My wife’s uncle is family famous for saying in his eighties “I feel like I’m nineteen but something is horribly wrong with my body.”
If you are under 40 you probably won’t understand this essay. People over 40, as they begin to feel older, often report that although their bodies are aging, their minds feel no different than when they were teenagers. And I too, at sixty-two, feel like I’m the same person in all my memories, even the oldest. But is that really true? Are we mentally the same our whole life? Do our bodies age, but not our organ of self-awareness? Can we stay young at heart even after we start falling apart? I’m already having memory problems I never had as a kid, but I feel like I’m that same kid, just with a flaky memory.
I am intrigued by this organ of awareness that thinks it’s always young. Is that our brain? Our soul? Our identity?
We feel like we’re looking out our eyes, hearing through our ears, touching with our fingers, tasting with our tongue and smelling with our nose, but we know that if we lost our eyes, ears, fingers, tongue and nose we’d still exist inside our head as long as our body could keep our brain alive. Oliver Sacks writing in The Mind’s Eye, tells stories about blind people who continue to see by living in a virtual reality inside of their head.
For convenience’s sake, I’d like to call that organ of awareness in our head, the soul, even though I’m an atheist. It’s such a lovely word – the soul. Our sense of identity resides in our soul. We know we can shut the soul off with sleep or drugs, or distort it’s working ability with disease, drugs, stress, and injury to the brain. But for most of our lives, if we’re lucky, our soul feels unchanging.
Is our sense of identity unchanging? And what is identity? We all feel like a little being riding around in the head of a body, sitting just behind the eyes, looking out, and steering our body through life. I’m reminded of a bunch of old sayings:
- Inside I feel just like I did when I was young
- If I knew then what I know now
- If I had to do it again I wouldn’t change a thing
- If I had to do it again I’d do everything different
- Youth is wasted on the young
I think we do change, and I offer one bit of evidence and a thought experiment to explore this question. Back in September 1966, The Monkees premiered on television and my sister and I absolutely loved that show. Now in 2013, The Monkees are in reruns and when I catch an episode I’m horrified that I could have ever admired that show, much less watch it for more than ten seconds. How can the Me I remember feeling just like the Me of today love a show then that I hate now? The only way to explain that would be to say neither the body or the mind are part of our soul or identity. Since I’m an atheist I don’t believe in souls that survive the death of the body, or move between bodies in reincarnation, but I’m willing to call that feature of our being that feels self-aware consciousness the soul. But are souls unchanging?
To answer this question I’ll offer a thought experiment. Imagine you could send your soul back in time to replace the soul of your younger self, would your older soul follow the same path as the younger soul first took? Pick a month in your past and use the Internet and your memories to recreate everything you can about that month, all the personal encounters, all the activities, all the pop culture pleasures, and imagine whether or not you would have followed the same path or diverged.
Life and Family and Friends
I was fourteen and my sister twelve, when my mother took us to live in Charleston, Mississippi at the end of summer 1966, just before school started. Aunt Let and Uncle Russell lived outside of Charleston, in the country. I don’t know why my mother moved us there. I remember my parents fighting all the time, but I don’t remember them talking divorce, but that might have been the case. We had been moving around so much all my life that it was just another move. By the end of March, 1967, we moved back to Miami, reuniting with my Dad. He died in May of 1970, and those last years were miserable for all us when it came to family relations.
In September of 1966 I was a fourteen year old kid who survived by hiding out in science fiction books, AM Top 40 rock music, and watching television. I quickly made two friends, Ben White and Mack Peters. I had crushes on several girls I was afraid to talk to but who lived constantly in my fantasies. I remember those eight months – August through March – very fondly, but I had a well honed coping mechanism. If my 62 year old self had to live those same eight months he (it?) would have reacted much differently.
