“Stranger in the Mirror: The Scientific Search for the Self,” the latest book by social psychologist Dr. Robert V. Levine, will challenge our assumptions about who we are and the entity we call our self. The book is published by The Press at California State University, Fresno. The book can be purchased on Amazon or in the Arts and Humanities office at Fresno State, Room 186 of the Music Building.

We asked Levine some questions.

Question: You’ve been teaching and writing about social psychology for close to 40 years.  Your books have targeted one interesting topic after another, ranging from how different cultures keep time and which countries are most helpful toward strangers to the psychology of persuasion, cults and mind control. Yet you say this was the most interesting project you’ve ever worked on. Why?   

Robert Levine: Not only the most interesting but, quite unexpectedly, the longest. I began this book a good 10 years ago and I’d been studying many of the issues for a good three decades before that.

I initially expected it to be a one- or two-year project. I was going to write a book about the malleability of the self from the perspective of my home discipline of social psychology. It would be a treatise in the spirit of our guiding mantra: the power of the situation to transform people in ways that often take them by surprise, sometimes for the better but all too often for the catastrophically worse.

For background, I thought I’d dabble into a few key discoveries through the lenses of the hard sciences — anatomy, genetics, medicine, neuroscience and the like. Once I opened these doors, however, the notion of dabbling went out the window. I was absolutely blown away by what I discovered. Every step led to a new story or a research program or piece of writing or artwork that topped the one before.  It’s been a remarkable journey — as you say, the most interesting project I’ve ever worked on.  

Q: Can you give us an example?

RL: Here’s one from early on. I was working on a chapter about identical twins. I was interested in what the presence of a genetic duplicate does to one’s sense of individuality and selfhood. What does it say about the boundary between self and other?

This led me to a small group of identical twins who’d been raised apart but, for one reason or another, had met up in adulthood. I was fascinated by the stories they told about what it was like to set eyes on a person who was not only their physical mirror-image but often times their behavioral clone.

This led me to a podcast about a condition whereby an individual consists of a mosaic of two distinct genomes. One woman, for example, endured accusations of fraud when a test (in preparation for a kidney donation) revealed that her DNA didn’t match that of her son. Fortunately, a curious physician decided to conduct more detailed tests where it was discovered that the woman was composed of a mosaic of distinctly different DNA. Some of her organs showed the originally-found DNA pattern but others revealed a second pattern. This second pattern matched that of her son. The woman was a human chimera. She was, literally, biological twins. Now, what does that mean for one’s notion of a self?  

That led to an even more astonishing finding. A geneticist I was interviewing steered me toward ongoing work on a condition known as microchimerism. It turns out that, as a result of blood exchange in utero, many of us — some researchers now believe almost all of us — contain a cadre of our mother’s genetically distinct cells and she contains a cadre of ours. Psychologists argue about conditions like so-called multiple personality disorder.  But could it be that we are all, literally, multiple people?

Q: Does this mean you became less interested in the psychology?      

RL: Not at all. These perspectives reframed, redirected and pushed me beyond what I thought I knew about the self from the perspective of psychology. I was surprised, in fact, at how seamlessly the questions raised at the level of microbiology sparked new questions at the level of human experience.  

This led to other multidisciplinary journeys that carried me not only to academic social and behavioral science research but to the insights of writers and philosophers and, from there, to the revolutions created by current technology.  To continue with the genetics example: The notion of biologically multiple people led me to the world of doppelgängers and, in particular, to the razor sharp insights of writers like Dostoevsky and Robert Louis Stevenson (as in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde).

This led to other multidisciplinary journeys that carried me not only to academic social and behavioral science research but to the insights of writers and philosophers and, from there, to the revolutions created by current technology. To continue with the genetics example: The notion of biologically multiple people led me to the world of doppelgängers and, in particular, to the razor sharp insights of writers like Dostoevsky and Robert Louis Stevenson (as in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde).

But wait. Who needs fictional doppelgängers when almost anyone can now create their very own avatar? And once you begin looking into avatars, it becomes clear that, before long, technology will allow our virtual creations to manifest as three-dimensional holograms who walk among us. They won’t only appear to be real, they’ll be able to move and sound exactly like a real person — including like yourself if you so choose. As many of you as you want. How will this alter our sense of self and individuality?   

