[00:00:06.4] ANNOUNCER: Welcome to The Science of Success introducing your host, Matt Bodnar.
[0:00:12.1] MB: Welcome to the Science of Success, the number one evidence based growth podcast on the internet with more than a million downloads and listeners in over a hundred countries.
In this episode, we approach the concept of the self, from a concrete perspective, not in an abstract or philosophical way. What are the hard sciences like biology and physics say about the existence of the self?
Does the self, exist from a psychological perspective? What does the science say and what does it mean for ourselves, our future and how we think about change and self-improvement? We explore the scientific search for the self with Dr. Robert Levine.
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In our previous episode, we discussed how your environment plays a tremendous role in shaping who you are, we looked at how personality develops and what underscores it. We talked about how you can engineer your own environment to make yourself more productive and effective.
Examine how to battle self-sabotage and much more with our guest Benjamin Hardy. If you want to understand how a few simple changes can make a huge impact on your life, listen to that episode. Now for the show.
[0:02:53.4] MB: Today, we have another exciting guest on the show, Dr. Robert Levine. Bob is a professor of psychology and former Dean of the College of Science and Mathematics at California state university. He’s the bestselling author of The Geography of Time, Stranger in the Mirror and The Power of Persuasion which has been translated in over eight languages, his work has been featured in the New York Times, NPR, CNN and more. Bob, welcome to the Science of Success.
[0:03:19.0] RL: Good morning to you Matt.
[0:03:19.8] MB: Well, we’re very excited to have you on the show today. I’d love to start out, Stranger in the Mirror is a fascinating book and I’d like to begin with the concept of the self, you know, we talk a lot, even on the show about self-knowledge, self-control, et cetera.
But you have a really interesting perspective on sort of what the self is and isn’t. Would you tell us a little bit about kind of how you got into questions of the self and sort of what some of the current conceptions of self are and how they may be thought?
[0:03:50.5] RL: I’m a social psychologist and for those of you who are not familiar with that discipline, we look at the ways the person and situations and how the grand mantra is that often, the time and place you find yourself in, dictate the way you’re going to act and feel more than the type of person that you are.
As such, I’ve always seen the self as a malleable thing. We know which study of your study where we see people otherwise good people in bad, in difficult situations can sometimes act badly and vice versa. That’ show it started for me, you know, the whole notion that we have a lot of different selves inside of ourselves and these different salves can come out in different ways but what happened with, this is just the most interesting project, I’m not going to say it’s the most interesting book that people to decide, it’s the most interesting project I’ve been involved in. Every place that I turn was looking for these notions of the self in other areas. I was just stunned by what I found. You know, for example, I started to look in biology and I found that the biologists also have this, their general finding is that were all multiple sales, we’re literally made up of different types of DNA.
You find that when you’re looking culture, you find out you’re looking different cultures where people tend to define what a self is differently. We see it historically. The grand lesson that I started, I began to see everywhere is that the boundaries that we imagine and ourselves, no pun intended that the divide us what’s us and what’s none us are really vague and it can be some really odd ways that we draw these lines and we need to draw these lines in order to get us through the night and the fact that the self is a most changeable object and that we have some control over this to a large extent, we can control – we can at least encourage the parts of our – the type of self or the type of self that we want to come out in different situations and to discourage the ones that we don’t want to come out.
I know that’s a long rambling answer but you know, when you ask a question about what’s my idea of the self, you’re inviting long rambling answers.
[0:06:19.4] MB: That’s what we like on the show, that’s great. I want to kind of unpack a couple of these different notions of the self from everything from sort of the self, of kind of a biological, physical sense, this self, it’s like a logical perspective and even the self from a cultural or social perspective.
Let’s start with kind of biology and the hard sciences, you know, from a physical sense. Does the self, exist as a separate sort of system from everything else?
[0:06:47.9] RL: Sort of, you can do - one certainly knows that there’s something about their physical corpus that’s different from the physical courses of the person standing next to them but when you start to look at the boundaries, it can be quite challenging.
For example, you know, let’s imagine a slightly disgusting thought experiment but you know, think of the saliva that’s in your mouth right now. I would ask and I ask you is that saliva part of you, is that part of your self and you know, you show up and I don’t usually answer would be ‘yes’.
