The ancient Greek aphorism nosce te ipsum (“know thyself”) still makes sense. It implies that to be wise, we must have an objective understanding of ourselves: our thoughts, feelings, desires, emotions, strengths, weaknesses, actions and motivations. The way we identify with others and distinguish between self and others plays an important role in our social development.
We now know that our beliefs about ourselves are the product of the brain. What we call the self is a construction of the brain, a story that we continuously write and rewrite in our minds. This story is written all the time we are awake and our brain is functioning normally. The story doesn’t forever remain the same but there is something that remains constant which makes the self.
This constant also seems to include one’s name. The sound of a person’s spoken name and its written equivalent is a unique part of the person’s consciousness. Recent studies on patients in a coma and patients with disorders of consciousness suggest that some of these patients show a distinctive physiological response when their names are spoken to them. After examining whether the one’s name is preferentially processed unconsciously in healthy individuals, researchers say “your unconscious knows your name”.
The knowledge of the self helps us recognise and manage fear, anger and other potentially destructive emotions. A slew of studies shows that people who believe they are behaving authentically are less distressed and have higher self-esteem. Brain-imaging experiments show that when people distance themselves from upsetting feelings, the rational parts of their brains (such as the prefrontal cortex) slow down emotional ones (such as the amygdala) – and they feel better. Research also links authenticity with mindfulness which can help curb depression and anxiety. When you are mindful, you respond with reason before emotion. You’re aware of how you are responding to a situation.
Being yourself also comes with some costs. Certain forms of self-knowledge may be painful such as becoming aware of the limitations of our social skills or finding out that we are not as athletically talented as we had hoped. But behaving in ways that are at odds with one’s true-self can undermine wellbeing.
American psychologists Simine Vazire and Erika N. Carlson say that it’s a natural tendency to think we know ourselves better than others do, but there are aspects of personality that others know about us that we don’t know ourselves and vice versa. To get a complete picture of a personality, you need both pictures. They suggest an addendum to the ancient aphorism: Ask a friend. “Listen to others,” they advise. “They may know more than you do – even about yourself.”
© Surendra Verma 2016