For the Fourth of July, a Neuroscientist Reflects on Patriotism

Michael Merzenich, PhD


June 30, 2022

This week, we celebrate our nation's birth in a national and individual display of our patriotic attachment to this country. To understand how that patriotic attachment arises, we need to step back and look at the ways in which our brains change and define how each of us develops a sense of Self — which includes our self-definition as Americans.

For each of us, personhood is an almost miraculous product of our brain's plasticity — the brain's ability to change chemically, structurally, and functionally, based on our life experiences — arising from near countless moments of change in the wiring of our brain.

The incredibly complex remodeling that created "you" is a product, of course, of your very complicated, unique passage in life. You have a repertoire of skills and ability; you have stories and understanding and a history of sensing and acting and thinking in the world that is, in detail, unique only to you and your experiences.

As your brain created its model of your world by recording "what goes with what" at each brief moment of time, your brain — that most complicated and wonderful of "machines" on planet Earth — also associated billions of moments of feeling and action and thought with their source, your Self.

Because we primarily construct our model of the world through our eyes and ears, it's not surprising that the emergent Self that is located somewhere in the center of your head behind your eyes and between your ears. Through billions of contacts with the surfaces of your hide and sensory organs, you have embodied yourself.

Your Sense of 'Us'

These same neurologic processes extend beyond our physical beings to incorporate other contributors to our well-being into our personhoods. Loving parents, siblings, friends — and others in your clans and tribes and nations — literally grow into your personhood by these same self-associating processes. These relationships are supported in mutual identity by all of the tokens and icons and charms and customs that collectively define you and enable a sense of "us."

Put another way, Mother Nature (or, in another cultural perspective, our Creator) has designed our brains to incorporate all of those who are close to us — and more broadly, other individuals in our clan or tribe or nation — to be a part of each of us.

Humans are highly social creatures. When we rise up and risk our lives to defend our friends, family, or cultural "in-groups," we are literally fighting to defend ourselves — because those other individuals have grown into our very being. In defending them, we are literally defending a part of ourselves.

From one human perspective, this attachment to family and clan and tribe and nation is obviously key for our survival. We are an individually vulnerable but collectively powerful species, and attachment and mutual support are a key to our personal and collective successes in life.

From another perspective, there is also a dark side to this "gift of nature."

We draw lines in substantially arbitrary locations across the surface of planet Earth, or we may define our self as belonging to a group in a political or social or religious context, or sect. Our tribalism can support a generally strong level of support and succor for fellow humans on our side of that line, while we regard those just across the line as undeserving of our support. If they offend us, they may become targets of our capacity for cruelty.

Our allegiances can be both wonderful and harmful.

The Individuality of Us

As we celebrate this holiday — a favorite day on my personal calendar — I am compelled to reflect on the fact that America was designed to be fractious. We Americans are not required to all operate like “peas in the pod."

While we, as a nation, often fail to live up to our ideals, when we pursue the highest standards of liberty, we celebrate diversity, difference, and the ability of each member of our tribe to find their own path.

In a very real sense, the great American "invention" was to create a nation in which we could all find a wonderful place of our own, with the sympathy and protection of fellow citizens, and with liberty and justice for all.

Happy Independence Day to my American tribe!

Michael Merzenich, PhD, is often credited with discovering lifelong plasticity, with being the first to harness plasticity for human benefit (in his co-invention of the cochlear implant), and for pioneering the field of plasticity-based computerized brain exercise. He is professor emeritus at UCSF and a Kavli Laureate in Neuroscience, and he has been honored by each of the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. He may be most widely known for a series of specials on the brain on public television. His current focus is BrainHQ, a brain exercise app.


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