Now let’s imagine that I give you a sterile cup and I ask you to spit in that cup and that saliva is now outside of you, right? It’s not you. Now, let’s say, how about – would you like to take your self back? Would you like to drink that stuff back in?
I suspect that doesn’t look too tempting to you. You know, when did that self, become non self? At what point did it become non self? We could see it just that way in that kind of in time way, where your skin is part of yourself and it starts to die, at what point does it become non self?
Then we see it in more fundamental ways. If we look, biologists look inside of yourself and we find that a large part of our body weight and our body volume consist of bacteria and other entities that stay with us that are necessarily part of us that keep us alive and they have their own DNA. We literally are made up of different DNA.
They have their own reproductive system. We’re literally part, when we draw that line between self and non self, certainly, to a biologist, our self is our DNA, the purpose of life is to perpetuate our DNA. Then we actually find that we have some DNA traces of other people, we are mothers, there are parts of our mother’s DNA that are moved into the child after the child is born.
That’s just the beginning of it. Then I mean, there are people who are literally chimeras, who are human chimeras, who have patch works of different DNAs in their body. You know, if you take a sample in their elbow, it might be one be, one set of chromosomes and you go to your shoulder, it might be a different step and then go to their face and it’s back to the first set.
People who are literally biologically two people. That scratching the surface of the ambiguities of what’s self, what’s not self, who are we on that very basic, as you put it, hard science level. This is before we get to the vagaries of social psychologist.
[0:09:57.2] MB: I think another sort of aspect of the kind of hard physical sciences. You know, when you dig down and look at things like the structure of cells or even molecules. There’s such a diverse sort of confluence, adaptive, nature of all these different things going on that in many ways, you know, kind of exist almost separate from what we would consider ourselves.
[0:10:21.0] RL: You’re absolutely right, I mean, if we really start to dig into the biology of it, we see these levels and depths of different cells within cells within cells or the entire, these entire ecosystems, you know, you have parasite that are a wonderful example. You know, we’re – something, this thing enters your body and it sometimes develop a bubble, an encompassing bubble around itself and it could remain inside you. Inside you for years sometimes, the clever ones know how to, they’ll setup camp inside yourself. They live inside yourself. Are they you? Are they something else? You live within that world that they’ve created, you’ll be parasites within parasites. This is the reality of being a human being.
Obviously, it’s not too functional to think about these kinds of things all the time. I think there’s a good Darwinian reason that we developed these narratives that tell us that we are a certain person, we have a self. This self is distinct form other self that there are some consistency in the self, it’s some continuity in the self. If we can’t connect those thoughts, I think that it would be very difficult for us to move on.
[0:11:44.3] MB: Let’s look at it now from kind of a psychological perspective, do we have a single self, you know, from sort of a psychological stand point?
[0:11:54.4] RL: Are we all whacko multiple personalities? That I think, that’s the rest of your question. We don’t have a single self. I think anybody who has a single self who has always been the same and remains the same with different people in different situations is somebody who has some other serious problems. You know, just think of yourself, think about if I ask you the question, “Who am I?” In fact, there’s a psychological test where you can do that, all right, write the questions, “Who am I?” Question on top of the page, put down numbers one through 20 and scribble down the first 20 answers.
Now let’s try it a little different way, let’s ask “Who am I?” you know, who are you and how would your best friend answer that and then let’s have another list where one of your parents, how would they answer it? How would your lover answer this?
Now let’s compare the list and where do we – where do you similarities in the list? Where do you see differences in the list? Well, where we see these differences is it just because the other person wants to see it through their own filters, you know, for example, might it be that you described yourself as an independent person, your best friend described you as an individual person but your mother describes you as somebody who is a very needy, dependent person?
Is that because your mother is just never going to see you as an independent person? Or, is it that you act somewhat differently when you’re around your mother? Once you start to collect these things, you think, who is the person that you are when you’re with your mother?
Who is the person you are when you’re with your lover? Who is the person that you are when you’re ordering food in a restaurant? I think that if you’re a, quote, normal person, they’re going to be very different people. I would suggest if you’re on this kind of track, something that I always find interesting to do and I like to do. I like to ask my students to do now is okay, collect these people, collect that person who is a student in the class, their mother or whatever. Invite them all over for dinner, have them sit around the table and what do you think, how much would they have in common?
