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Ego Boundaries, or the Fit of My Father's Shirt

A neuroscientist racks his brains to find where one person ends and another begins.

By Robert Sapolsky
Nov 1, 1995 6:00 AMNov 12, 2019 4:31 AM


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I’ve been wondering how many bodies a person needs. This is not a question that would normally interest me as a scientist, yet it has crept into my consciousness lately, and I find I’m no longer sure of the answer.

One afternoon I watched someone inhabit two bodies. Stephen Hawking, the astrophysicist famed as much for his progressive paralysis from Lou Gehrig’s disease as for his work, had come to my graduate school to lecture on the beginning and end of time. This was a decade ago, when Hawking could still move his mouth a bit, generating a gargly, incomprehensible voice. Though we didn’t expect to understand the lecture with our rudimentary physics, we packed the auditorium, biochemists and physiologists and geneticists, to bear witness to Hawking’s body melted by disease and his mind knowing when, or whether, time began.

Four physics professors, none of them young, carried Hawking onto the stage. They panted visibly, but it seemed as if only they could perform this task, that if you did not understand special relativity and you touched his wheelchair, you might be vaporized. After placing their burden, chair and all, with his back to us, the professors fled. Then, in the stillness, the electric wheelchair whirred and rotated, revealing a shriveled husk that stared out from behind horn-rimmed glasses.

As we sat there, paralyzed by awe at this mummy brain from the crypt, a tousled young guy in jeans sauntered onstage. He looked as if he’d just rolled out of bed and was still preoccupied with whomever he had left there. He walked up behind Hawking, tossed his head to adjust his blond mane, and suddenly shoved the wheelchair forward.

Jesus, Hawking is going to roll off the stage. This rock star assassin is murdering the great Stephen Hawking. At the last second the kid reaches out, barely stopping the wheelchair. He faces Hawking toward the audience and bends over the microphone. In an arrogant English public school accent he says, You know, you’re not in church.

This, apparently, is to be Hawking’s interpreter. As Hawking begins, the arrogant voice translates the strangulated raspings. Today I will discuss some theories of mine concerning the beginning and end of time. In some cases, these theories have been experimentally confirmed. In others, there has not yet been sufficient time for their confirmation. We chuckle--cocky bastard--before we catch ourselves. How can you think such a thing about Stephen Hawking?

As the lecture emerges with painstaking slowness but utter clarity, time glimmers into being without a beginning. Radio waves, defying possibility, escape from black holes. Equations appear, interlaced with a puckish humor.

But the kid is getting worse. While Hawking struggles, he tosses his chalk in the air, bored. He drops the chalk, forcing the mummy through the arduous task of starting again. Once, when he mistranslates a sentence, Hawking has to repeat himself. Glowering, the translator mutters, You’re not making yourself understood.

Who is this creature? Slowly it dawns on us. Hawking, in his Cambridge chair once occupied by Newton, has selected him as his student, his intimate. This is his chosen voice. Something begins to shift in our picture of the mummy brain.

Before the illness, Hawking was a showboat, ostentatiously functioning at half speed to barely finish some task before returning to a party, all with a dissolute brilliance. He must have been just like this kid. And it hits us: they planned this--the careering wheelchair, the insouciance--to desanctify our experience. The conspiracy we sense is so intimate that Hawking seems to have borrowed his student’s very being. For an hour the mummy brain is gone. Instead we’re listening to an entertaining lecture by a cocky Cambridge don--one who just happens to need two bodies to pull it off.

Hawking’s act was a metaphor, a piece of theater. It was also, one assumes, temporary. Still, it raises a number of questions: Can bodies and consciousnesses disagree in number? Can they do so for a prolonged period of time? The issue has not often interested neuroscientists, but there is the significant exception of split-brain patients. While the brain is roughly symmetrical, its functions can be lateralized--the left and right sides perform different tasks. The left hemisphere typically specializes in language, while the right excels in nonverbal spatial abilities, facial recognition, music. And despite absurd New Age assertions that people go about every conceivable behavior with left brain or right brain styles, the science of lateralization is solid.

The two hemispheres communicate by a hefty cable of connections called the corpus callosum, and normally the conversation is beneficial. But in a certain type of epilepsy, one seizure can provoke another on the mirrored part of the opposite hemisphere. Back and forth the seizures chase, across the corpus callosum. Since the late 1950s some epileptics have had their corpora callosa severed surgically, halting their seizures but leaving the patients with two disconnected hemispheres. Roger Sperry, a neuroscientist, won a Nobel Prize for experiments with such patients. In some he fed information to only one hemisphere, while in others he fed different information to each side simultaneously. His results showed that the hemispheres could function separately, with separate analytic strengths. For example, if an object was presented to a patient’s visual field so that the information entered only the verbal hemisphere, the person could identify the picture easily. But when the same information was presented to the nonverbal hemisphere, he couldn’t even state that he had seen anything--yet he could identify the object by touch.

