Individuality


Stuff I couldn’t stuff into the book,
but that I think is pretty interesting…

(mostly on the brain science around Individuality)

As connected as we humans are to others, our brains spend an awful lot of time and effort trying to make us different from each other. Every person is naturally unique and that uniqueness manifests itself in almost everything we do. Individuality and Society are in a bit of a politician-and-lobbyist relationship—one can’t survive without the other: our natural individuality is probably one of the main reasons that our brains have had to develop so many techniques for connecting to other people; however, our brains developed natural sociability for only one real purpose—to protect the individual.

First a caveat: the Goods of Individuality and Equality are highly related in some ways—especially in our common usage of the terms. “I want what is equal” usually means don’t treat me badly. Nevertheless, they are two separate Goods with separate brain functions and psychological manifestations. And in decision-making, they are often at odds with each other. Individuality is “I can do whatever I want even if you can’t do it” versus Equality which is basically that “I should get everything you get.” The Cold War, the Vietnam War, and the Chinese Revolution were all about the philosophical divide of Communism and Democracy: basically, Equality versus Individuality—highly related yet often at odds.


Are you me?

Physiologically each of us is very different from any other human being. We know that. But what is interesting is how our brains know we’re different from someone else and yet can sympathize and empathize with others. Some parts of the brain are specifically devoted to understanding what others are thinking and feeling—that is what makes us value Relationships so highly. Nonetheless, different parts of the brain also help us to keep ourselves separate from the rest—generally protecting our own well-being first before caring for others. The temporoparietal junction (TPJ) is a place in the brain that is busy interpreting inputs from all over the place and making sense of it for us. It is also key to keeping ourselves and others separate in our own minds.

One interesting study (Blanke et al, “Neuropsychology: Stimulating illusory own-body perceptions.” Nature, v. 419, 2002) reported on surgeons who were trying to locate the proper part of a patient’s brain for an epilepsy treatment. When they stimulated a part of the parietal lobe (the angular gyrus), the patient reported an out of body experience. She said she was floating about two meters above the bed and told the doctors “I see myself lying in bed, from above, but I only see my legs and lower trunk.” (p. 269) The authors determined that the TPJ is really behind the brain’s interpretations of self and other. It is the part of the brain that makes sure that I see me as me—not as someone else. I’m glad my TPJ has been intact so far, but it would be cool to see myself from across the room someday!

But even with a TPJ intact and working well, damage to the ventral prefrontal cortex—particularly during childhood—has been long known to inhibit a person’s ability to relate to others. (Price et. al. “The compartmental learning disabilities of early frontal lobe damage. Brain, v. 113, 1990) Without this area working properly, we would become too individualistic—lacking inhibition and exhibiting excessive egocentric behavior.

Making individuality happen

One of my favorite learnings from my entire college experience came from the book, Asylums (1961). Author Erving Goffman pointed out that when people are incarcerated in prisons or mental institutions and lose their ability to choose when and how they conduct their personal life, they turn instead to “stashes”—secret items of little or no value. Inmates hide things under mattresses, in crevasses in the floor or in a wall. If they can’t keep property hidden, they’ll resort to things like wearing a stretched out sock—one that doesn’t look like anyone else’s. If we don’t get to keep our stashes, we’re much more likely to go crazy. We need markers in this world to express our individuality.

Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, professors at the University of Rochester, proposed a Self-Determination Theory, which while arguing for some balance between autonomy and relatedness, makes it clear that it is not healthy for us when we aren’t allowed to exhibit our individual personalities and competences.

Every person has a different level of individualistic need. In fact, whole cultures can be found to be quite different on this measure. I remember telling a Japanese friend a story about one of my teenage solo camping trips into the Utah mountains; I reveled in the exhilaration and freedom I experienced by being completely alone—not even seeing another human being for most of that time. My college-aged Japanese friend just got more and more agitated as I continued with the story. The look on his face was not mirroring my feelings about the experience; in fact, the look on his face was one of utter … fear. It turns out that he couldn’t understand why anyone would want to go anywhere where no one else was. To him, the idea of being out-and-out alone was a terrifying prospect—the source, as it turned out, of many of his real nightmares.

Japanese individualists?

I launched my lifelong interest in Japanese versus American individuality during a visit to the Polynesian Cultural Center in Hawaii. As the lights came down and the audience awaited the start of the evening show, an announcer asked that there be no flash photography, as it would ruin the experience for others in the audience. When the first performers streamed onto the stage of the amphitheater, about two-thirds of the audience was aglitter, but not a single stray flash from the third of the audience to my left. Only when the lights came up for intermission did I realize why. There was a Japanese tour group filling the left side of the auditorium—all with cameras around their necks, every single one of them obeying the injunction not to take flash photographs.

That experience launched me into a study of juvenile delinquency in Japan. I spent the summer before my senior year of college riding with a motorcycle gang in Tokyo where I witnessed a lot of criminal and antisocial behavior: gang fights, property destruction, drug abuse and trafficking, etc. I was trying to understand what made an “individualist” in Japan tick, but I never answered that question because I was never sure I had found an “individualist.” Instead, it seemed to me that my motorcycle buddies had just traded in the Relationships found in educational institutions (they were not very book-smart) for the Relationships of the gang. Once accepted into the posse, they exhibited very little Individuality. The oldest member of the group ended up being the leader—and made final decisions, but tenures were short. Because legal, permanent criminal record could not be established until the member turned twenty, gang members always “retired” the day before their twentieth birthdays. The next oldest gang member would take over as leader on that day and be in charge for a couple of months until his 20th birthday—during which time he accumulated very little individual power.

I have since learned that Japanese do have a need for Individuality, but exhibited in different ways than it might be in the West—like the example of the woman in the First Class lounge in the previous chapter. These methods of individual expression may be one of the reasons that Tokyo has become the fashion trend Mecca for the world.

Individuality is a component into every single decision we make. We can’t be human without its strong, persuasive influence.

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