We are what we are not?

Our class discussion on Tuesday about LeDoux’s chapter 3: “The Most Unaccountable of Machinery” made me really begin to question the concept of how we define the self and therefore how we define being human. We talked a lot about animals and whether or not they have selves or human-like characteristics because our brains have many similarities. Interestingly enough, I started making comparisons between this conversation and one that I recently had in my Education senior seminar, during which we discussed the deconstruction of the queer theory. While this may seem unrelated, I think there are some interesting connections to be made…

The queer theory essentially states that society has constructed a binary system of gender and sexuality identity – we are male or female and we are homosexual or heterosexual. The theory challenges us to not use these specific terms to define ourselves, but rather, to understand that everything and everyone exists on a spectrum and is situational. For example, in one situation, an individual may be acting more heterosexual than he/she would in another situation. One of the quotes that was used in our discussion was from Steven Seidman in a piece called Deconstructing queer theory or the under-theorization of the social and the ethical. He writes, “Persons or objects acquire identities only in contrast to what they are not.” This puts emphasis on these binary systems that our society has created in terms of identity. In other words, by recognizing the other, we are therefore able to identify ourselves.

So, back to neuroscience and LeDoux? Well, in many ways, we understand that we are humans because we know we are not animals. But if we try to deconstruct this idea, just as queer theory attempts to deconstruct the binary systems of gender and sexuality, what if we created a spectrum of how human an individual or animal is. On one extreme would be “human” and on the opposite would be “non-human.” We could use this to identify and define humans and animals. I’m sure we can all brainstorm scenarios in which we tend to act a bit more like animals than humans (i.e. rowdy events) or scenarios in which animals tend to act a bit more like humans (i.e. the “Christian the Lion” video).

However, would this really help us define the self and understand whether or not animals have selves? Probably not. As LeDoux writes, “The key to individuality, therefore, is not to be found in the overall organization of the brain, but rather in the fine-tuning of the underlying networks.” Even though we may be like animals and animals may be like us, we will not truly understand the ways in which we become ourselves until we understand the intricate circuits and networks in the brain.

One thought on “We are what we are not?

  1. Wonderful entry, Taylor! I really like the continuum idea when it came up in class and I think it was very thoughtful how you added in the different analysis depending on situations… like when we like animals and when animals act like us.


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