What would they say to each other? Would they get along? Would they like each other? The answers to these questions, I believe, can be informative to the person who is asking them.
In addition, when we think about the different people that we are, if one thinks about it, think about as historically, think of yourself as a five year old. Think of yourself as a 10 year old, 15 year old and on. I think – and if I ask you, well, is that you? You know, that’s somebody asked me, is that Bob Levine? Yes, of course that’s Bob Levine.
But, how much do I have in common with that person? I think in most cases, we have much less in common with the person that we were when we’re a young child than we do with any random person our own age. How is it that we make that connection and how about the person that we imagine ourselves becoming?
Our future self? How do we put those things together, how do we waive that kind of narrative together and we do. It’s a way of creating, of keeping our sanity but I think it also, when we just – you start to think that way. It opens up possibilities for allowing ourselves to create the person or the people that we want to be.
Again, apologies for a long rambling answer but it’s a big topic.
[0:15:53.7] MB: I want to look at a couple experiments that you’ve talked about that kind of demonstrates from sort of a physical but also psychological perspective, how the concept itself can be a very malleable, let’s start with the rubber hand experiment?
[0:16:08.5] RL: Yeah, the rubber hand. You know what? I’m going to – a slightly, a different variation on the rubber hand experiment. If it’s okay, in fact, if you want to ask me about the experiment that I experienced with a virtual body parts in Sweden or I could just stay –
[0:16:26.1] MB: Yeah, that’s perfect, I was going to ask you about that one as well. Tell us about that?
[0:16:31.1] RL: Okay, because the other one, the rubber hand one, it gets really confusing to try to do it verbally, I’ve been through that before.
Yeah, this was, as I was doing research for this book, I was trying to talk to, I wanted to meet with as many people who were approaching the topic of the self in a real way, not in an abstract, philosophical way but in ways that I could take home for myself in different sciences and I visited with a research team at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, the Karolinska Institute which gives out the Nobel prize of these were a couple of neuroscientists who, doing these studies on virtual body parts which I know sounds kind of kinky but it was anything but. They allowed me to be a subject in the experiment. The main experiment which I’ll try to describe, consisted of myself and a – I’m an older white male, she was the experimenter was an attractive, early, 30 something European woman, a Swedish woman. We looked completely different.
The way she set it up was we both got our bodies into, we held them in the same position and most importantly, my right arm was in the same visual position to me as her right arm was to her.
When she looked down at her right arm, she would see an arm in the same position as what happened to me when I looked down on my right arm. Then she fitted us both with these video helmets and goggles and her helmet was a video recorder. My helmet was a video receiver.
What would happen is, I would see exactly what she was seeing. She looked down, she would look down at her arm and she saw her arm and she then had me look down at my arm but what I would see was, I would also be seeing her arm. I would be seeing her arm in the same position where my arm should have been.
It was just the oddest feeling to look down at my arm, this old white guy’s arm and to see this young woman’s arm. But here’s the odd thing about it. The oddest thing about it was that, I immediately took mental ownership of that arm. That appeared to be my arm.
Then, what she did was had us, we stood up, still looking at our arm and we shook hands. Now, you know, if you shake somebody’s hand, you look into two hands but you feel as if – the sensation in your hand. Now, I’m looking down there and I’m shaking her hand and I’m looking down at her hand where my hand should be and we’re wondering where am I going to feel as the sensation?
Well, I felt it quite clearly in the hand that I was looking at. What made it even odder was that that hand was shaking, appeared to be shaking my hand. It talked about, as virtual body parts, it’s switching virtual body parts. And what happens is, I turn out to be a very typical case she said, she said, guys who do this, almost always, they’re accepting of this new arm.
Almost everybody I believe, I forgot the percentages in the high 90 percentages, people take mental ownership of the arm that they appear to be seeing. This is just how malleable we are. You know, we think of ourselves as having, this is my body, this is your body. But we could play each of those games with ourselves that - where you wanted very quickly will take mental ownership of a different body.
