In 1890, psychologist William James conceptualized the ‘self’ as two entities: ‘I’ and ‘me,’ whereby ‘I’ acts in the present moment and ‘me’ is a narrative entity stretched in time, and living as much in the past, present and future.
Recent neuroscience has supported his insights, with findings suggesting that a particular brain area, the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC), links our subjective experiences across time.
We know how easily affected we are by our environment – our skin tans with sunlight, our taste buds activate when we see food, and so on. Our sense of self, too, is highly susceptible to environmental cues (both external and internal environments). In essence, what we experience as our self and, by extension, self-esteem, is a powerful depiction generated by our brain.
Self-esteem is commonly defined as an individual’s sense of self-worth. Higher levels of self-esteem are associated with better coping skills, positive affect, emotional stability, and an increased quality of life perception. On the other hand, low self-esteem has been linked to a number of emotional and behavioral problems, such as depression and eating disorders. It seems that having self-esteem allows us to judge other’s responses to us as signs of acceptance or rejection – critical learnings when living in a group setting. We do something morally wrong – according to our group beliefs – and our brains must then have a way of computing the disapproving looks from others as a signal that we may be ousted, and quickly make amends. Clearly, our self-esteem is important to our general wellbeing. But it wouldn’t exist without our sense of self.
If you grew up alone on a deserted island, how would you refer to yourself? First-person? Third-person? Would you even have a sense of self? The human brain evolved within a complex social environment, so it’s no surprise that there are neural mechanisms dedicated to building social skills necessary for group interactions. In fact, our sense of self really only makes sense within the group context. Interestingly, shy and lonely people who worry most about being socially rejected are the most in-tune with social information. A study showed that people characterized as ‘highly socially anxious’ also exhibited elevated mentalizing and empathic abilities. Similarly, lower self-esteem is linked to brain areas activated by interpersonal rejection or distress. As Andy mentioned, low self-esteem is not due to not thinking enough about ourselves but rather thinking too much about ourselves and how others perceive us.
While some of this has a genetic or neural basis, the mind may also be trained to ease up on negative self thoughts and rumination that often leads to lower self-esteem, and even social anxiety or depression. A 2007 study revealed that by attending to the present moment with meditation training, participants reduced the activity in their brain’s self-referential midline region (the MPFC). In short, by focusing on the present moment, we reduce the ‘me’ and focus on the ‘I.’ What neuroscience shows is that we do have two distinct forms of self-awareness that can be dissociated through attentional training.
As experimental philosopher Joshua Knobe remarks: “A year from now there’ll be all these people in this world…and someone out there who’s you. But what is it about that person that makes that person you?” While we coddle our future self, squirreling away portions of our paychecks or keeping our bodies fit so they can benefit from our toils, are we being mindful of our present self?