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You might think that while you don’t have direct access to the way your mind works—like the way your ethnicity or gender might affect your math performance or why you forget some things and remember others or why you feel sad in one situation but angry in a similar one—you do have access to your sensations. That seems right. You directly experience what red looks like. But, when we think about our internal states, we’re rarely thinking about pure sensation. Your experience of a deep red coupled with a warm floral scent, tied to soft petals and sharp thorns, is not the same as your experience of a rose. A rose is a holistic experience of color, scent, and touch. It’s the meaning we make of a set of sensory inputs. This meaning evokes a slew of other memories and feelings. A rose is never just a rose. As with a rose, so with love, boredom, or intellectual delight. These labels represent boundaries that give a sense of unity to a complex array of sensations. Discrete sensations are made into a larger, more meaningful whole.

If you believe your experience transcends individual sensations of taste, touch, smell, sight, or sound, you might also believe your self is more than your body. Want more evidence? It’s possible to create the feeling that an animate object is part of your body. If a person’s vision is manipulated so that a rubber hand seems to be where their hand would be, and then the rubber hand is touched at the same time as the person’s real hand, they will develop the partial sense that the rubber hand is part of their body. They will startle if the rubber hand is smashed by a hammer.

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Changes in our bodies do not necessitate changes in our sense of self.

In a related and telling effect that psychologists call enfacement, people are shown to connect their selves to another person’s face. Researchers create this feeling using something called Interpersonal Multisensory Stimulation, or IMS for short. That’s a very fancy way of describing the experience of watching someone have, in this case, their face touched in exactly the same way and at exactly the same time that your face is being touched.

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Psychologist Anna Sforza and her colleagues tested this phenomenon with 14 pairs of volunteers who had similar facial characteristics (e.g., were the same gender and race). While one of the participants wore a rigid white paper funnel around their eyes so they could only see the face of their partner, a trained experimenter touched both people’s faces the same way at exactly the same time with identical paintbrushes. Afterward, the person wearing the funnel was shown a series of images, starting with one of their own face followed by photos that increasingly morphed their face into their partner’s until the last photo was just their partner’s face. Interestingly, people who underwent the simultaneous touch experience tended to misidentify photos that were composed of 51 to 59 percent of their partner’s face as composed of mostly their own face. They literally saw some of their partner’s face in their selves!

In some ways the enfacement effect shouldn’t be surprising. We must have some flexibility in the connection between our selves and our bodies to allow for the fact that changes in our bodies do not necessitate changes in our sense of self. As you get older or as moles appear on your face, you have no trouble recognizing the face in the mirror as yours. On the other hand, it might come as a surprise that we can include the face of another in our selves.

From the book: Selfless by Brian Lowery. Copyright © 2023 by Brian Lowery. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Lead image: Annet_ka / Shutterstock

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