Academic journal article Journal of Prenatal & Perinatal Psychology & Health

Constructing the Self: A Neuroanthropological Account

Academic journal article Journal of Prenatal & Perinatal Psychology & Health

Constructing the Self: A Neuroanthropological Account

Article excerpt

The Anthropology of the Self

My brain and I are inseparable. I am who I am because my brain is what it is. Even so, I often think about my brain in terms different from those I use when thinking about myself. I think about my brain as that and about myself as me. I think about my brain as having neurons, but I think of me as having a memory. Still, I know that my memory is all about the neurons in my brain. Lately, I think about my brain in more intimate terms - as me. (Churchland, 2013, p.ll)

The anthropology of the self has gained momentum recently and has produced a significant body of research relevant to interdisciplinary transpersonal studies. lAlong with this upsurge of interest has come considerable confusion over just what constitutes the self. Contemporary anthropology offers very little in the way of a paradigmatic school of thought about self. Aside from remnants of the early 20th century impact of Freud on psychological anthropology, the discipline really has not developed a theoretically coherent approach to the self. Anthropology offers nothing in the way of a depth psychology of the self, nothing like Jungian archetypal psychology or Kohutian self-psychology around which to organize research, to test hypotheses, and to explain patterns. With the possible exception of medical anthropology, anthropology is largely a natural science with very little input from either experimental research or clinical practice. However, what anthropology does offer is information about how non-Western peoples experience, conceptualize, and talk about the self. This ethnographic perspective perforce broadens understanding of the ways people have come to develop psychologically and to know themselves. It is the aim of this paper to provide pre- and perinatal researchers with an array of conceptual tools designed to enhance their understanding of self, especially as it relates to the advanced spiritual practices of non-Western societies.

Self: First Steps toward a Definition

The word "self' is, of course, an English term, which has its own distinct history of use and meaning. Etymological dictionaries indicate that the word comes from the Old English self, seolf, sylf (one's own person, same) and is related via Proto-Indo-European selbaz to the Old Norse sjalfr, Old Frisian self, Dutch zelf, Old High German selb, and Gothic silba. The Old English form was emphatic, expressing "(I) myself," "(he) himself," and so forth, and implied reference to both a physicalspatial meaning (self and no-self) and a temporal meaning (same self through time; "I am the same person today as I was yesterday;" see Brockelman, 1985, p. 81). Today one uses the word self to refer to a person's essential being, that which distinguishes them from others, and especially understood as the object of introspection or reflexive action. Implied in the term is the phenomenological "sense of self," self as directly experienced as distinct from other. Moreover, one can signal the continuity of self through time by such phrases as "back to his old self again." Conversely, one can signal that some change has occurred in a person by phrases like "he wasn't himself today." Hence, the connotation of self implies both physical and psychological boundaries, and both physical and mental continuity through time.

It is clear that from ancient times self has had an inherently ambiguous meaning-what I will call hereafter self-as-being and self-aspsyche. One may use self to label the fact that one's entire being, including one's body, one's physical existence, is present, is bounded, is distinct from the other and has remained so through some duration of time. One may also use self to refer to the psyche and its mental faculties, including intentionality, personhood, ego, persona, feelings, and unconscious processes-perhaps also soul-and so forth, which are distinct from the mental faculties of the other, and that have remained the same "mind" through some considerable duration of time. …

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