Sperry’s experiments suggested that each hemisphere could learn, remember, reason, have opinions, initiate behavior, be self-aware, feel time pass, imagine the future, and generate emotions. This raised the messy prospect that there might be two individuals occupying one skull. Even worse: Perhaps normal people also consist of two separate individuals, yoked together by the corpus callosum. Psychologist Julian Jaynes addressed this possibility in a highly eccentric book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. He argued that a coherent sense of self, a well-bounded ego, developed only 3,000 or so years ago. Before that, he wrote, the brain was bicameral (that is, two-chambered), with the two hemispheres barely integrated. One hemisphere spoke, either metaphorically or literally, and the other obeyed, attributing the voice to the gods. Jaynes asserted that the modern sense of ego represents a breakdown of bicameralism. Schizophrenics remain bicameral, he claimed, supporting his ideas with mountains of trivia from archeology, mythology, the classics, and the Bible. Savants found the book dizzyingly erudite, stimulating, and loony.

Unlike Jaynes, Sperry rejected the notion that there were two individuals inside anyone’s head, and most scientists agreed with him. While split-brain patients could be manipulated into displaying two independent cognitive styles, the underlying opinions, memories, and emotions were the same. This could be explained anatomically. Even though the corpus callosum was cut, deeper structures of the brain that are critical to emotion and physiological regulation remained connected. Split brains are not really split into two but instead form a Y. There might be two separate consciousnesses, one navigating through town by remembering names of streets, the other by remembering a spatial map of the town’s appearance--yet it was still the same individual. One body, one person.

A battle over how many selves can reside within one body surrounds the issue of multiple personality disorder. Different facets of our personality dominate in different settings: we may act like a different person when with a boss instead of a subordinate, or with a woman instead of a man. But we are not literally different people. In individuals with multiple personality disorder, however, separate personalities seem to take full control of the person’s behavior at different times. Most mental health professionals agree that there are individuals in whom the different facets of personality are so disjointed and dissociated as to constitute disease. Often these patients describe having suffered horrific childhood abuse, and some theorists think the compartmentalizing of the different personalities evolved as a protective strategy. But do the nonoverlapping identities truly represent different personalities?

Some clinicians report hundreds of such patients and believe in the biological reality of the disorder, citing studies showing that when personalities shift, so do eyeglass or medication prescriptions. Other clinicians become apoplectic over such claims, insisting that a true multiple personality patient shows up once in a career, that the different eyeglasses stories are only stories.

The patriarchs of psychiatry have generally taken the latter view. In the latest edition of psychiatry’s bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, there have been careful changes in the definition of the disorder; its diagnosis no longer involves the existence of multiple personalities. Instead the prerequisite is the presence of distinct identities or personality states, and the disease even has a new name: dissociative identity disorder. In other words, a patient with the disease identifies himself in multiple ways, but the experts refuse to say whether those identities constitute personalities. Moreover, to paraphrase a psychiatrist who helped make the changes in the manual, what makes this a tragic disease is that sufferers don’t have more than one personality; when the pieces are put together, they really have less than one.

Dissociative identity disorder and split-brain patients raise the possibility of the self’s fragmenting into several selves. Far more plausible, though, is the idea that it might occasionally make room for another self. Freudians believe that this can occur and that when it does, it may reflect profound psychopathology.

In the face of loss, we all mourn with a certain sadness and withdrawal. Most of us eventually heal. However, some people who lose someone close to them fall into prolonged and incapacitating sadness-- melancholia, to use Freud’s term, or as we would now call it, a major depression. Along with the usual symptoms of mourning, deeply depressed people typically hate themselves, claim responsibility for the death, wallow in guilt over ancient behaviors, and engage in punishingly self- destructive behavior. In the healthy state of mourning, Freud wrote, it is the world which has become poor and empty; in melancholia it is the ego itself.

Why should mourning give way to incapacitating sadness and self- hatred? The root, Freud thought, lay in ambivalence. The mourner not only loved but also hated the dead person. Critically, the loss leaves the depressive unconsciously angry--at being abandoned by the dead person, over their previous conflicts, at the impossibility of ever resolving those conflicts. Out of anger, the depressive makes room within for aspects of the dead. With the emotional adversary gone, there is no choice but to reconstruct the lost person internally and then carry on the battle.

