Identity

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The ‘real you’ is a myth – we constantly create false memories to achieve the identity we want

The ‘real you’ is a myth – we constantly create false memories to achieve the identity we want

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Vlasov Yevhenii/Shutterstock

Giuliana Mazzoni, University of Hull

We all want other people to “get us” and appreciate us for who we really are. In striving to achieve such relationships, we typically assume that there is a “real me”. But how do we actually know who we are? It may seem simple – we are a product of our life experiences, which we can be easily accessed through our memories of the past.

Indeed, substantial research has shown that memories shape a person’s identity. People with profound forms of amnesia typically also lose their identity – as beautifully described by the late writer and neurologist Oliver Sacks in his case study of 49-year-old Jimmy G, the “lost mariner”, who struggles to find meaning as he cannot remember anything that’s happened after his late adolescence.

But it turns out that identity is often not a truthful representation of who we are anyway – even if we have an intact memory. Research shows that we don’t actually access and use all available memories when creating personal narratives. It is becoming increasingly clear that, at any given moment, we unawarely tend to choose and pick what to remember.

When we create personal narratives, we rely on a psychological screening mechanism, dubbed the monitoring system, which labels certain mental concepts as memories, but not others. Concepts that are rather vivid and rich in detail and emotion – episodes we can re-experience – are more likely to be marked as memories. These then pass a “plausibility test” carried out by a similar monitoring system which tells whether the events fit within the general personal history. For example, if we remember flying unaided in vivid detail, we know straight away that it cannot be real.

But what is selected as a personal memory also needs to fit the current idea that we have of ourselves. Let’s suppose you have always been a very kind person, but after a very distressing experience you have developed a strong aggressive trait that now suits you. Not only has your behaviour changed, your personal narrative has too. If you are now asked to describe yourself, you might include past events previously omitted from your narrative – for example, instances in which you acted aggressively.

False memories

And this is only half of the story. The other half has to do with the truthfulness of the memories that each time are chosen and picked to become part of the personal narrative. Even when we correctly rely on our memories, they can be highly inaccurate or outright false: we often make up memories of events that never happened.

Remembering is not like playing a video from the past in your mind – it is a highly reconstructive process that depends on knowledge, self image, needs and goals. Indeed, brain imaging studies have shown that personal memory does not have just one location in the brain, it is based on an “autobiographical memory brain network” which comprises many separate areas.

Many parts of the brain are involved in creating personal memories.
Triff/shuttestock

A crucial area is the frontal lobes, which are in charge of integrating all the information received into an event that needs to be meaningful – both in the sense of lacking impossible, incongruent elements within it, but also in the sense of fitting the idea the individual remembering has of themselves. If not congruent or meaningful, the memory is either discarded or undergoes changes, with information added or deleted.

Memories are therefore very malleable, they can be distorted and changed easily, as many studies in our lab have shown. For example, we have found that suggestions and imagination can create memories that are very detailed and emotional while still completely false. Jean Piaget, a famous developmental psychologist, remembered all his life in vivid detail an event in which he was abducted with his nanny – she often told him about it. After many years, she confessed to having made the story up. At that point, Piaget stopped believing in the memory, but it nevertheless remained as vivid as it was before.

Memory manipulation

We have assessed the frequency and nature of these false and no-longer-believed memories in a series of studies. Examining a very large sample across several countries, we discovered that they are actually rather common. What’s more, as for Piaget, they all feel very much like real memories.

This remained true even when we successfully created false memories in the lab using doctored videos suggesting that participants had performed certain actions. We later told them that these memories never actually happened. At this point, the participants stopped believing in the memory but reported that the characteristics of it made them feel as if it were true.

A common source of false memories are photos from the past. In a new study, we have discovered that we are particularly likely to create false memories when we see an image of someone who is just about to perform an action. That’s because such scenes trigger our minds to imagine the action being carried out over time.