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[0:23:39.7] RL: Tell me a little bit more about that, what exactly does mental ownership mean and how did you perceive that?
[0:23:45.7] MB: Well, it might be we have a lot of toggling, field ground toggling. That’s what happened. I imagine what would happen is that here, I’ve got two sets of some patients coming together. I have the physical sensation which is connected to my arm.
You know, I know what my arm feels like, at any one moment, when I felt it, I know what my arm feels like and then I have the visual sensation which is looking down at that arm and I’m seeing somebody else’s arm. I had predicted, I thought that I was going to toggle back and forth and I was going to talk and feel, this is my arm, this is her arm. It was immediate and total that I felt that this was the arm what I was looking at, Martina’s arm was my arm.
It was just an odd feeling. I knew it wasn’t right but that’s what it felt like. That has taken that next step when I’m shaking hands with my own hand and it was comical but I felt this sensation in her hand, in the hand that I was looking at.
It’s hard for me to explain it too much more but I think that you can draft some consequences of this and perhaps have these sorts of things are useful and when we talk about empathy with a person. Well, this is creating empathy with another person’s arm.
You know, what happens, at the time, we did these experiments by the way, this was a few years ago, we had these big helmets on, now you don’t need these big helmets. In fact, they’re now, with first, Google Glass and now I believe Microsoft has their own product or Apple has their own glass that’s coming out now. And people are developing little contact lenses that you could put on that are actually video receivers so you don’t even feel like you have any equipment on but you’re seeing what somebody else is seeing.
You know, imagine if I wanted to generate empathy with another person. Say I’m a couple’s counselor. And couples counselors are a long time has used a role modeling and taking and trying to un-match that the person that you are talking to is you and vice-versa, trying to take the role of the other person. What would it be like now to come in with your significant other who you’re trying to work, you try to learn to communicate with better, you put on the contact lenses and you look in front of you and you see yourself and you feel that you are the other person, wouldn’t this be a powerful way of empathizing?
Being able to understand the way this person is seeing you, how bad if you want to be able to get over your prejudices, your racism? What would it be like if one looks out and sees yourself and look down at yourself, at your own arm and see an arm of a different color or an arm of somebody who has maybe a physical disability? How far can we push it? To what extent are we going to be if we play these games with ourselves? Are we able to just encompass another person?
[0:27:15.7] MB: It’s interesting, I think one of the most fascinating points about that research is that the felt sensation of sort of having a different person’s arm happens regardless of or despite the fact that you know that it’s happening, right? Your mind is being tricked despite the fact that it knows it’s being tricked.
[0:27:33.8] RL: Yep, absolutely. I mean I found myself laughing at myself. In fact at one point, I was in shape up to get really inappropriate. Her name was Martina and I said, “Martina, I just want you to know that I love being inside your arm.” Fortunately I stopped myself or it would have created an uncomfortable situation but yeah, it was the machine, these mindsets that we have, these little mechanisms. This is the way they work and if you understand the way they work it gives you some power over them.
You know, I started talking about the notion of the power of the situation that there are certain times, certain places, you arrange the situation it will bring out something in you. This is a very specific example that if I play around and if I can create a certain visual field for you and if I give you certain other cues, I can get you to feel a certain way. Well why not do that for ourselves? Once we understand these mechanisms and sometimes they are very personal. Sometimes studies can show generally how things happen but also they are very personal. We could study ourselves and find out in what situation, with what people, doing what activities, how does it make us feel?
And once we understand these connections then we have some control over these situations we’d like to put ourselves in. The kind of people we’d like to be with and often, I would suggest to you that when – I would suggest to our listeners that when you start to make these lists that sometimes the answers you get are counter intuitive.
You might think, “Oh this is somebody I really want to get to know,” this is everybody wants to get close to this person or everybody wants this woman or everybody wants this man. But you find that every time you leave that person, you feel just disenergized and maybe there’s somebody else there that you just don’t haven’t thought about as being the kind of person that people want to know, but you find, “You know, every time I walk away from a conversation with that person I feel good about it.”
If you can take note about these kinds of things then you’d do some control over, how can we put it? Putting out - creating this sort of self that we like to live with.
