Who Do You Think You Are?

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Do you have a trait, an addiction, or a disorder that causes you suffering? If you were offered an instant, painless way to stop the OCD, ADD, depression, panic attacks, addiction, angry outbursts, impatience, or shyness, would you want it? What if this treatment could wipe out a particularly traumatic memory for you?

This isn’t science fiction. Many of the disorders that were once considered to be in the domain of psychology and psychiatry are now treated as neurological problems or chemical imbalances. MRIs are giving us a window into the mind/brain that is creating a proliferation of treatment options never before imagined.

In a recent article, researchers described implanting a pacemaker deep into the brain of a severely depressed woman. Minutes later, a smile lit up her face. By her own description, it had been twelve years since she had smiled. Other people suffering from depression were also implanted with the device and the results look promising, not only for depression, but for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

If a small electrical device sending out intermittent pulses can, within minutes, literally put a smile on the face of someone who has felt emotionally dead for years, what does this have to say about our personalities? How much of how we identify ourselves is really our Self?

As children, we are often compared to others who share our genes. “She has her mother’s eyes.” “That pout is just like his uncle’s.” “She’s stubborn, just like…” We learn to identify our Self by our traits, which we usually feel at least somewhat stuck with. By the time we are working adults, many of us have further identified ourselves (or our employers have) through personality profiles such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. We know whether we are ESTJs (Extraversion, Sensing, Thinking, Judging) or INFPs (Introversion, iNtuition, Feeling, Perceiving). Discovering our personality style can help us understand our motivations and quirks as well as help us get along with others. However, is it possible to over-identify with our labels?

Perhaps you have researched the Sufi-derived Enneagram. If so, you know “your number.” For example, a Four on the Enneagram is the Romantic, Aesthete, Individualist. According to the Enneagram, as quoted by Wikipedia, “Fours embrace individualism and are often profoundly creative and intuitive and at best they are very humane. However, they have a habit of withdrawing to internalize, searching desperately inside themselves for something they never find and creating a spiral of depression.” This may be very helpful information for a Four. But might a Four (or any other “Number”) take this data and invalidate other aspects of him/her Self?

If a little electronic device could be implanted in a Four and the depression circumvented, is the person no longer a Four? Was the depression part of this person’s personality or was it a byproduct of a “misfiring” of the brain that required only some high-tech tweaking to correct it? Would the Four miss aspects of the depression? Did it fuel his/her creativity or intuition? Is the Four’s capacity for empathy/humanity a result of a deep understanding of what it means to suffer? Would others miss something in the Four? Would some of life’s lessons be lost along with the depression? Does growth require suffering?

If you are waiting for me to answer these questions, you will have to wait longer because I’m still finding more questions to ask! If a shock from a tiny electrode can instantly lift years of depression or alleviate the symptoms of OCD, it becomes compelling to question what “free will” means. Is our Self simply the sum total of our brain’s synapses? If these synapses are altered, how does this impact our sense of Self? What do you want to change about yourself? Are you willing to risk letting go of your former sense of Self to make the changes?

If depression or rage or shyness can be “zapped,” might this information encourage us to let go of our prior judgments about others’ behaviors or even our own? Maybe for all our best efforts, some of us are simply more prone to being quick to anger or too shy to make eye contact or too lacking in self-esteem to give ourselves a pep talk or feel inspired by affirmations. Maybe laziness or self-centeredness is built in.

What if you were just one quick fix away from being “cured” of any of these “flaws”? If flipping a switch eliminated the need for therapy, reading self-help books, meditating, taking anti-depressants and/or anti-anxiety meds, or having to risk your health, relationships, job, and freedom because you self-medicate with drugs and alcohol; that is, if a zap could eliminate your suffering and, most importantly, make you happy, would you utilize it?

Brain pacemaker research doesn’t lead me to answers to these questions but it does lead me to realizing the value of paying attention to my thoughts. Every day, we consciously or unconsciously choose our thoughts, which then trigger our emotions, which either change or reinforce our beliefs, all contributing to what we call our personality.

The Buddhists teach us that no enemy can harm us as much as our own worst thoughts. The opposite is perhaps also true: No one can help us as much as our own best thoughts. Our thoughts, whether stimulated by a machine or by a sunset, by biofeedback or by listening to music, influence our perceptions, our identification with our personality, and our sense of happiness. Implant or no implant, instant fix or years of meditation, therapy or medication, exercise endorphins or affirmations, if we pay closer attention to our thoughts, allow compassion for our own and others’ feelings, and question the authority of our beliefs, hopefully, we will find both meaning and delight in discovering our truer Self.

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