But is all this a bad thing? For a number of years, researchers have focused on the negatives of this process. For example, there are fears that therapy could create false memories of historical sexual abuse, leading to false accusations. There have also been heated discussions about how people who suffer from mental health problems – for example, depression – can be biased to remember very negative events. Some self-help books therefore make suggestions about how to obtain a more accurate sense of self. For example, we could reflect on our biases and get feedback from others. But it is important to remember that other people may have false memories about us, too.

Crucially, there are upsides to our malleable memory. Picking and choosing memories is actually the norm, guided by self-enhancing biases that lead us to rewrite our past so it resembles what we feel and believe now. Inaccurate memories and narratives are necessary, resulting from the need to maintain a positive, up-to-date sense of self.

My own personal narrative is that I am a person who has always loved science, who has lived in many countries and met many people. But I might have made it up, at least in part. My current enjoyment for my job, and frequent travels, might taint my memories. Ultimately, there may have been times when I didn’t love science and wanted to settle down permanently. But clearly it doesn’t matter, does it? What matters is that I am happy and know what I want now.The Conversation

Giuliana Mazzoni, Professor of Psychology, University of Hull

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The post The ‘real you’ is a myth – we constantly create false memories to achieve the identity we want appeared first on Interalia Magazine.

Breaking new ground in African philosophy

Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?

Jonathan O. Chimakonam: I am Igbo from Nigeria. I hail from the region at the eye of the rising sun, in the lands across the great Niger River, snaked through by the mystic river called Idemmili at the bank of which is the land of my ancestors, Oba. I come from the family of Okeke-mpi, in the lineage of Ezeneche, from the brave clan of Umudimego in Okuzu, a community on the hill. I trained as a philosopher, obtained my B.A honours from Ebonyi State University followed by a master’s and a doctorate degrees from University of Calabar, Nigeria where I currently work.  It is an impossible angle to work from as a researcher like most universities in the Sub-Sahara with little or no funding and of course, no mentoring. For these, your development as a researcher is slow and you tend to make mistakes in the absence of mentors. But a sheer doggedness kept me going.

Having gone through some really difficult times and experiences in my formative years as a scholar, I decided I was going to solve this problem for my students. So I gathered some of my postgraduate students and started the Calabar School of Philosophy initially as a mentoring club, which later metamorphosed into the Conversational School of Philosophy (CSP). Today, I am proud to say that I am the convener of this forum and its membership cuts across several universities on the continent and beyond. It has developed into a school of thought in African philosophy tradition and a movement of difference-makers in Africa’s intellectual history.

As a researcher, I aim to break new grounds in African philosophy by formulating a system that unveils new concepts and opens new vistas for thought (Conversational philosophy, 2015a,b); a method that represents a new approach to philosophising in African and intercultural philosophies (Conversational thinking, 2017a, b, 2018); and a system of logic that grounds them both (Ezumezu, 2017, 2018, 2019). I give everything to my research in African philosophy because above all else, I wish to be remembered as an African philosopher and not just a philosopher.

RB: Have there been any particular influences to your philosophical practice?

JC: Definitely, every philosopher has had some influence and mine is not different. I started off as a logician having been influenced by one of my teachers at Ebonyi State University (EBSU), Professor Uduma Oji Uduma. To me, he was more than a teacher. Back then in the Department of Philosophy, he was a figure that was larger than life. I remember our first year; we would gather in circles and discuss him. He seemed to have made a name for himself in the school generally. So, there were a lot of expectations and impressions about him. We were not sure what to expect and to make matters worse, he skipped the early classes thus prolonging the suspense. When he did turn up for his first class with us, I recall the tension, some of our colleagues who had a phobia for logic were scared to death, others were too excited, but I remember I was focused on discerning what made the man think. You could see inspiring confidence with a touch of challenging arrogance in his demeanour. A combination of these two traits was not lacking in Dr. Joseph N. Agbo, our firebrand lecturer at EBSU and an unabashed Marxist, a virus, unfortunately, he could not infect me with, much as he tried. While Uduma challenged me the most, Agbo was the one who inspired me the most.  I think it is safe to say that the influences from these two were basic in my formation as a scholar. Over the years, I have come to realise that a good scholar must have a tincture of confidence and arrogance; confidence, to inspire their students and arrogance, to challenge them. The humble and timid scholar, no matter how brilliant, neither inspires nor challenges anyone and that makes them a bad scholar as far as I am concerned. The academe is no place for timidity or the idea of humility bandied around nowadays. Humility is a concept that is terribly misunderstood and misinterpreted, especially in the African academe rift with jealousy, fat ego and mediocrity. The idea of academic modesty or humility encourages peers not to brag about their accomplishments in ways that would rub others’ failures or under-achievements in their faces. It does not discourage inspiring confidence and challenging arrogance. A certain level of corkiness is important in the academia. Unfortunately, fat ego mediocres in the African academe waste valuable research time castigating and plotting the downfall of their more aspiring peers who represent the true spirit of the academe, that of inspiring confidence, challenging arrogance, charisma and charm, all of which my two teachers above possessed.