The 2013-me would have loved and sympathized with my parents far more than the 1966-me, but wouldn’t have put up with their bullshit. I hid from their emotional hurricane when I was young. If my current soul could have seen their suffering I’m positive I would have reacted completely different. I’m pretty sure I would have been far more empathetic to their lives, but I also would have told them everything they never wanted to hear from a fourteen year old son. It wouldn’t have been nice. I would have told them to get their shit together, or get a divorce, and either way, I wanted the bus fare back to Miami so I could go live with my grandmother. Over the years I realized that if I knew then what I know now I would have divorced my parents at age twelve. Even now, I’m not sure what would have been best for Becky, my sister.
Do our souls change with experience and knowledge? Are our souls the knowledge and experience we collect? Then why don’t we feel like we’re aging on the inside? Or are our souls the organ of awareness that just surveys knowledge and experience and that’s why we don’t feel it aging?
When it comes to friends, I’m pretty sure my present self could not have been friends with any of the people I remembered. At fourteen I was already an atheist and liberal, and the racism of the small town Mississippi life revolted me, but I was too chicken back then to be confrontational. I was already reading about LSD and was looking forward to when I could try it. I remember a January, 1967 issue of Popular Science magazine that had an article about a guy trying LSD in a clinical situation that changed my attitude about drugs. My time in Mississippi was just before the Summer of Love, and I was already reading everything I could in Time, Newsweek and Life about the counter-culture. My 14 year-old self kept quiet then, but my 62 year-old self wouldn’t.
If for some Peggy Sue Got Married reason I found myself back in the past I would have done everything different. But then, does doing things different, and thinking different, really mean my soul was different? If our soul is only a mechanism of perception that feels the body, and listens to what the brain thinks, it still might change – and even evolve over time. Hinduism teaches we are here lifetime after lifetime to educate our immortal soul. Lovely concept, but I don’t believe it – but can we educate our mortal soul? Or is it merely a viewing mechanism?
There are things that shuts the soul off. It happens every time we fall asleep, or pass out drunk, or go unconscious because of sickness or drugs – or death. Our souls can break down because of stress and torture, or come apart because of disease or drugs. So why shouldn’t they change because of new learning experiences?
September 1966, the month The Monkees premiered, many other famous television shows premiered too: The Smother’s Brothers Show, The Girl From U.N.C.L.E., The Invaders, ABC Stage 67, The Dating Game, That Girl, Star Trek, The Time Tunnel, Tarzan, The Newlywed Game, and Mission: Impossible. I also watched, sometimes with my family, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, Bonanza, The Ed Sullivan Show, Candid Camera, What’s My Line, Gilligan’s Island, I Dream of Jeannie, The Lucy Show, The Andy Griffith Show, Combat, The Fugitive, The Red Skelton Hour, Petticoat Junction, Lost in Space, The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, Gomer Pyle, The Virginian, I Spy, F Troop, My Three Sons, Daniel Boone, Hogan’s Heroes, Twelve O’clock High, The Avengers, The Jackie Gleason, Flipper, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, Get Smart, Gunsmoke and Saturday Night at the Movies.
I’ve always considered the 1966/1967 television season one of the best ever, if not the best. Many of my cherish memories of growing up come from watching those shows. Yet, I find them all painful to watch today. If somehow I could go back in time I wouldn’t watch 1966 TV at all. That would have disconnected me from family and friends. My whole timeline, life and personality would have changed.
Does this mean that my soul has changed over the years, or have I just gotten used to more sophisticated TV? I still love TV. I love binge TV watching, so I’ve not become an intellectual snob. In 1966 I loved those television shows. They were highly addictive, but when I catch reruns of them today their stories seem way too slow, simple and obvious. I sometimes feel a twinge of nostalgia, but I’m way to impatient to watch them. And many of them, like The Monkees, F Troop, Gilligan’s Island, etc. horrify me. I can’t believe I ever had a mind that could like them, much less love them. Star Trek stands out as being among the most intellectually ambitious of the bunch, but it’s absolutely painful to watch today.
I really don’t think I’m the same soul. Maybe I have an old body, an older mind, and an older soul?
