It isn't a great surprise to anyone that any one person's experiences are the cornerstones of one's thoughts. Any thought a human could have, if internally questioned, can find its origin in another thought (thus creating a chain) or in some information gathered from the outside world, which can be understood as one's experiences (though those experiences vary drastically, and so do the ways of approaching human faculties of perception, understanding and so on. Just compare Descartes
, and Kant
). As of now, there is still no precise knowledge on how exactly the human brain functions and which part of it produces consciousness (if there is such a physical part). For this reason, there is still room for philosophical speculations on what it is that determines any given human's self and individuality.
Many would say that what makes us who we are is the way we see the world and interact with it. Although, how one sees the world, is exactly what one thinks about it - which, in turn, generates the way one acts. When we ask ourselves why we think what we think, it all inevitably comes back to the outside world. It is not clear if one could claim to have any actual internal thoughts that exist only by themselves, independent of the outside world. Just to start, all rational thought seems to be determined by the language one uses and, a human who since birth was uncommunicated with other people, cannot develop language by him or herself. So, it is clear that what we think is necessarily based on what we have lived.
Now the question arises: exactly how important are the experiences that create our individuality? One answer may lead to determinism, depriving any kind of actual self to any human being. In other words, it is not too far-fetched to suppose that everything we are is the combination of our DNA (seen as kind of a core drive) and all of the moments we spent in this world (seen as constant additions to the core). If this is so, our consciousness would develop itself from the core plus the perceived, thus creating the internal system by which one understands the world
. Yet, as already mentioned, there is no concrete knowledge of the functioning of our consciousness which leaves room for the free will. Thus, for the sake of this article, let us leave the possibility of humans being mere robots aside and center on the internal thoughts as we know them in our day to day life. For this let me present you with an example:
Carlotta was never quite fond of studying, she never understood the necessity of it; and why would she, when her daddy owned a 50-meter-long yacht? She grew up in an enormous mansion in southern Italy surrounded by butlers and maids who'd attend to her every whim. She has never had any real friends, it was all about being the coolest and having the newest iPhone. She was a girl who had it all: dresses, a personal beautician, and boys to dance with at the discos. The way she treated ordinary people with this rude kind of superiority that those rich people have when they never learned any better. For her, any human being was defined by their job, status, and money.
It all changed when the local paper released an article «Local Businessman Abuses Children,» of which her father was the protagonist. All of the power Carlotta's family has had was stripped away faster than you could clap your hands. She and her mother had now realized that no one cared about them, not a single soul, apart from the old partner of Carlotta's father who gave them shelter; and even this came with a condition: they would have to provide for themselves. It was hard. They survived by washing dishes at the local bar and restaurant, and if Carlotta had known the classics of the twentieth century, she would have empathized with Bob Dylan's song «Like a Rolling Stone.» This down-to-earth experience has turned Carlotta's world upside down, working extra hours for almost nothing and the «friends» she knew from before would come to this bar just to make fun of her. She has seen her past posh world for what a fake it was.
In a couple of years, Carlotta turned into a new person. She found out that if she'd put her mind to something, she could definitely achieve it. Now she isn't washing dishes anymore; instead, she manages all the waiters in the bar. She found real friends and as for looking at her rich past, it was only with a sad smile.
In the case of Carlotta, it is easy to see how the circumstances of our life define our thought processes and our opinions of the world around us. While living in a mansion with everything given to her on a silver platter, she thought it the only possible way to live. When this system had fallen down, and the harsh world was shoved in her face, she had learned to adapt, and the new point of view, brought about by the new lifestyle, made her change the opinions on everything she held true.
It is not only the social part of our lives that determines our identity and our opinions on life. We can view it from other angles too — for instance, a physical one. If a person was born «normal» (in a sense that he or she did not have any physical disabilities) and at some point in life, let's say when she is 26 years old, by some accident she loses sight or legs or whatever, her perception of the world would change drastically. A sommelier would have to find a new profession if she were to lose her sense of taste; not only that, but her internal values would also necessarily change. For example, if wine was a cornerstone of her relation with the world (however sad this may be) it will change at least somehow after losing taste.
But while the relation between the physical changes in one's body and their perception of the world is quite obvious, there are more subtle things that deeply affect our interaction with the world, even though many times we aren't conscious of them. Here is another example that brings such a case in a clear light.
Having lived all his life in the Danish city of Kolding, Emil was incredibly happy to have been accepted to the University of Granada in southern Spain. He always was a quiet kinda shy kid, one of those people who while walking on the street only look down trying to get the minimal interaction possible. He himself didn't actually understand what was it there inside him that made him choose Granada as the place for his student years. Partly, it was because he excelled in Spanish in his school and was tired of the never-ending snow in winter, but the ultimate impulse could not be identified.
The first thing he noted when coming out of the plane at the end of August was the extreme heat, in time he would get used to it, but at the start it disturbed him quite a lot. The first semester was the strangest one. He has been in Spain once, on a family vacation, so he knew that the people were friendly, but only now he was seeing what it meant in day-to-day life: if you go to a bar to have a coffee, anyone might come up and start a conversation with you. Or how his classmates interacted with each other and himself, without doing anything special in a couple of weeks he already had a group of friends. Everything was going so fast, in fact, at such a speed that when Emil got hold of himself it was at the end of his second year, when he was with his boyfriend and their closest friends doing a hike in the Sierra Nevada. Just lying there at night, looking at the clear April sky at night, he remembered the person who two years back just got off the plane and didn't recognize himself. There was no sudden change, but slowly the culture and the southern city made him look up at people walking past, exchanging brief smiles, and dress in brighter colors, while also starting to smoke and drink.
What happened to Emil is something that happens to anyone who assimilates into a new culture. Because of the necessity of having contact with people who have different customs, people tend to adapt these customs because of this internal drive we all have, the one of wanting to fit in. Almost no one wants to be the odd one out, so our brain even without our conscious approval, analyzes how other people surrounding us act and helps us imitate it in order to assimilate better.
So what does it matter if we understand how our life experience creates our personality? Maybe not much, but surely each and every one of us at some point couldn't sleep at night because of remembering some uncomfortable situation or a better option for responding to a conversation you've had five years ago. During such nights, we inevitably ask ourselves: who are we, how come we've done all those stupid things in our lives? There is no general answer possible for any of these speculations, but understanding how all of us are shaped by what has happened to us may lead to a deeper level of self-consciousness. This, in turn, means a higher capacity for analysis at any given moment, by knowing where we come from we may choose the way we want to follow. It is just a more developed take on the idea everyone knows since childhood: in order to learn how to walk, one must first fall. Gennadii Linkov