After my honours programme, I went for one year mandatory national youth service. Returning, I went to University of Calabar (UNICAL) for my postgraduate programmes upon the recommendation of Dr. Kanu Macaulay, an amiable gentleman that supervised my honours project. I wanted to continue my studies in logic and UNICAL appears to be the ideal place. There was Professors Princewill Alozie who was retiring as at the time, Chris Ijiomah, Andrew Uduigwomen and Dorothy Ucheaga (now Oluwagbemi-Jacob), and both Professor Uduma and Dr. Kanu had been trained at UNICAL, Uduma in his undergraduate and Kanu through to his doctorate. It was during my time as a postgraduate student that I began to study African philosophy. The African philosopher and metaphysician Professor Innocent Asouzu was already well known for his metaphysical system dubbed ‘ibuanyidanda ontology’. I did not take any of his classes but I took time to read his works. Even though I conducted my master’s and doctoral research in the field of logic, moderated by Uduigwomen and Ijiomah, I did a lot of personal studies in African philosophy. It was in African philosophy that I became heavily influenced as a researcher by the trio of Innocent Asouzu whose thinking style I adopted, Pantaleon Iroegbu whose writing style I adopted and Campbell S. Momoh, whose radical style I adopted.

Today, I am probably known in the academia more as an African philosopher than as a logician. My contributions to knowledge in the folds of conversational thinking, conversational philosophy and Ezumezu logic have been shaped by influences from the three African philosophers above. I am grateful to them for influencing my research and to Uduma and Agbo for shaping my character as a scholar. This is not to suggest that others who taught me at various levels have not contributed anything to my development, they all did one way or the other and for which I am grateful, but I am here focusing on two specific forms of influences, my character as a scholar and my research.

RB: What are the factors behind the contemporary understanding of identity?

JC: Well, that question can have different answers depending on the inclination of the philosopher. But for me, I would like to say that Reductive Physicalism and Non-reductive Physicalism are shaping most philosophers of mind nowadays. While the Reductive Physicalist position holds that with time, scientific accounts would be able to explain all mental states and properties, the Non-reductive Physicalist position holds that the predicates we employ in describing mental states cannot be reduced to the language and lower-level explanations of physical science, even though the mind is not a separate substance. There is this movement towards monism and away from dualism. You see, the days when substance dualism was the pop culture of the field are in the past. The influence of religion has since waned following the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire and the displacement of supernaturalism by science as a framework of choice. The individual is no longer largely seen as an entity with two aspects; one physical and the other spiritual. Scientific understanding of the human being is gaining prominence due mainly to the works of the neuroscientists which influenced the neurophilosophers, of which Patricia Churchland is the egg-head.

When you study the works of physicalists like Daniel Dennett and those of the neurophilosophers, you would understand why physicalism (of different shades) is making more sense in this science-guided era than say the metaphysical option promoted by consciousness scholars like David Chalmers.  With physicalism and neurophilosophy, there is hope and a clear path for the realisation of that hope, that one day scientific explanations can help us make sense of it all. But the metaphysics of consciousness, the type hyped by Chalmers and inspired by Thomas Nagel’s ‘what is it like to-be-a-bat-experience’ does not offer similar level of hope. This latter position excites the mind no doubt, but does not inspire much hope.

