Piece by piece, the picture is emerging of a self that is physical, neural, psychological, social, moral, aesthetic and – as future blogs will be at pains to show – spiritual. To live under any circumstances or conditions we require memory. To live socially we require an effective means of communication, chief of which, but by no means solely so is language. Learning begins at birth, as also does the acquisition and development of skills required to interpret what is given via sense data, i.e. perception. Cognition provides shape whilst emotions and motivation bring both colour and drive to life and combine with each and every other human endowment to bring purpose and reinforce meaning.
In and through all of this, right down to every thought, feeling and ensuing action, two immensely powerful forces are ever combining to make us who we are and what we are; namely our genes and our experience of the world. At first sight we may be inclined to think that the first of these are, to all intents and purposes, fixed and immutable. But not so, as is evident in a child being raised in the African bush and who at birth possesses the potential to run like a gazelle. However and tragically in this case – and from the moment of birth – both mother and infant suffer woefully defective and inadequate maternal and nursing care. Hence, this fact – together with the appalling conditions in which he barely survives much less lives and develops – has put paid to any future prospect as a runner. Life and experience can be kind and it can be cruel. One thing is sure; whilst genes and experience may very well hail from ‘different countries’, so to speak, they almost as certainly quickly learn to manage and manipulate a ‘common language’.
And there is another sense in which uniqueness and commonality combine. To deal with the latter first, common genetic heritage of our species determines that we are all the same, i.e. in body shape and approximate size, the way we walk, i.e. on two legs; the organs of the body; the means whereby we communicate, i.e. through our mouths and so on. In short, we have similar brains and bodies, similar neurological, biological, endocrinological and biochemical profiles, yet, as we have already noted on several occasions, we are all different. We are unique and it is through personality and temperament that we catch the fullest glimpse to date of that uniqueness. In many ways, it might more accurately be styled a potential for uniqueness since it too is influenced and modified and in that sense determined by the experiences we undergo. Two children who are genetically inclined toward the personality dimension of extraversion but reared in different environments may very well differ markedly on that personality dimension in later life. Identical twins share a common genetic heritage and may well have similar personality traits and characteristics to begin with. Yet, as we know, differing environments can change all of that irretrievably. Even cloning may very well produce little more than two “look alikes”.
Then who are we? We are that unique individual who our genes and our experience are throughout this mortal life relentlessly combining to produce. Little more than that can be or needs to be said. In tautological* – terms, “we are who we are”: and all of this inexorably leads us on to what it is about individuals that not only unites them as a species but also distinguishes and assigns to them status, not just to groups on the basis of race or ethnic/regional differences but also which fully justify our use of the phrase “individual differences”; in a word, to “personality”.
The term “personality” must be one of the most widely used words in the English language, as is personalite in French and personlichkeit in German. It is derived from the classical Latin “persona” (as also is the mediaeval Latin word “personalitas). At first sight therefore, we may be inclined to believe that emphasis is unerringly being placed on the external qualities of an individual and on the external impact that that individual is able to bring to bear on life. The truth is that even in ancient times, “persona” was coming also to mean not just “the mask” but the individual behind the mask, i.e. the sum total of personal traits and qualities. (C) SB.