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“Self” and “Identity”
By: Marylie W. Gerson, PhD

Neuroscience, Self, and Identity

Neuroscience, Self, and IdentityWhat do we mean when we refer to self?  Is self distinct from identity?  The constructs of self and identity have been understood and discussed historically in diverse ways.  Neuroscience research is now supporting that they are indeed distinct constructs.

Neuro-imaging research is consistent with self as reflecting right hemisphere, reflexive, nonlinguistic experience.  In contrast, identity involves left hemisphere, reflective, linguistically-mediated experience.  

Self and identity have distinct functions as well as developmental significance.  Self refers to how we experience the moment, from the perspective of “I”.  Feeling the exhilaration of reaching a mountain top, for example, would be engaging the self.  Identity reflects our experiences from the observer, or “me”, perspective.  Thinking of oneself as an adventurer would be an example of identity.  

Very young children are more likely than adults to be in touch with the self.  Clashes between self and identity are often particularly evident during adolescence–a stage of enormous neurological growth and changes.  As noted by Erikson and many other theorists, adolescence may be a time of turmoil as a life-long identity is forged.

Understanding the differences between self and identity can be helpful clinically.  To read more, view the fascinating article, “Reconsidering Self and Identity Through a Dialogue Between Neuroscience and Psychoanalytic Theory,” published in Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 24(2), 247-251, as well as the commentary with discussion, Gerson, M. J. (2014). “A meta-commentary: Response to the commentaries of Marks-Tarlow and Solow Glennon.”  Dr. Gerson discusses the empirical study of consciousness in terms of contemporary psychoanalytic concepts and argues for interdisciplinary research in which neuroscience and psychoanalysis may engage in a mutually informing dialogue.  Please contact him at to receive a free personal copy of the article.

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