From the foregoing, you can see why the contemporary understanding of identity is going the way of physicalism. What makes me, me? This question tends to suggest a sort of introspection until we ask again, what makes me different from others? Then we begin to understand that the question of identity is not an internal thing, it is a social phenomenon. My identity can only be sorted out in connection with the identity of others. It is a property that identifies me from others and identifies others from me and since the interaction between me and others can only be created in a physical space, identity becomes a social phenomenon. The African conception of the self as articulated by Chukwudum Okolo, in a way, can be likened to a physicalist position on identity.

RB: Are they different from any past understandings of identity?

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The post Breaking new ground in African philosophy appeared first on Interalia Magazine.

Contained

CONTAINED

The act of containing is always an act of restraining—holding something or someone in place.

Keeping proper control. Limiting expansion.

Preventing advancement.

When an infectious disease presents itself, we act to contain it.

An act that can be both liberating and traumatic.

Contained is an exhibition of installations that encompasses both these possibilities.

In 1944, my mother Louise Poulin, contracted Tuberculosis (TB) while caring for her stricken brother and sister-in-law. She was sent to a sanatorium in rural Quebec for treatments that were current at the time – rest therapy and artificial pneumothorax. These treatments involved almost constant bed rest, a healthy diet, hours and hours of fresh air (at times, covered in blankets on a porch in the middle of a Canadian winter), and collapsing of the lungs to cut off oxygen flow to the TB bacteria. For over two years, day-in day-out, she lay there wondering if she would survive while many around her succumbed to the disease. She often dreamed of escaping, flying past the surrounding farmlands, over the grand forests, and into the hopeful sky. My mother’s experience of contracting TB, and the fragility of all life, is the narrative that informs Contained.

Contained Installation view 2018 (Photo credit: Elaine Whittaker)

 

Contained Installation view 2018 (Photo credit: David Williams)

Illness as a young person, especially traumatic illness, embeds itself deep inside the psyche. It festers and often manifests itself as overwhelming fear. My mother was haunted by such fears and it shaped her identity in the world for the rest of her life. This was apparent in her reactions every time either I or my brothers became ill, and her adamant concerns for proper inoculations and medical tests. Her ever present fear that we might contract TB or another equally terrifying infectious disease made me aware that there was a world of invisible microbes with a potential to suddenly infect or even cause death. It was only later, when conducting research for my art practice, did I become aware that most microbes are not infectious, are more harmless than harmful, and our symbiotic relationship with them is part of our own well-being. This knowledge – of this necessity and danger – of microorganisms that form our natural and human ecology is a constant in my artwork.

Contained, first shown at the Red Head Gallery in Toronto in 2018, is composed of a series of mixed media installations, monoprints, drawings and sculptures. With these works I abstract and transform my mother’s experience of living in a TB sanatorium, to create a gallery atmosphere that is clinical, fantastical, immersive. Drawing on my ongoing artist residency at the Pelling Laboratory for Augmented Biology (University of Ottawa), I combine medical tools and scientific processes into a series of installations and sculptures encapsulating biomaterial, feathers, salt crystals, avian lungs and plant fibre containing human lung cells.

She Hungered for the Sky, 2018. Bed, bedside table, chair, crocheted shawl by Louise while in sanitorium, her books and music piano music sheets, personal items, table cloth, petri dishes with ink drawing and X-ray of lungs with TB (Photo credit: Elaine Whittaker).

 

She Hungered for the Sky (detail) (Photo credit: Elaine Whittaker)

The centrepiece installation, She Hungered for the Sky, recreates the atmosphere of the sanitorium – a white chair with the shawl she crocheted while living there; a bedside table with her books and personal items; and  an empty skeletal 1940s hospital bed with attached dangling petri dishes containing TB X-rays and drawings of lungs. In the centre of the bed frame, laid across the bare floor, lies her favourite crocheted table cloth, metaphorically emphasizing her fragility and confinement. Directly across from the bed is a wall installation entitled Fragile Forest. Representing the forest that captured my mother’s dreams and fantasies of escaping her illness and containment in the sanatorium, it is composed of white alveolar-like branches (waxed grape stems) that are adhered to cell culture plates. Above them, partially decellularized maple leaves, fragile and spotted like infected lungs, are precariously attached to the wall, fluttering from passing air currents. Decellularization means the plant cells have been dissolved leaving only a cellulose scaffold. This results in draining their colour, leaving them ghost-like and ephemeral. Lit from below, their silhouettes and that of the forest become even more heightened apparitions.

