Our Experiences Make Us Who We Are

Sebastian Seung, Professor of Computational Neuroscience at MIT, coined a term and wrote a book on the connectome. He is in the process of using the technology of the MRI to map the brain, which has millions of more connections than a person’s genome has letters.

His research has led to a novel idea, your personal identity is encoded in the pattern of connections between your neurons – in short, the sum of all the experiences you have had up to this very millisecond makes you who you are. He calls this the connectome.

Even more profoundly, the relationships we have with others – our families, colleagues, teachers, fellow believers, and even the barista at Starbucks, creates the experiences that form our identity.

Taken this a step further, in our digital world, these relationships even extend to our relationships to cultural leaders like sports stars, TV personalities, politicians, and musicians.  Witness the out pouring of grief over the death of Prince, who at 57 died well before his time.  People flocked to his home and left flowers.  Cities lit up buildings and bridges in the color purple.  Saturday Night Live dedicated its whole show to showing highlights of Prince’s performances as Jimmy Fallon hosted the tribute.

Why are we so deeply moved by the loss of people to who we have never met?  Because through the experiences of listening to their music, or rooting for them to win a game, or voting for them, or following their tweets, our brains have incorporated these experiences into our very being.

Morgan Freeman’s new series on National Geographic on The Story of God explored the topic of “Who is God?” in the third episode of the series.  In one scene he takes an MRI to see if there is an evidence of God’s influence in his brain. Dr. Andy Newberg uses MRIs to see if the brain changes as a result of prayer.  After asking Freeman to meditate on God, Newberg took a scan of his brain and showed the printout to Freeman.  He pointed to before and after pictures, which showed parts of his brain lighting up after Freeman had focused on the divine.  Newberg has done this test with many people of different faiths and found similar results.  The only group that does not have this kind of result are people who have no faith – after they focus their brains, no change happens.

Newberg is convinced that his results show how the brain is affected by faith, in effect, the neurons in our brains are shaped by our faith in God.

Of course to people of faith, this should come as no surprise.  Psalm 1 says happiness is tied to what we focus on.  Those whose “delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night” are like “trees planted by stream of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.”

The connectome, the sum of all you are up to this moment, is deeply influenced by how you focus your time and the nature of your relationships.  These relationships, even if they are virtual, form your identity. The lesson is clear – how you spend your time and the ways you connect with others forms your very being – it makes you who you are.