious memories, drives, fears, wishes, fantasies, and hopes were to become unconscious, while his repressed memories, drives, etc., were to become suddenly conscious? Would we still say that it is the same Dan and that he retains his self-identity as he had before?

The reversal? I doubt it. Not very likely.

And yet Dan's unremembered, inaccessible, unreachable, unconscious, for instance, conflict between his ego and his aid and his memory, to use Freudian terms, they determine his personality and self-identity.

The main contribution of psychoanalysis in later psychodynamic schools is the understanding that self-identity is not a fixed entity. It's a dynamic evolving, ever-changing construct, and not a static, not an inertial, not a passive entity. It casts doubt over the meaningfulness of the question with which we ended the exposition.

You remember what we asked? What I asked? Who exactly then is Dan?

The question is meaningless. Dan is different at different stages of his life.

Ericsson read the work about life stages by Erichsen. Dan is constantly evolving in accordance with his innate nature, Jung. Dan is progressing and changing according to his past history.

Adler drives Freud, cultural milieu, Horney, and upbringing, Klein, Winnicott. Murray said that needs, psychological and other needs, determine identity.

The interplay with the genetic makeup is equally important.

Dan is not a thing, is not an object. Dan is a process.

Even Dan's personality traits and cognitive style, which may well be stable, they are often influenced by Dan's social settings, environment, his social interactions, object relations school in the 1960s.

It would seem that having a memory is a necessary condition, but not a sufficient condition for possessing a self-identity.

One cannot remember one's unconscious states.

The one can remember the outcomes of these unconscious states.

One often forgets events, names, and other information, even if they were conscious at a given time in one's past.

And yet one's unremembered unconscious is an integral and important part of one's identity and one's self.

The remembered as well as the unremembered constitutes one's self-identity.

Hume said, the philosopher said, that to be considered in possession of a mind, someone needs to have a few states of consciousness linked by memory in a kind of narrative or personal mythology.

Can this conjecture be equally applied to unconscious mental states, for example, subliminal perceptions, beliefs, drives, interpolations, emotions, desires?

Not clear. Can we rephrase Hume and say that to be considered in possession of a mind, someone needs to have a few states of consciousness and a few states of the unconscious, all of them linked by memory into a personal narrative?

Isn't it a contradiction in terms to remember the unconscious?

There's no memory in the unconscious. The unconscious and the subliminal are instances of the general category of mental phenomena, which are not states of consciousness, states of consciousness, which are not conscious.

Sleep and hypnosis are examples of non-conscious states, but there are background mental phenomena that are also unconscious.

For example, one holds onto one's beliefs and knowledge even when one is not aware, not conscious of them at every single given moment.

We know that an apple will fall towards the earth. We know how to drive a car automatically, dissociatively. We believe that the sun will rise tomorrow, even though we do not spend every second of our waking life consciously thinking about falling apples, driving cars, or the position of the sun.

And yet the fact that knowledge and beliefs and other background mental phenomena are not constantly conscious, this fact does not mean that they cannot be in principle remembered.

Unconscious mental phenomena can be remembered either by an act of will or in sometimes involuntary responses to changes in the environment.

The same applies to all other unconscious content. Unconscious content can be recalled.

Psychoanalysis, for instance, is about reintroducing repressed unconscious content to the patient's conscious memory, and so making this unconscious content remembered.

In fact, one's self-identity may be exactly such a background mental phenomenon, always there, not always conscious, not always remembered.

The acts of will which bring identity to the surface are what we call memory and introspection.

And this would seem to imply that having a self-identity is independent of having a memory or the ability to introspect. Memory is just the mechanism by which one becomes aware of one's background, always on an omnipresent or pervasive self-identity.

Self-identity is the object and predicate of memory and introspection. It is as though self-identity were an emergent, extensive parameter of the complex human system, measurable by the dual techniques of memory and introspection.

These are profound words, mainly because I wrote them and so I would like to repeat them.

Yes, I'm going to punish you by repeating my hallowed words.

Allow me to reread to you these words, this paragraph.

It would seem to imply that having a self-identity is independent of having a memory or the ability to introspect. Memory is just the mechanism by which one becomes aware of one's background, always on omnipresent or pervasive self-identity.

Self-identity is the object and predicate of memory and introspection. It is as though self-identity were an emergent, extensive parameter of the complex human system, measurable by the dual techniques of memory and introspection.


In other words, self-identity is a complexity artifact.

We therefore have to modify our previous conclusions.

Having a memory is not unnecessary, nor is it a sufficient condition for possessing a self-identity.