Fragile Forest (detail 1) 120”x 6”x 4”, 2017. Grape stems, wax, partially decellularized maple leaves, pipette tips, cell culture plates (Photo credit: David Williams)

 

Fragile Forest (detail 2) (Photo credit: Elaine Whittaker)

As one moves through the exhibition space, a series of framed monoprints and drawings of leaves and lungs, as well as small sculptures on pedestals, are encountered. These works continue to draw on the metaphors of forest and flight. They include test tubes inserted with partially decellularized maple keys (seeds) held in place by cell culture plates and stacked on synthetic maple leaves; sections of avian lung tissue displayed in tiny petri dishes; feathers in vials; miniature nests constructed from medical tubing; and a crow skull. All these objects are carefully placed and contained on clear acrylic bed-like trays.

Airborne 1, 12”x9” 2017. Ink monotype on paper (Photo credit: Elaine Whittaker)

 

At Rest: Dwelling, 6”x12”x3”, 2018. Plastic tubing, sparrow feathers, test tubes, acrylic trays (Photo credit: David Williams)

 

At Rest: Flight, 6”x12”x3”, 2018. Sparrow feathers, test tubes, Common Raven skull, acrylic trays (Photo credit: David Williams)

 

At Rest: Breath (detail) 6”x12”x3” 2018. Petri dishes, avian lung tissue encased in salt crystals, display & acrylic trays (Photo credit: Elaine Whittaker)

 

Quiescent Growth (detail) 36”x22”x6” 2018. Partially decellularized maple keys, test tubes, cell culture plates, synthetic leaves (Photo credit: Elaine Whittaker)

 

Vestigial 2 11”x14” 2017. Ink monotype on paper (Photo credit: Elaine Whittaker)

The notion of a confined bird on the edge of expiration and a fantastical forest that heals and provides hope is woven through the artworks. But the reality is that TB is still an infectious disease ravaging the world. A wall installation of over fifty eerie beautiful oxygen masks lined up with cascading tubes gives prominence to this continuing – even resurgent – plague. These empty ominous masks, entitled Fraught Air, starkly remind us that TB may be out of mind for many people but it is yet to be defeated, known too well by the marginalized in our communities and over the world.

Fraught Air (detail) 150”x 96”x 3”, 2018. Oxygen masks (Photo credit: Elaine Whittaker)

 

Lungs of the Earth 22”x 8”x 1”, 2018. Petri dishes, decellularized maple leaves with human lung epithelial cells (Photo credit: Elaine Whittaker)

 

Lungs of the Earth (detail) (Photo credit: Elaine Whittaker)

The final artwork in the exhibition is entitled Lungs of the Earth*. Three large petri dishes with four decellularized maple leaves are elegantly displayed in acrylic holders. Again the decellularization process of removing the leaves’ plant cells has left a ghostly cellulose scaffold, but this time the scaffold has been re-cultured with human epithelial lung cells. Merging human cells within a plant matrix, this artwork is a convergence of science and technology; a hybridization of human and plant; and a possibility that human and plant can merge. There is a core message of persistence, struggle and hope. Contained is an exhibit that finds hope when faced with a life curtailed by disease. With its blend of current scientific processes and past medical practices, it becomes, ultimately, a contemplation on past histories and possible futures.

……………….

* Lungs of the Earth was made possible through my artist-in-residence collaboration with Andrew Pelling and Ryan Hickey at the Pelling Laboratory for Augmented Biology at the University of Ottawa. It was shown in the 2019 exhibit La Fabrique du Vivant at the Centre Pompidou, curated by Marie-Ange Brayer and Olivier Zeitoun as part of the Mutations/Creations platform.

