A common sentiment among older people is they still feel young inside, just like when they were teenagers, but it’s their body that’s aging. I feel that too, but yesterday it occurred to me that I have changed because of a conversation I had with my friend Mike. We were talking about how bad the old TV show The Monkees was – it’s in reruns on Antenna TV. Back in 1966, when I was 14, my sister and I loved that show. Watching it now makes me think I must have been brain damaged!
The Monkees is a horrendous TV show. It makes Gilligan’s Island feel like Shakespeare, and that’s another old show I loved as a kid but can’t stand now. So I can’t really say I feel like I did when I was young, something has changed. But why do I feel unchanged?
If I think about it I can come up with all kinds of ways I’ve changed. When I was a kid I did stupid things like own a motorcycle, hitch-hike and take drugs, none of which I would do now. I now think a much wider range of women are attractive, but that’s true of food, music, books, etc. The more I think about it, the more I realize that I’m not the person I was when I was young. So why do we feel we are?
I think the tendency is to feel that we’re a little soul driving around inside our head, steering our body until it turns into a rusted old junker. Now I guess some people feel they are different inside as they age, but I think a lot of people don’t. What causes that feeling? It just occurred to me that I’ve reread things I wrote decades ago and felt I was reading someone else’s writing. Are our inner beings unconnected to our thinking and opinions too, like they are from the body?
Is there a me inside of my body that’s unchanging even though my body changes, my tastes change, my opinions change, my skills change, and so on? I know when I’m sick I can feel the me-ness shrink inside, like its being physically assaulted, but the uniqueness stays there no matter how much pain or nausea I feel until I pass out. When I fall asleep the me goes away, but a tiny bit of it exists in dreams. When I’ve had surgery and have been put under, it feels like the me has been shut off like a light switch and then suddenly turned back on.
It’s interesting to think of the me, the part of me that’s self-aware, is separate from my opinions and tastes. There’s a science fictional concept called downloading, where people imagine having their brains recorded and then burned into a clone’s brain or digital computer. They think of this as a form of immortality, but what if the me is a mechanism of the brain that doesn’t copy? What if the me is the equivalent of a tape-head, and not the tape? So experiences flow past it but it doesn’t change with them?
But that doesn’t explain why I loved The Monkees in 1966 and hate it in 2011. It implies that it’s not the tape head, or that the tape head does change over time. Even though I feel like I’m the same person at 59 as I was a 19 that might be a delusion. If I could put my 59 year old brain back into my 19 year old body would would I keep my wisdom or turn foolish? Of course, if I could I put my 59 year old brain back into my 14 year old body would I start loving The Monkees again? I don’t think so.
I’ve read that people with brain damage feel like different people. I’m guessing the brain is what feels homey and constant, and it’s the physical body that feels different with aging, and the informational content of the brain that makes my tastes change. What I worry about is having a stroke or getting Alzheimer’s and losing part of my me-ness. I’m already used to my body breaking down. And I’m getting used to forgetting information in my brain, which doesn’t hurt by the way. But I don’t relish losing that feeling of unchanging me-ness. But sometimes the me dies before the body.
NOTE: I think a lot of people read my stuff and think I’m depressed because I write about what they think are depressing topics. But I’m not depressed at all. I marvel at all the changes in my life. I regret not being able to hang onto everything, but that’s not how things work and I accept it. I don’t want to experience decline and death, but I don’t have any choice, so I like to philosophize about what I’m going through. And I’m trying to learn from those explorers ahead of me, those folks in their 70s, 80s and 90s.
JWH – 4/11/11