We like to think of ourselves as being the same person our whole life, but this thought experiment makes me doubt that. I once read that it takes about seven years for all the cells in our body to change out. If everything physical is new every few years how can we be mentally or spiritual the same? Could our soul be like a computer program that can be replicated, but also patched and rewritten?
It’s much harder to pinpoint the books I read in September of 1966. I was limited to my school library, and a tiny, two room Charleston, Mississippi town library. I didn’t get to buy books. I’d join the Science Fiction Book Club in early 1967, but at this time, I was limited to libraries. I loved Robert A. Heinlein, and would read whatever I could find. I brought a few paperbacks with me from Miami, Florida. I can remember one author I discovered at the Charleston Library, George Adamski, and I’m terribly embarrassed to admit it. I was reading books about flying saucers. I also was reading about cryogenics, but remember no specific books. I joined the science club at school and I proposed two experiments. One was to get a weather balloon and launch it with lights and see how many people reported it as a flying saucer, and two, get some liquid nitrogen to freeze frogs and see if we could revive them. The big lumbering husky 4H boys in their bib overalls probably thought I was one whacked out puny four-eyed city kid.
Of the writers that existed back then that I’ve come to love since, like Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Jack Kerouac, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, George Elliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald – if I had tried to read any of them I would have failed to enjoy them. But is that really true? Two years later, in the 12th grade, I read and loved Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, The Stranger by Camus and Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. And a year after that I was reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X and On the Road by Jack Kerouac.
Could it be our minds, our souls, reflect the pop culture we consume? To be the soul that loves 1966 television meant I couldn’t be a soul that loved classic American and English literature!
If I could have given my 12 year old self novels to prepare him for girls, I wished I had discovered Pride and Prejudice, Great Expectations, Middlemarch and The Way We Live Now. They would have been far more useful than the science fiction I was reading to prepare me for the future.
Music is the monkey wrench in my theory. I routinely play the music I listened to in 1966 today. It still resonates with me at a very deep level. I have learned to love many other kinds of music since, and I do believe if I could send my 1966 soul Miles Davis or Mahler he too would have loved their music. Music is where the past me and the current me overlap the most. That’s hard to explain.
Living in Charleston, Mississippi in 1966, a small town with no theater, took me out of the movie world for nine months. In fact, the television was so exciting that season that I don’t remember watching many old movies, or even newer movies on NBC Saturday Night at the Movies. I remember my cousin Robert and his wife Charlotte let me stay with them in Memphis for my 15th birthday that November and they took me to see Fantastic Voyage at the drive-in in their 1962 Chevy Corvair. I had seen Our Man Flint in Miami at the beginning of 1966, and it was one of my favorites for the year. Most of the other movies for 1966 I saw years later on TV. If my present day self was stuck in 1966 I would have wanted to see Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Sand Pebbles, A Man for All Seasons and Blow Up – all flicks my younger self wouldn’t have liked.
Results of the Experiment
The next time I feel the urge to tell a young person I feel the exact way I did in my head at 16 that I do now, I’m going to pause, and try to stop myself. Yes, I do feel that way, but only if I don’t analyze the details. I think if I could be magically thrown back into the head of my younger self it would feel like an intense drug trip. The restless energy, emotions, hormones, fears, pleasures, would overwhelm me. Getting an erection countless times a day at the slightest thought or sight of anything female would drive 2013-me insane. I’m not sure about this, but I get the feeling I must have had more thoughts per minute than I do now – so switching bodies would feel like doing speed. I think the combination of a racing mind and constant horniness would short our my present soul if it was plugged into my younger body.
I don’t like that my body is getting old and failing, but on the other hand, I quite enjoy where my soul is at. Having my soul travel back in time would be uncomfortable, like time traveling to a time before air conditioning, the Internet, indoor plumbing and antibiotics.
No, I don’t feel like I did when I was young. I do, but it’s an illusion. So why do we fool ourselves? I don’t know, but I might explore the idea in the future.
JWH – 12/27/13