And who are you again?

29 09 2012

[Heavy Introspection Warning – lower humour quotient than usual. You have been warned!]

At first sight, the recent studies by Canadian scientists that male DNA can persist in female brains seems to be rich pickings for jokes of the “get out of my head”, “you’re always on my mind” kind.

Vancouver Sun – Male DNA found for first time in female brains.

There are a few theoretical ways a woman can absorb male DNA – from a male child, a male twin, even potentially an older male sibling via their mother’s womb (It’s rarely disputed that males are bad at clearing up after themselves – maybe it starts pre-birth!). The study also hints at a potential link to Alzheimer’s disease resistance.

But the interesting thing for me is the implications of “self”. Now I’ve never studied biology, psychology, or as the old BT advert with Maureen Lipman would say: any other “ology”. But even I know that we actually exist in what we blithely refer to as our mind – basically the software running in our brain. Now what this study shows is that the hardware itself – the brain – can have elements in it that are not even originally from our own body. Not just chemical, like a drug say, which is affecting how our own brain is functioning. No this is actually bits from ANOTHER body.  The study was limited, in that it was looking for male DNA in women because that was easier to spot than the DNA of their own daughter, but it’s a profound piece of data. This is different to our DNA being the result of our parents’ DNA being diced and spliced. This is separate DNA alongside that recipe we used to think of as “me”.

Not only can we change through the influence of new experiences, emotions and “data” for our mind, but perhaps the very hardware we’re running on is changing underneath us. Influencing the way we process that information.

This leads me to another discussion I recently had. One I’ve had a few times actually, about what we really are. I have this total fear of waking up completely paralysed and unable to communicate in any way. Being totally conscious and being able to sense and process my surroundings, but in no way being able to communicate with it. It frightens me. Mainly I think because I measure my worth as somehow being how I relate to other people. The implication therefore is that without being able to contribute my own thoughts, I become worthless, despite being totally cognisant and able to still generate novel thought and ideas. Would there be someone “out there”, outside my mind that would still value me? Somehow still be able to connect with me. Would I want to continue with no way of expressing myself to others? Yes – my mind has some dark little places in it. I rarely open those doors, but it’s dangerous to let things go too long without facing them.

So then if we take a less extreme situation and talk about mind-changing conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, or even just getting old generally, we see the situation where one is still interacting with the world, but perhaps in a different way to what you used to. So are you still, well, you? Arguably a different you (not meaning to prescribe any relative value here – just a different you). It’s easier for someone who never knew the previous you to accept you as you are now, but this can be a really tough transition for family and friends that have seen the differences and can contrast them and inherently place a judgement of better/worse versions.

And this makes me wonder why. Every birthday marks off another year lived. Survived. Trains, cars and rock falls avoided. But also another year of experiences absorbed and processed. These experiences change us. We may see new perspectives, feel different emotions. Many things. Perhaps we know of people who didn’t survive that year, or just barely – that impacts us too. So are we tangibly different people? If so, it’s not just an annual occurrence. We change by the day, hour, second.

And in the end, does it matter?

I think so. I think we should spend a little while every now and then and just look around. Smile at a stranger. There is only now. In a moment you’ll be a different person.

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