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www.elainewhittaker.ca

All images copyright and courtesy of Elaine Whittaker

The post Contained appeared first on Interalia Magazine.

How DNA ancestry testing can change our ideas of who we are

How DNA ancestry testing can change our ideas of who we are

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We’ve underestimated the extent of mixing between ancestral groups throughout human history.
from www.shutterstock.com

Caitlin Curtis, The University of Queensland

Have you ever wondered who you are or where you come from?

I think it’s a fundamental human desire to want to know this.

One way we’re seeing this curiosity play out is in the rise of the at-home DNA ancestry business. You’ve probably seen the ads for tests like 23andme and Ancestry DNA: you spit in a tube, and then receive a report breaking you down into neat little slices in a pie chart telling you that you’re, say, 30% German and 70% English. As a population geneticist, I find this fascinating.

But how does our collective interest in ancestry testing interact with our ideas and conversations about race?



Read more:
A DNA test says you’ve got Indigenous Australian ancestry. Now what?


‘No borders within us’

Earlier this year, a Mexican airline, Aeromexico, ran a tongue-in-cheek ad campaign, called “DNA Discounts” with the slogan “there are no borders within us”. For the ad campaign they gathered a group of North Americans who were willing to take a DNA test and get their results on camera. This group contained some members with, let’s just say, a somewhat negative view of Mexico.

Do you want to go to Mexico?

In the ad, the airline offered rewards to these people based on their DNA results, in the form of a discounted airline ticket to Mexico. The size of the discount depended on the amount of Mexican ancestry. If their test showed 15% Mexican ancestry, that meant a 15% discount.

The footage of people getting their results on camera is pretty funny, and some of them seemed somewhat surprised, and maybe even upset about their reported ancestry. More than half of those tested appeared to have Mexican ancestry, even though they weren’t aware of it.

The slogan “there are no borders within us” has an element of political commentary related to Donald Trump’s border wall. But the ad also teaches us two important things.

It shows how DNA testing can challenge not just our ideas of race and identity, but our notion of being. Your genetic ancestry might be completely different from your cultural identity. Just ask the folks in the ad.

Beyond this, it also highlights how mainstream this kind of science has become, and how much DNA ancestry testing has entered into pop culture.


Read more:
Five things to consider before ordering an online DNA test


Recent, dark past

I think we humans have always been interested in our ancestry, but it hasn’t always been a healthy interest – sometimes it’s been much darker and more sinister. And we don’t even have to look too far into the past to see that.

The eugenics movement was part science and part social engineering, and based on the idea that certain things – such as being poor, lazy, “feeble-minded” or criminal – were actually traits that were inherited in families. These traits were often linked to certain ancestries or racial groups using biased methodology.

Eugenics was the idea that humanity could engineer a better future for itself by identifying and regulating these groups using science and technology.




Read more:
Boyer Lectures: the new eugenics is the same as the old, just in fancier clothes


In the United States in the early 20th century, eugenics became a recognised academic discipline at many prestigious universities – even Harvard. By 1928, almost 400 colleges and universities in America were teaching it.

In 1910 the Eugenics Record Office was set up to collect ancestry data, literally door to door. It then used this data to support racist agendas and influence things like the 1924 Immigration Act to curb immigration of southeastern Europeans, and ban most Asians and Arabs altogether.

Although we may think of eugenics as something linked with Nazi Germany in World War II, Hitler based some of his early ideas about eugenics on these academic programs in the US. There was a fear of “pollution” of the purebred genetic lineage, and that the “inferior” races would contaminate the “superior” race. Many Nazi defendants at the Nuremberg trials claimed there wasn’t much difference between the Nazi eugenics program and the ones in the US.

Racism with flawed science

The events of that time are still relevant now. More than seven decades have passed and we’re seeing the rise of far-right groups and ideologies – the world of Trump, and the return of restrictive immigration policies.

We’re seeing a mainstreaming of ideas about race that we rejected not long ago. We’re once again seeing the science of genetics being misappropriated to support racist agendas.



