Recently, I’ve spoken at several conferences around the country about mindfulness in adolescents, attachment in families, and bringing more awareness and compassion to our digital lives. One comment in particular that I made at each of these speaking engagements seemed to garner the most curiosity and attention. The statement is this: The self is not defined by the boundaries of our skin. This idea is one discussed at the end of my most recent book, Brainstorm, in which I appeal to the adolescent or adult reading it to consider that we have both an internal, embodied identity as “me” and an interpersonal, interconnected identity as “we.” Both me and we shape our sense of self.
In order to develop an integrated identity and cultivate integration in our lives, we need to embrace and nurture differentiated aspects of our inner and interpersonal selves, and then link them with compassionate care and connecting communication. What does this mean? In terms of identity, it means you and I are more than simply a me and a we.
When we honor these different aspects of identity and link them, what emerges is a “MWe” as an integrated way of being in the world. While MWe is easy to remember and people seem to grasp the power of this simple word readily, what is the science behind such a statement?
While many scientists state something to the effect that “the mind is what the brain does”, I myself, trained as a scientist, as well as a clinician and educator, find this an incomplete stance. In The Developing Mind I make the scientifically presented case that the mind is not simply brain activity. The mind, beyond subjective experience and beyond conscious and non-conscious information processing, can be seen as a self-organizing, emergent process of a complex system. And that system is both within us and between us and others.
A complex system is characterized by these three features: it is non-linear (small inputs lead to large and unpredictable results), it is open (influenced by things from outside of “itself”), and it is chaos-capable (meaning it can function in erratic, unpredictable ways at times). Sound familiar in your life? If our own lives meet these three criteria, then we ourselves are complex systems.
Now, the math of complexity theory reveals that all complex systems have emergent properties, processes that arise from the flow of the system’s elements across time. So math—a form of science revealing aspects of reality—suggests that one of those emergent properties is self-organization. This is where a process arises from the elements of the system and then turns back and regulates that from which it arose. That’s called recursvity, how there is a positive feedback loop reinforcing itself over time.
The reason to go into all this conceptual discussion here is simply this: I believe (and cannot find any science to disprove) that an important aspect of the mind can be defined as an embodied and relational, emergent self-organizing process that regulates the flow of energy and information both within us and between and among us.
In short, the mind is an embodied and relational process that regulates the flow of energy and information.
If this proposed definition of the mind is true, then the mind is certainly not simply “enskulled” and coming only from the activity of the brain, but it is at least embodied, and likely relational as well. And then the self, as an aspect of the mind, is not only embodied, it is also relational. This is the scientifically grounded view of why I say simply, “the self is not defined by the boundaries of our skin.”
The implications of this idea are fascinating. Of the many, one that stands out for me is the interpersonal emotional experience of empathic joy, the way we can feel joyful with others’ joy, success, and happiness. Can you imagine a world in which we cultivated empathic joy instead of aggressive competition? Imagine if we could harness, for example, the courage and creativity of adolescents to take their essence of an emotional spark, social engagement, novelty, and creative explorations and have them compete with the world’s problems in a collaborative way with each other. When someone succeeds and the enemy is beaten, everyone wins.
And imagine, too, if we realize that compassion complements empathic joy. We could offer the skills of insight, empathy, and integration—what I call “mindsight”—to develop the strength to feel others’ pain, mobilize collective resources to help relieve that distress, and all benefit.
Studies are very clear: When we help others, we all win. Compassion and Empathic joy are the outcomes of integration. And these are the realization of the fact that our “self” is both embodied and relational—we are more than the boundaries of our skin.
And with this integrated way of being, we all can reap the benefits of living authentically and cultivating connection with a deeper and wider sense of self as a MWe. MWe can do this, and together we can!
This was previously published on Psychology Today.