[0:30:18.1] MB: I want to explore that question more deeply and the implications of this fluidity of the concept of the self and what that means for changing ourselves but before we do, one of the other components that I am curious from your perspective on is the idea of the interconnectedness of everything, right? This I think stems originally from the hard sciences and expands more broadly but I think it ties really neatly into the work you’ve done around the self.
And essentially the way I think about this is that if you look at any given – you know let’s start with the person as a physical being, you couldn’t exists if it weren’t for the laws of physics, the environment that you are currently in, the earth itself, all the processes that had to go into the creation of that planet, the hundreds of thousands of years of evolution of every single person and organism in the chain of biology that ended up in your creation. And then the other perspective of the personality, quote unquote, wouldn’t really exists without the personalities of every person you’ve ever interacted with in every situation you have ever encountered and so at a very real sort of physical and scientific sense, the self in a unique individual personality that we have control over, I feel like almost melts away.
[0:31:35.4] RL: I’m laughing because I think one has to be a little careful when we start to talk about these things. It’s a little bit like that old Woody Allen line where you could take a philosophy class and by the end of the semester, the professor has convinced everybody that they didn’t exist and you know - but if we think about our thoughts, I mean what are the ideas that run through our brains when you get up in the morning and we do something.
We take action, anybody who meditates knows about this is quite aware of this narrative that this narrative flow that is going through our brain. We make decisions as we go along, where do our ideas come from? We know we move into another science some early psycho-neurology work where people would hook subjects up to now would be an FMRI and ask them to, at their leisure, to decide when to touch their finger to a certain point in the wall.
And they developed methods where they could monitor exactly the moment that the person touched the wall and that the individual could monitor the moment that they made the decision and naturally, there is a bit of a time lapse between when one makes a decision and when the finger moves to the wall. But what was more interesting is that there’s a spike in neural activity up to a rate of under the spike in neural activity before the person is aware of making the decision. So it’s as if it’s not a dip, our brains decide before we are aware that we decided.
Now is this to say that we’re not the ones who are actually deciding and - or how do we make sense of the brains of ours? And how are they related to us? And this I believe is where you’re comments are most helpful that everything we’ve experienced, everything we’ve experienced overtime, everything we’ve experienced in the broadest sense, the people we’ve met, the genes we’ve inherited. The culture we’ve inherited. That these all somehow – these had been passed down and they’re all behind that curtain. Where the ideas are generated.
Which is not to say that the self of awareness has no control. You know we’re not just the engines that are driven but we need to accept the fact that the work is going on behind the curtain. The work is going on under the surface. And once we do that, I think that self in awareness, the one that we usually identify with as our real self, we could serve that that serves. We can make some decisions and we can decide what situations we’re going to put ourselves in or we can try to direct ourselves as best we can to you know, “I would prefer not to think about these kinds of things. I don’t like what I did yesterday. I really hope that I could have a better attitude towards this person tomorrow,” and to some extent, I think we can achieve some successes that way but this is that curiosity of just again brings us back to the self versus the non-self.
Because if we think about where these things thoughts come from, these thoughts in our brain, where were they created? How would these neural connections established? And in large parts, they are going to be the people that we’ve met. The people that we raised with and the important people in our lives. So in that way, others are literary part of us. There is that the boundary between our self and others is vague. It’s vague, it’s malleable and although we find it, it’s so important for us to draw that line.
To see ourselves as the unique self, to see ourselves as a discrete entity. It’s just the story we tell ourselves.
[0:36:25.2] MB: Some fascinating thoughts and I want to go down the rabbit hole of consciousness and how it plays into this but I want to first look at, and come back to this idea of editing ourselves and reshaping ourselves and the notion that because the self is so, sort of, malleable and fluid that we’re not necessarily fixed or locked into our existing patterns of thought and behavior.
[0:36:52.5] RL: Yeah and once you recognize the fact that you are different people in different situations that you can often behave in ways that you’ve never imagined you are going to act. It can be a little threatening at first to think that we are multiple personalities and not only that but there’s these personalities under the surface that are waiting to come out, put yourself in the person and ends up in a new role, they end up in a new relationship and you turn into a different person.