And, as Freud also observed, the depressive mourner internalizes not just any features of the lost individual but those that were the most hated. If one listens patiently to a melancholic’s many and various self- accusations, Freud wrote, one cannot in the end avoid the impression that often the most violent of them are hardly at all applicable to the patient himself, but that with insignificant modifications they do fit someone else, someone whom the patient loves or has loved or should love. By carrying on the traits, one can still argue (You see, don’t you hate when I do that? Can you believe I put up with that for 50 years?) and, through the terrible pain of a major depression, punish oneself for arguing.

Science, then, has only occasionally considered cases of the self’s fragmenting or withering sufficiently to make room for another, cases in which more than one self might dwell in one body. There has been even less concern for the possibility of one self’s occupying more than a single body. And, all things considered, these musings haven’t generated much scientific certainty about what really constitutes a self.

I myself was neither certain of the definition nor particularly interested in the question until recently, when my father reached the end of his life. Then all at once I found the boundaries of self collapsing around my ears. At first I felt I could use the discourse of science to explain my experience fully, viewing its extreme manifestations as pathology.

As my father aged, he suffered cognitive problems secondary to neurological damage. Often he could not name the decade, his location, or even his grandchildren. His ego boundaries began to dissolve as well, and gradually he purloined bits of my life, the life of his only son. There were similarities already. Long ago he had done medical research, as I do now. He had been a professor, as I am. We had always shared tastes, styles, and temperaments, but now the details of our lives began to intertwine. When I moved to San Francisco, his point of entry into the United States in 1919 switched to San Francisco from New York’s Ellis Island, and his first view of America included a Golden Gate Bridge that had not yet been built. His medical research, cut short by the Depression, had been in cancer biology, but now he was full of contentless memories of an interest in neurobiology, my subject.

I don’t believe it was competitiveness or a need for us to have more in common--we had too much in common already. It was easy to see me as a version of him without the bad luck of refugee status, world wars, and the Depression, privileged with the rewards that his obsessive hard work had provided me, looking forward to perhaps a half century of life ahead, while his shadows lengthened. As the fog of his disorientation swept in, he clung to my stories, becoming less certain of where he ended and I began.

This felt more than a bit intrusive, but I defended myself with an armamentarium of diagnoses and detached, condescending understanding. Another feature of the demented patient, I’d imagine myself lecturing, that one occasionally sees. . . . At night he’d wander the house in agitation, sure he saw angry strangers or long-dead colleagues. His confusion about which of the two of us was falling in love with California redwoods seemed the least of his problems. Cut the guy some slack, I thought; there’s been some neurological damage.

His recent death knocked me off my diagnostic high horse: suddenly I was the one who had problems with boundaries. It started manageably enough. I began to spout my father’s sayings and take on his mannerisms. This was not Freudian melancholia--while I was plenty sad, I wasn’t clinically depressed, and the behaviors of his that I seized weren’t the ones that had irritated me for decades with a competitive itch. They were the insignificant quirks that had made him who he was. I found myself arranging the utensils as he had, or humming his favorite Yiddish tune, and soon I had forsaken my own blue flannel shirts and put on his. I developed an interest in his profession, architecture, absentmindedly drawing floor plans of my apartment.

At first my reactions seemed reasonable. When I was younger, I would have bristled at signs that I carried bits of him in me. Over the years, though, I had become reconciled to our differences and similarities, and now I felt I could pay him homage without my earlier bile. Then things took a troubling turn.

Just after his death, when I spent a week of mourning at the family house, the magnitude of his final frailty was brought home to me by the little bottles of nitroglycerin that were stored everywhere, placed so that they’d never be out of reach. I took one back to California and, disturbingly, found I needed to keep it with me. I would make love to my wife, work out in the gym, attend a lecture, and always the bottle would be nearby. One day I misplaced it briefly, and everything stopped for an anxious search. I felt an urgent sense of danger. Was my heart now diseased, or was it his diseased heart somewhere inside me that I vigilantly stood by to medicate?

What the hell was going on? I don’t believe in gods, angels, or the transmigration of souls. I don’t believe in souls for that matter, or in flying saucers either. Was it my hard-assed individualism that was making me feel unnerved by this intermingling? Or could it have been my father’s?

The height of the confusion came a month later, as I was lecturing. Though my class, with its 400 undergraduates, was large and impersonal, many of the students had expressed warm, supportive thoughts after my father died, and I had come to feel close to them. At the end of the year’s final lecture, I thought to tell them about what a spectacular lecturer my father had been, to pass on some of what I had learned from his teaching. I intended a eulogy, but something became confused, and soon, wearing his shirt, I was lecturing for him, offering the frail advice of an octogenarian.

