The Older I Get, The Better I Was
History makes us fools out of most of us. What we predict does not happen. Yet we can always rewrite the past where it matters most – to most of us. Constantly and unconsciously we seamlessly refashion our autobiographies.
It’s a triumph of the self.
The Future of an Illusion
Freud wrote “The Future of an Illusion” to describe religion and what he saw as its ideology and usefulness. His follow-up work was “Civilization and Its Discontents.” Much of his legacy appears around these later works, surprisingly.
Yet Freud appeared entranced by the evergreen power of the self, that virtual reality construct the brain creates of a separate, personal I. Though people struggle throughout life to define themselves they fondly return to that rock of stability, the self. They can converse with it, feel its solidity. Whatever happened to me, whatever I think has happened, I have remained the same person I was at age seven and 17 and 47 and 77. My memories are the bedrock of who I am and what has made me.
Yet this bedrock is fragile shale.
The Future Personality
People know they change – but mainly in the past. Yet they often can’t see the breadth of future changes. For many of us, the future is just a continuation of the present.
That’s the conclusion of a recent paper in Science by Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard researcher famous for work on happiness, and numerous colleagues. Surveying 19,000 people, the the changes in their lives they predicted were far less that what they acknowledged had already occurred – decade by decade.
And the process of updating and ruthlessly pruning one’s autobiography is at least as potent as it is unacknowledged.
One of the most powerful memories of neurologist Oliver Sacks’ childhood was the blitz of London. He knew the crack of timbers and remembered the walls of fire.
Except he was not there.
Dan Offer has asked factual questions of the same people at later decades. He gets very different answers to the same “facts.”
As Faulkner said, the past is not even past. It’s continually remade.
Every time we retrieve a memory, it’s biochemical, physical trace changes. It doesn’t “go back to the same place.” Our image of memory as a clean, easy accessible DVD is as wrong as our view of the self as unchanged at age seven and 77.
But some illusions are very useful. Having the illusion of an unchanging self can hide the vagaries of memory, the untruthfulness of recall, the pains of disappointment and failure – even the nature of human biology itself.
Change That Changes
People have a very hard time recognizing the outer changes of their bodies. They have a harder time recognizing what goes on inside.
If you look the variation is astonishing. Biology’s velocity is extreme.
There are perhaps a billion protein-protein interactions per second – in one cell. We have ten trillion of them – plus at least 100 trillion other organisms that live on, in and with us.
Biology is so fast that almost everything is quickly used up. When it’s remade, it’s also reformulated. That’s why the estimates are that most of your body is remade in 3-4 weeks, with most of your hard working heart recast in three days.
Nothing stays the same. Nothing remains as it was. Everything is reprogrammed and reformatted, restated and rebuilt.
Except the self, of course. The products of the brain’s endlessly working virtual reality machine keep its artificial products stable.
In the illusions of our minds.
The Uses of Selfhood
There are innumerable utilities to having a self. Like Archimedes’ lever from which he would move the world, the self gives us an attachment point, the origin, a source of identity and definition.
And the illusion of an unchanging self – of a single, fixed soul confronting existence – allows us to sidestep inconvenient facts.
Like how quickly we change – biologically and mentally.
To see our self as unchanging requires us to consider development and maturation as small rites of passage that hardly alter our immutable identity.
But massive, unrelenting change is how the body works. It constantly remakes itself, evolving with the evolving landscape of one’s environment.
When you see five thousand geese cross the dawn sky, you notice. When the love of your life walks out of your living room, you remember.
But when hundreds of billions of viruses attack your nose and GI tract you usually note nothing.
Your brain will. It will constantly remake itself, evolving like the immune system to refashion itself more effectively, so it can face and survive the changing environment.
And amidst so much change it pays to have a virtual partner of constant stability – so stable many civilizations define an “everlasting soul.”
As part of our need for individual and species survival, our “unchanging” self plays unknowing but useful tricks, allowing us to remake ourselves biologically – without even noticing it is happening.
Constantly learning gives us many chances to remake itself effectively against a changing world of organisms and environmental shifts that could easily extinguish us.
But this powerful illusion of an unchanging self has costs. Major changes in behavior and circumstance may not be noticed until it’s too late. That’s the history of human civilizations as long as we can look back – from the Mayans to the Khmers to us, with ecological blinders still covering our eyes.
And the illusion of stability allows us to forget how much we have struggled, changed, and remade our bodiesfrom inside. That blindness prevents us from carefully calibrating our pasts and igniting the rich potentials of the future.
For a constantly updated, constantly evolving human can change – under it’s own direction.
In very helpful ways. But then it has to acknowledge changes in the past – so as to empower the changes required by the future.
Which happens to be right now.
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