Read more:
Dramatic advances in forensics expose the need for genetic data legislation


Late last year, the New York Times reported on a trend among white supremacists to drink milk. Most people of northern European ancestry have a version of a certain gene, called a lactase gene, that means they can fully digest milk as adults. This is due to a genetic mutation several thousand years ago, around the time of the first cattle herders in Europe.

The article described how people from the far right have taken this scientific result and run with it – producing bizarre YouTube videos in which people chug milk from 2-litre containers, swigging it and throwing it around in celebration of their supposed “genetic superiority” – and urging people who cannot digest milk to “go back”. Comedian Stephen Colbert even picked up on this story (in his words: “lactose is their only form of tolerance”).

The white supremacists took this bit of science and twisted it to suit their needs. But what they have ignored is research showing that a similar version of this gene evolved among cattle breeders in East Africa too.

DNA does not define culture

It’s not just popular culture: DNA ancestry has also entered political culture.

The right-wing Australian nationalist One Nation recently called for DNA ancestry tests as a requirement to prove Aboriginal identity to access “benefits”. I don’t want to give this dangerous idea any more oxygen, and as a geneticist I can tell you it won’t work.

Cultural identity is much more than simply what is in our DNA. Aboriginal communities are the ones who determine who is and who is not Indigenous. I think this episode highlights a worrying trend for genetic tests to be seen as the ultimate decider of race and identity in public debates.



Read more:
Why DNA tests for Indigenous heritage mean different things in Australia and the US


So how does the marketing of the DNA companies themselves influence our thinking about ancestry?

These ancestry companies use the language of science in their marketing, and present their results as being highly scientific – which people interpret as meaning accurate and factual. The process of estimating ancestry from DNA is scientific, but people may not realise it can also be a bit of a blurry process, and actually more of an estimate.

When you look at your slice in the pie chart and it says 16% German, it is not a fact that you are 16% German. It’s an estimate, or an educated guess, of your ancestry based on statistical inference.

I think representation of our ancestries in pie charts is not helping our conversations.

Twins got different results

Recently, two identical twins put five DNA ancestry companies to the test, and this provides a really interesting look at how this process works.

The raw data for each twin was more than 99% identical, which shows that the way the companies produce the raw data is indeed quite accurate.

The shocking thing was that the companies provided each twin with noticeably different ancestry estimates.

From one company, the first twin got 25% Eastern European, and the second got 28%. Just to be clear, this shouldn’t happen with identical twins because they have the same DNA.



Read more:
Genetic ancestry tests don’t change your identity, but you might


Even more surprising, one company said the twins were 27-29% Italian, but another said they were 19-20% Greek. A lot of this difference would be based on the size of the databases that the companies use as references and who is in the databases, and – very importantly – who has been left out of the databases. These factors would be different between the different companies, and change through time.

So the results you get now could be different to the results you might get in, say, six months when the databases are updated.

Estimating our ancestry is hard, and the main reason it is hard is because our ancestry is much more mixed up than some people might have thought. It’s not really so clear-cut as a pie chart might suggest. The statistics are blurry because our populations are blurry.

The bigger picture that’s emerging from DNA ancestry testing is that we’ve underestimated the extent of mixing between ancestral groups throughout human history.

Looking at the pie chart might give you the impression that there are discrete borders within you and boundaries between your different ancestries, but as Aeromexico so eloquently put it, “there are no borders within us”.


This article is an edited version of a story presented on ABC’s Ockham’s Razor and delivered at the World Science Festival, Brisbane in March 2019.The Conversation

Caitlin Curtis, Research fellow, Centre for Policy Futures (Genomics), The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The post How DNA ancestry testing can change our ideas of who we are appeared first on Interalia Magazine.

Notes on an Aphantasic Artist

There are aspects of experience that vary between individual humans, and that contribute to the way individuals think and behave differently to others – aspects that, in other words, make up personal identity.

One of these is the degree to which people experience mental imagery, or picturing with the ‘mind’s eye’. The strength or vividness of mental imagery differs across the population. This is known due to psychologists using a standardised questionnaire, called the Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire (VVIQ), where participants are asked to visualise something then rate the vividness of what they picture, from ‘1’ for no image, to ‘5’ for an image ‘as vivid as real seeing’.

