Searching for the Science of Self

memywhy_cover Book release day! Not by me — I’ve gone on quasi-hiatus from book-writing, and for that matter from blogging, while I am happily getting some actual science done. But the brilliant and talented Jennifer Ouellette has come out with her best book yet — Me, Myself, and Why: Searching for the Science of Self.

Jennifer’s last book was The Calculus Diaries: How Math Can Help You Lose Weight, Win in Vegas, and Survive a Zombie Apocalypse. The idea behind that one stemmed from her conviction that, despite having been an English major who did badly in math, it was important that she learn the basics of calculus in order to appreciate the way it alters how we experience the world. But in doing the research for that book, she discovered something surprising: according to her high-school transcripts, she hadn’t done badly in math at all. In fact she got all A’s. But she left school with a conviction that she was bad in math.

Where did that conviction come from? Was it society’s fault, man? Or did it come from her parents? And since she was adopted, which set of parents should be blamed? Clearly there was an science question here: what were the crucial influences that made her the person she eventually became?

Thus, the new book. Here Jennifer traces various scientific strands that weave together to make us the people that we are. Starting with some of the obvious strategies — genome sequencing, brain scans — and working up to some more (literally) brain-bending ideas about sexual identity, addiction, virtual reality, and the origins of consciousness.

Jennifer even convinced her innocent, straight-arrow husband to experiment briefly with hallucinogenic substances, in order to better understand how a temporary alteration in brain chemistry affects the self/other boundary. See Chapter Seven for the scandalous details.

  1. I don’t know if this is a proper place to ask, or even if there is such place. Sorry if it’s too personal, but, what about you, Sean, have you taken any hallucinogenics/psychedelics/ entheogens? Thanks and sorry again.

  2. Jennifer even convinced her innocent, straight-arrow husband to experiment briefly with hallucinogenic substances…

    That could explain his recent flirtation with the rejection of falsifiability.

  3. Having taught college science for many years, I’ve noticed it is generally the person involved who convinced themselves that they are no good at or won’t need math. Math is difficult, for most everyone, so if I’m no good at it, I don’t have to work at learning about it. Some few people take that as a challenge, most just take the easy path. But as people grow, they change. Many take on challenges as they grow older, that they never would have thought about when they were younger. Sheila Tobias (They’re not Dumb, They’re Different) inadvertently makes this point very well.

    The problem is, no one brags about being terrible at reading or writing (ie illiterate), but there’s no social stigma about saying I’m terrible at math.