I warned them to expect setbacks amid their ambitious plans, because every commitment would entail turning their backs on many others. I told them that though they wanted to change the world, they should prepare for the inconceivable--someday they would become tired. This was not me speaking, still with a sheltered optimism, but him with his weathered disappointments. At the end, wondering whether so much emotion was setting me up for one of his angina attacks, I said good-bye for him to an ocean of 20-year-olds rippling with life and future. And that night I put away the nitroglycerin.

During that month, my head swam with unlikely disorders from my textbooks to explain this intermingling. Now, a year later, safe again on my battlefield of individuation, that time has begun to make more sense to me. I feel sure what I went through does not require a diagnosis, and I no longer believe that my father’s confusion about the boundaries between the two of us really had to do with his neurological problems. It is a measure of the pathological consequences of my training as a scientist that I saw pathology where there was none, and a measure of the poverty of our times that I could feel only as a brief flicker something intrinsic to human experience.

I have occasionally been able to observe that flicker burning more robustly. As part of my research, I have worked intermittently in an East African game park for l7 years. Often I accompany one or another of my African friends to his home in some hamlet clinging to a mountainside. Invariably, when I do, I notice that in his home my friend has become an outsider like me. The ones I know are the ones who left--the second sons, the restless ones, the ones who got some schooling and a far-off job, who find themselves stumbling over words in their mother tongue, bringing home new ways and a white friend.

And my friends have always left the same sort of world, a world with one old man whom everyone recognizes as the archetypal Old Man, one damaged village idiot wandering the slopes, one wife-beating drunkard. At my friend’s house I always meet the older brother, the first son, the one who stayed. He sits next to his aging father: two farmers who speak no English or Swahili, who have been to the county seat once, perhaps, but no farther. They grunt phlegmatically in unison, half amused and half puzzled by some hyperverbal story my friend tells about the big city.

It is a world without our Western frenzy for individuation, where no parent thinks I want better for my kids and it is absurd to ask a child what he or she wants to grow up to be. No one there views joining the family business as a worrisome lack of independence. In this tough world, you’re lucky if you wind up farming the same land and raising your kids the same way your parents did, or if, as these older brothers do, you turn into your parent, your identities melding.

Thomas Mann captured this sense of continuity in his novel Joseph and His Brothers, in which an old servant named Eliezer uses the first person to narrate the experiences of an earlier Eliezer--the servant of the biblical patriarch Abraham. It was perceived as normal, Mann tells us, that the old man’s ego was not quite clearly demarcated, that it opened at the back, as it were, and overflowed into spheres external to his own individuality both in space and in time; embodying in his own experience events which . . . ought actually to have been put into the third person. As he ages, the present-day Eliezer becomes the mythic one, and the community expects him to do so.

Every traditional community must have its archetypes: Eliezer, the wise servant; Esau and Jacob, brothers battling for an ailing father’s blessing; Abraham, the ur-patriarch. These needs transcend individual rights to a bounded ego, and people in traditional communities are named and raised as successive incarnations. In such societies, Abraham always lives 900 years--he simply finds a new body to inhabit now and then. This is not Jaynes’s society of bicameral minds innocent of a sense of self. Instead the self exists, but it’s subordinated to something bigger and tribal.

We no longer reverence continuity, and to feel even a glimmer of it, as I did, requires an emotional crisis, perhaps coupled with some tempering. My students usually come with ego boundaries like exoskeletons. Most have no use for religion, precedents, or tradition. They want their rituals newly minted and shared horizontally within their age group, not vertically over time. The ones I train to become scientists go at it like warriors, overturning reigning paradigms, each discovery a murder of their scientific ancestors. If I have trained them well, I must derive whatever satisfaction I can from the inevitability of becoming their oedipal target someday. These students are right on maturational schedule in believing they can reinvent the world within themselves, and if they should happen to find themselves confused as to where they end and another person begins, they know they are dealing with something scientifically, certifiably abnormal.

I’ve become less certain, myself. I can still do without religion, but some ritual would be nice. There are other changes, too. I watch these damn kids sprint past me when I play soccer, and I fumble for an answer to a Jeopardy question the high school contestants jump on. My beard is getting some white; my spine has probably started shrinking. Another few birthdays and it will be prudent to have a physician regularly poke around my prostate. I begin to think my ego-bounded self is not such a hot deal anymore.

A tribal mind-set cannot be reattained; we cannot turn back. It can only come as an echo of what it feels like to be swaddled in continuity, a hint in our individuated world that a bit of confusion about ego boundaries can be an act of health, of homage and love. An experience like my father’s and mine is a lesson, amid our ever-expanding array of scientific labels, about the risks of overpathologizing. It might not be so bad--it could even be a point of pride--if in the end someone mistakes you for him.

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