A lot of your earlier writing, notably your book “A Geography of Time,” compares the mindsets of different countries and cultures. Does culture bear on the notion of a self?

RL: Absolutely and in the most fundamental ways. People raised in the United States, for example, tend to think of themselves as unique and independent. “A man’s got to be what a man’s got to be,” as the old John Wayne cowboy used to say.

But in many parts of the world — most parts, in fact — there is a much fuzzier boundary between one’s self and other people. It’s what we refer to in social psychology as an interdependent view of the self.

In one of our own studies, for example, we asked people from different countries to draw a circle representing themselves and a series of additional circles representing other people in their lives and to then arrange the circles in a drawing that expressed how all of them fit together. Americans usually drew the biggest circle for themselves and placed it in the center of the picture, so that the other circles flared out like little satellites in their social universe. And, most telling, they almost always left spaces between the circles.  

But when I showed the American drawings to my colleague Hong Ni, who grew up in China, she found it hard to believe Americans really think this way. “The self is too big,” she said. And, “Why are there spaces between the circles?” she asked.  Hong’s comments pretty well described the drawings we received from people in countries like Japan and China, where the self was rarely the biggest circle and it almost always overlapped with one or more of the others.

Other studies have found, in fact, that people in cultures like these find it hard to answer sweeping questions like “Who are you?” They need to be offered a specific context. They have little trouble, for example, answering questions like “Who are you when you’re with your mother?” or “Who are you when you’re with your best friend?” Americans, on the other hand, can rattle off answers to the question “Who are you?” with little trouble.  

Think about this. If you were raised in the United States, you will probably spend your life feeling that you are an independent, ultimately separate human being at the center of your personal universe. If you’d happen to have been raised in Japan or China, however, you’d have little sense of personal identity except in your relationships to other people. Uniqueness and individuality wouldn’t matter much to you. It would be a fundamentally different sense of what it means to be you.

Q: Your book obviously takes a wide-ranging view of the self.  You tackle the issues from an extraordinarily broad range of disciplines at multiple levels. You also shift from academic research to anecdotes and personal experience. This can make for interesting reading but how does it fit together?

RL: Perhaps the most remarkable discovery I made along this journey was how effortlessly the findings from so many disparate disciplines led to the same overarching conclusions or, at least, the same questions. Let me list four: First, the boundaries that separate self from non-self are vague, quirky and fickle. This seems to be true no matter where we look — from the microscopic biological level, where we are literally part us, part other, all the way to the level of personal experience, where the boundaries of the self may be perceived as anywhere from the confines of one’s body to an entire village depending on who you are and how you were educated.

Second, we are more like a republic than an individual, a collection of the many and diverse. We see this in everything from our genetic underpinnings, to the voices in our heads, to the persona we present to the world. And these various selves often seem to have minds of their own. They can be self-centered, pig-headed, and unconcerned with what happens to other facets of ourselves. Sometimes, in fact, the sub-selves go into battle with each other, our own personal civil wars.

Third, we are malleable to the core. Everything about us, from our bodies to our neural circuitry to our personalities, from situation to situation and one time frame to another, is ever-changing.

Q: Just who are we, then?

RL: You mean, is there such a thing as a real self? Not really, at least not as we imagine it to be. The self is a story we tell ourselves, a narrative that gives our life meaning. It creates an identity that allows us to maneuver the world. But good storytelling shouldn’t be confused with factual reporting. The realities are vague, arbitrary and utterly intangible.  

Q: This is starting to sound depressing.  Is that what you’re suggesting?

RL: Am I saying we should all just pack up and go to the beach? Not in the least. Our changeability, in fact, is where the possibilities begin.

This brings me to my fourth theme. Fluidity creates malleability and this malleability unleashes a wealth of potential. The very features of our self that can be so confusing — its arbitrary boundaries, multiplicity and malleability — create possibilities for change.  And this, too, emerges at multiple levels, from the micro to the macro. We discover new visions of our possible selves in epigenetics, bacterial implants, organ transplants, virtual reality and other artificial technology and, I’m proud to say, through new breakthroughs in my own discipline of psychology.

The self is what we make of it. It is an act of creation. We are all heroes-in-waiting.