Emory neuroscientist questions storytelling and identity in new book

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Drawing on new research in neuroscience, social science and psychiatry, Emory neuroscientist Gregory Berns shows how our histories and identities are temporary and therefore constantly changing.

Gregory Berns, professor of psychology at Emory, keeps rewriting the story of his life. He obtained a doctorate in bioengineering, became a doctor and then a practicing psychiatrist before focusing on computational neuroscience. His research using functional magnetic resonance imaging has explored everything from how the human brain decides to “sell itself” to the effects of reading a novel on the brain.

For the past decade, he has focused on using fMRI to understand canine cognition. He was the first to train dogs to enter an fMRI machine and stay awake, unrestrained and perfectly still during scans. This work has provided insight into how man’s best friend deals with smells, words, quantities of objects, and food rewards versus praise.

He became a bestselling author with the publication of “How Dogs Love Us” in 2013. His other popular books include “What It’s Like to Be a Dog,” “Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently” and “Satisfaction: Seeking sensations, novelty and the science of fulfilment.

Like many people during the COVID-19 pandemic, Berns took a long hard look at his life and work and decided to make some major changes. He moved with his family to a farm, about an hour south of Atlanta, where he cares for three dogs, four chickens and a small herd of seven cattle.

He has also written another book, “The Self Delusion: The New Neuroscience of How We Invent – and Reinvent – Our Identities”, published by Basic Books on October 18. In the following Q&A, he discusses the book and how it reflects the changing trajectory of his own life.

Why did you make this book?

I’ve always wanted to write about some of the research I did many years ago on how reading fiction changes the brain. The book became more about how stories make us who we are.

I can break down the question, ‘who am I?’ as a teacher, father, farmer, but these are only labels. The parts alone do not constitute the self. Our identity is the story we tell ourselves and others about our lives. This story is the glue that connects the things that happen to us and the things that we do.

What is the scientific evidence for this hypothesis?

The book brings together some of the latest research on how the brain builds memory and narrative. The brain is not a high fidelity video recorder of everything that happens to us. Instead, it captures snapshots, or a highlight reel, of our lives. The role of the story is to fill in all the intermediate spaces to build an identity that makes sense to us.

Some work done here at Emory shows how childhood memories are formed and the importance of family stories in this process. Children who hear lots of detailed stories are proven to have richer memories of their childhood. The implication is that the stories become part of them.

Not just family histories, but fairy tales and other stories we have heard provide an interpretive pattern of our lives that stays with us. The stories you consume, even as an adult, shape who you are and who you think you are. I use the phrase “You are what you eat”.

Can you change your identity by changing the narrative?

If you want to change your identity, you have to change the narrative. Even though it’s hard to do, realizing that you can is the first step.

People sometimes feel like they’ve always been the same central person, that the person they were as a child is just a younger version of themselves. But really, the only basis for that feeling is the stories you have in your head. On a physical level, there’s no way to tell you’re the same because your body and brain have changed so much.

What advice do you have for people who want to change their personal stories?

“The Self Delusion” is philosophical and not a self-help book. But I give some potential exercises that might inspire someone to reinvent themselves.

One exercise is to think of yourself in the present and imagine that you have a clone of yourself with an exact replica of your brain with all your memories. You have two choices. You can stay in your current life, in which case you will write your clone’s story. Or your clone can take your place, and then you will write the story of yourself in a new life. Which would you choose and why?

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the book and your identity?

The author who started writing this book in 2019 before the pandemic hit is not the author who finished it this year.

COVID has certainly changed everyone in one way or another. We had this major disruption in life. Many people died. Technology has changed. I thought, “Do I want to go back and pick up the pieces of my research and what I was doing? Or do I want to break up with this version of me?

I decided that I wanted to do something different. The world has changed. New interests and questions tugged at me.

What is your new life story?

I moved to a farm and immersed myself in questions surrounding the sustainability of modern life. The farm is 85 acres. About 20 acres is pasture and the rest is woods and wetlands. It’s a magical place, a miniature ecosystem with a bit of everything.

I started thinking that maybe I could do something to make the world a little better using my background in decision making and animal cognition. That’s all I can say for now as I’m still working on a story about a new version of myself.

Interview conducted by Carol Clark

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