And how many of these personalities are underneath the surface and it can make one feel like maybe it’s time for us all to just pack up and go to the beach. But I would suggest that it is something very different that really if you take control of it then it allows you whole possibilities and to some extent, we can actualize the possibilities. We can think about the kind of person that we want to be, well that’s a person we want to be called and the person we want to be in this situation.
You know, “I am going to be going for a job interview, this is how I want to be. I am going to be meeting up with this other person later in the day.” This is how I want to be and it can be – we have a tendency I think in our or whatever it means to say we’re in an American culture, we have a tendency to think well that kind of reeks the phoniness but that’s what it is to be a human being and I think that it gives us some control and I like that term ‘editor’.
It works for me, you know you’re not going to be the one who generates the information, but it can encourage the right kind of information and you know, if you are a good reader you can – it just needs a little bit of work and gee, let’s see if we can bring out something slightly different and I find it to be a very exciting idea. You know what? It’s just full of possibilities.
[0:38:50.8] MB: I think the word editor is a great way to conceptualize this notion that there is so many possibilities and complex differences and personalities and selves, et cetera but we can pick and choose and we may not be able to control where our thoughts arise from or how they got there but we can edit and select the ones that will ultimately lead us to creating positive change in our lives.
[0:39:17.5] RL: Yeah and that requires thinking for yourself. I think it requires introspection and honesty, self-honesty and then it requires some luck. We all carry baggage and the hope that that baggage is going to work in our favor more than it’s not going to work in our favor and I think also it’s important to recognize that there is going to be no simple answers to these things. You know if anybody tells you that this is the way to do it then - I would think of anybody used the way that do it. That we would all be quite aware that it’s the way for everybody to do it. One needs to see what works, what works best for them, what kind of approach works best for them.
[0:40:05.7] MB: I think the theme that you just touched on you know, introspection and self-honesty and thinking for yourself, these are things that we hear again and again and again from people from a huge, diverse range of backgrounds on the show and I think it just underscores that to create the life you want to create, the positive results that you want in life that you really have to have those skills.
[0:40:28.6] RL: Yeah, you have to have those skills and it can be – you – yeah, you need to have the skills and you need to develop the skills and sometimes, you need to take leaps but you need to do them with I think is I think you need to think ahead.
[0:40:47.3] MB: So what would one sort of piece of homework or something that you could – what would one thing be that you could give to the listeners that they could start to do to concretely implement some of the concepts and ideas that we’ve talked about today?
[0:41:02.6] RL: Well a piece of low hanging fruit here. Whatever kind of journal keeping that you prefer keep, I would suggest that somehow try to keep track of yourself. There’s a whole number of apps, activity tracking apps that go under different and various names and I am not going recommend any single one, that is one way of going at it and in those cases what it is, is essentially a beeper system where you can program your phone or whatever to beep at certain instances.
They ask you certain questions like, “What are you doing? How are you feeling?” With a number of different answers and you can collect these kind of information for as long as you want. You know you do it over the course of the week or so and then you look back at first of all, how you spend your time but more importantly, how you felt in these various kinds of situations and you can go through them and you can learn a lot about yourself.
And I would predict that you’re going to have some surprises as to some activities you spend more time in than you ever imagined that you were spending and most importantly, you’re going to find that there are some activities that you know, I always feel crappy after them or I always have this kind of lingering sense of something is wrong or something. And then there are other ones where I always feel good and I think thinking like that is a good start for trying to create some plans for one’s self.
[0:42:43.2] MB: And where can listeners find you and your books and your writings online?
[0:42:47.7] RL: Well the quickest way, I have my website. It’s www.boblevine.net. If you are interested in a lot of the things that we talked about today, it’s all in my newest book called Stranger in the Mirror and particularly, there’s a new paperback edition, early revised paperback edition that’s published by the press at California State University Fresno. They can look for it on Amazon or you can look at it on my website or you can contact me through my website.
[0:43:22.0] MB: Well Bob, thank you so much for coming on the show, sharing all this wisdom, it’s a fascinating topic and something that can really think about for a long time and I really enjoyed hearing your insights.
[0:43:34.2] RL: Well thank you so much Matt, I really enjoyed talking to you. I hope we get to talk more, I really appreciate it. Thanks.
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