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Other selves

December 26, 2016

If there is anything that distinguishes our species, it is the degree to which we think about what other people think. The story-teller may be doing what is quintessentially human. Some neurological studies of that by Rebecca Saxe suggest the same neurological mechanisms that are responsible for our ability to empathize with others also are part of self-control. Perhaps because the latter is empathy with our future selves? It seems to me an alternate explanation is just that more self-control requires thinking about counterfactual futures. Read here (pdf) to see how Saxe’s studies rely on subjects interpreting stories.

Bobby Azarian looks at a study of when family members view someone suffering Alzheimer’s as having lost their former identity. He argues this is more tied to change in the patient’s moral traits than loss of memory. That struck a chord in me, having helped care for two family members who died with Alzheimer’s, both of whom retained their personal traits through the disease. A Duke psychologist makes a similar argument, using the classic example of Phineas Gage:

Previously mild-mannered and industrious, Gage emerged from the accident obstinate, capricious and foul-mouthed. His friends were horrified and said he was ‘no longer Gage’.

But. The law would still recognize Gage as Gage. And if the former Gage had put away some savings for his future self, would he not have wanted those funds to benefit that changed self? Personal identity is not so simple a thing.

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