When this test is given to a group of people the results form a bell curve of normal distribution (leaning slightly towards higher scores, because of the social desirability of a ‘vivid imagination’). Most people’s scores fall around the middle of the curve, experiencing some degree of imagery, but at one edge of the curve are those report to lack visual mental imagery entirely, giving ‘1’ for every task in the VVIQ.

Fig. 1 Distribution of Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire (VVIQ) scores in participants with aphantasia and control participants (VVIQ range extends from 16, lowest imagery score to 80, highest imagery score). [Zeman et al 2015, p2]

The phenomenon – that some people do not experience visual mental imagery – had been given little scientific attention until it was given a name in 2015 by the British neurologist Adam Zeman and colleagues: aphantasia.

This was publicised in the popular science press, and very soon, and for the ensuing years, thousands of people contacted Zeman to say that they had ‘aphantasia’. Among these, to the researchers’ surprise, were many artists – and designers, architects, and writers – who could not visualise. To investigate this phenomenon of creativity without visualisation the researchers, co-curating with artist Susan Aldworth, developed an exhibition of ‘aphantasic’ artwork.

While the resulting exhibition included 19 visual artists, I want to focus here on the work and procedural narrative of one in particular, which, I think, is particularly representative of the way that aphantasic artists tend to work. This is the British artist Michael Chance, who paints detailed figurative scenes. Rather than being a barrier to creativity, as one might expect, Chance views his aphantasia as a stimulus, because he cannot personally entertain images other than by creating them in paint:

The lack of ability to visualise images in my mind is a great motivation; I must physically work on a drawing or painting in order for my imagination to become visually manifest. I often start a picture with no intention and certainly no end goal; it materialises in an improvisatory way. This sense of stepping out into the unknown is thrilling and the subsequent discovery of latent imagery fascinating. Largely bypassing conscious decision making, the way images (usually figures) emerge from my subconscious is akin to dreaming, and the resulting work is often just as strange, surprising and revealing as that would suggest. However (yet, somewhat like dreams) these visions are informed by my everyday experience and observational drawing practice, and structured by my artistic understanding of illusionistic space, light, form and anatomy.’  (MacKisack & Aldworth, 2018, p35]

What is immediately noticeable is the way that Chance describes ‘physical’ work replacing mental work: painting takes the place of visualising or dreaming. This would be a good example of ‘extended cognition’ (Clark & Chalmers 1998): the brain delegating operations that it finds hard, or even impossible, to physical manipulations of external media. Also, by making the images the artist discovers something that they did not or could not ‘foresee’. This process of search, discovery and ‘materialisation’ is revealed by a time-lapse video Chance made of himself working.

Fig 2. Michael Chance, ‘Painting from Imagination (Bacchus Walk)’ 2016. Courtesy of the artist.

The completed painting shows how a reclining, prone, figure emerged – not, if Chance and our interpretation are correct, from the artist’s deliberations, but from the canvas itself and the two faces in profile, suggested by the negative space between them.

Michael Chance, Bacchus Walk, 2016 Oil on board, 92×122cm . Courtesy of the artist

What Chance and his work demonstrates is that the lack of conscious imagery has multiple implications for artistic practice – but none for the creativity of the artist. Imagery ability is not equal to ’imaginativeness’. It seems that aphantasia instead can have a more holistic’ affect on artistic identity, influencing the decisions one makes about how to work and what to do. For example, having no plan’ as such, you just start making marks and see where they lead – in Chance’s case, fed by his training and knowledge of anatomy, figures emerge. Of course, artists without aphantasia also do all these things. And one couldn’t know if a picture had been made by an artist with imagery or without. But that is what the phenomenon of aphantasic art forces us to realise: the diversity of the hidden routes to creation.

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MacKisack, M. and Aldworth, S. (eds.) Extreme Imagination – Inside the Mind’s Eye. Exeter: The Eye’s Mind Press. (2018)

Zeman, A., Dewar, M., & Della Sala, S. (2015). Lives without imagery: Congenital aphantasia. Cortex, 73, 378e380.

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