But if this is the case, we are back to square one.

The poor souls in Oliver Zaks's amazing book, The Man Who Heeds His Wife's Request: Everyone in the book, they are unable to create and retain memories. They occupy an eternal present with no past. They are unable to access or invoke their self-identity just by remembering it. Their self-identity is unavailable to them via introspection, though it is available to those who observe them for many years.

But do we doubt that they have a self-identity? No, it exists for sure.

Therapy often succeeds in restoring pre-Amnesiac memories and self-identity.

Self-identity is not only always on, it's not only all pervasive, but it is also incorrigible.

In other words, no one, not an observer, not a person himself, no one can disprove the existence of a self-identity. No one can prove that a report or a self-report about the existence of his or someone else's self-identity is mistaken.

In other words, we cannot falsify self-identity and therefore it is not a prediction by a theory. It's not linked to any theory. It is also an open question whether it is equally safe to say that no one, an observer, the person himself, no one can prove or disprove the non-existence of his or other self-identity.

So not only can't we falsify, not only does that we cannot falsify the self-identity, we cannot disprove it.

Is it equally safe to say that no one, neither an observer nor the person himself, can prove or disprove the non-existence of his self-identity?

Would it be correct to say that no one can prove that a report about the non-existence of his or another self-identity is true or false?

Let's go back to Dan.

Dan's criminal responsibility, you know, he'd been accused of murdering Jack, but he has no recollection of this following the crash.

So Dan's criminal responsibility crucially depends on the answers to exactly these questions.

Dan cannot be held responsible for Jack's murder if he were able to prove that he is ignorant of the facts of his action, if he were able to prove the non-existence of his self-identity or at least the non-continuity, discontinuity of his self-identity.

If Dan has no access to his former self-identity, the culprit, the perpetrator, Dan can hardly be expected to be aware and cognizant of these facts, the facts of the crime.

What is in question is not Dan's man's real, his criminal intent. What is in question is not the application of the McNaughton tests.

We're not asking, did Dan know the nature and quality of his act? Could he tell right from wrong?

These are not the questions here. We're not trying to determine whether Dan had been insane or temporarily insane when he had committed a crime.

There's a much broader issue at stake.

Is Dan the post-crash Dan, the Dan after the accident? Is it the same Dan? Is it the same person? Is the murderous Dan? Is the murderer Dan the same person as the current day Dan after the accident?

And even though Dan himself seems to own the same body and own the same brain and is manifestly sane, he patently and obviously has no access to his former self-identity before the crash.

Dan has changed so dramatically that it is arguable whether Dan is still the same person.

Dan in a way had been replaced, mind snatched.

And finally, we can try to unite all the strands of our discourse into this double definition.

It would seem that we accept that someone has a self-identity if the following conditions are fulfilled.

Number one, he has the same hardware as we do, notably a brain. And by implication, he has the same software as we do. And all pervasive omnipresent self-identity.

Condition number two, he communicates his humanly recognizable and comprehensible inner world to us and manipulates his environment.

We accept that he has a specific, a continuous, the same continuous self-identity.

Condition number three, he shows consistent, intentional, volitional, willed patterns united, unified via memory.

And number four, he had been doing this for a long observable period of time.

It seems that we accept that we have a specific self-identity, that we are self-conscious of a specific identity.

If number one, we discern, usually through memory and introspection, a long-term, consistent, intentional, willed, volitional pattern of behaviors unified by memory in our manipulation relating to the environment.

And the second condition is that others accept that we have a specific self-identity.

So others are very crucial to the issue of self-identity. It seems that the self is relationally determined, like a node in a network or like a Venn diagram where two circles overlap and the overlap is us.

In conclusion, Dan undoubtedly has a self-identity. He is human, and so he is endowed with the brain. But equally undoubtedly, his self-identity is not Dan's. He's not his own. It's a new self-identity, unfamiliar one.

And this is the stuff of nightmares, body-snatching, demonic possession, waking up in a strange place, not knowing who we are after an alcoholic blackout, for example, without a continuous personal history, without long-term memories.

When the high hippocampus is impaired, we don't exist. It is what binds our various bodies, states of mind, memories, skills, emotions, and cognitions. This binding, this glue, creates a coherent bundle of identity.

Dan speaks, Dan drinks, dances, talks, even makes love.

But throughout the time, he is not present, because he does not remember Dan. He does not recall how it is to be Dan. He may have murdered Jake, but by all philosophical and ethical criteria, it was most definitely not his doing, therefore not his fault.

I exonerate you, Dan, gone with your life as a new person.

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