Many of the world's belief systems seem to ascribe to the idea of a human soul. That there is something within us that, though separate from our physical form, still contains our consciousness and is the most pure and truest essence of who we actually are. As many of you know, I do not believe in the soul or in any afterlife scenario for many various reasons (a few of which will be covered within this article), but this idea does offer some interesting psychological questions. All spiritual issues aside, is there any such thing as a permanent, true or core "us"?
This may seem like a simple question, and you may be thinking "of course there's a real me, especially in the physical and psychological sense". I think that most of us would like to believe that we possess a steadfast consciousness, a sense of self that exist within us throughout our lives. We are taught that each one of us is a unique individual (ironically, just like everyone else) and this leads us to believe that, as someone with an individual consciousness, this sense of self must be permanent. Obviously certain elements of an individual's psychology do change throughout their lives, but surely there is a more permanent, core-self, right? Before we answered this question, let us examine some of the factors that can affect us psychologically; in order to get a better idea of what might be able to alter who we "really" are.
As I pointed out in my "Landscapes" rant, our environments can have a great impact on our psychology and state of mind. By "environments", I'm referring to anything within or any elements that make up an individual's surroundings at any given time. This can be anything from the colors of a room or landscape, light levels, the textures and tactile elements that one is exposed to, as well as the temperature of the environment one is currently spending time in. Even the geometry of a particular room or location can have an impact on a person's psychology. It should be noted that, the psychological reaction to any of these external factors will not always be the same for every one; people have different tastes and will react in different ways. But environments do affect them (whether they're conscious of it or not), and if exposed to it for long enough, an environment can affect a person dramatically.
One of the most interesting examples of these kinds of environmental factors is that of temperature. In regards to environment, cold acts as a psychological stimulant and heat acts as a psychological sedative or depressant. The temperature and climate in which one exists can have a strong impact on one's state of mind and emotional reactions. It's no secret that tempers often flare under hotter conditions. People often become much more frustrated and irritable when the temperature becomes too hot. And many anthropologists believe that the reason certain civilizations throughout history seem to progress or modernize while others remained much the same, has a lot to do with the climate in which they existed. The most temperate areas seemed to lend themselves to more comfort, and therefore better productivity among their residents. Climates which are too hot or too cold tend to be more challenging to survive in and don't provide the same psychological benefits that more comfortable conditions do. I'd also like to point out that many of the most hostile and consistently war torn areas of the world right now are also among the hottest. Coincidence? I doubt it.
And on a side note, the fact that we humans can only survive in a very narrow range of temperatures is yet another point in the growing list of arguments against this ludicrous idea of "intelligent design". If there was some grand, cosmic being who created everything and who considers us his prize creations, then wouldn't you think that he could make it so that we could survive comfortably in the vast array of environments which exist within the universe, which he supposedly created; as opposed to the very limited range supplied exclusively here on earth (in fact, a large percentage of the earth isn't even inhabitable by humans!)? Perhaps god is still beta testing this whole "existence thing" and that's just another bug to be worked out in the future. I'm sure he'll get right on it.
It has been said that humans are social creatures and this does seem to be the case, more or less. So it is no surprise that we are biologically programmed to try to adapt to the larger human groups which we belong to. The longer that we are exposed to certain people, the more likely they are to "rub off on us" and we begin to absorb some of their psychological and social attributes. In most cases, it seems that the more common the trait or tendency is within the group, the more likely it is to influence the behavior and mindset of the individuals within that group. This is obviously a survival mechanism.
I'd like to point out that this is an inevitable result of dealing with people and cannot, realistically, be avoided while existing in any kind of human society. People are going to influence you. When we think of the term "brainwashing", we normally think of small but radical religious groups or secret government programs. However, many of the same basic principles of brainwashing can be seen to exist within almost any religion, club, family, job, professional organization, political organization, school, social clique, or within any group of people, culture or society. Even most internet forums tend to have their own individual "personality". It's important to remember that the reason that brainwashing works is that it exploits this preexisting human reaction and thus forces people to adapt and conform to a new set of standards and believes in a relatively short period of time. So brainwashing is, in many ways, a deliberately accelerated method of forcing people to conform to a group's standards just as they would naturally, if they had been with the group for years. And even though it may not be as forceful or calculated, all groups of humans require their members to, in some way, "fall in line".
According to Eric Hoffer "When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other". I'd say that's pretty accurate. One thing that separates us humans from most other life forms on this planet is our ability to learn. And if you really think about it, in the most basic and simplistic way, learning = copying. This is often what biologists mean when they use the term "learning" in regards to other species of animals. And we humans seem to be psychologically wired for this. When we find a method for doing something that works, we share it and others pick up on it and even occasionally refine it. This would help to explain why we are so naturally open to other people's influences. If we hear something over and over again from others, we naturally have a tendency to believe it. This can have a very strong impact on what we believe, what we think we know, and how we think about ourselves. And by extension, can have a dramatic effect on what we do and how we conduct ourselves.
As I stated in my "Passion for Entertainment" rant, I don't believe that violent, sexually explicit or other "taboo" forms of entertainment are necessarily, psychologically harmful. In fact, I, like many, can see some very positive and therapeutic possibilities within this type of entertainment. Remember, everyone has different taste and will react to things differently. However, only a damn idiot would say that the things which we watch, read and listen to have no affect on us at all psychologically. The sites, sounds and ideas that we are exposed to do have an effect on us, though sometimes this effect is so minimal that we barely notice.
Watching a sad or dramatic movie can invoke tears from certain individuals. Looking at pornography or reading an erotic novel can cause one to become sexually aroused. Listening to certain types of music can fill one with a sense of enthusiasm and even work people up into an energetic frenzy (dancing). Watching a talk show or reading a blog in which your own personal views are being analyzed or attacked can inspire anger or rage (hey, why are you looking at me?) and horror films such as "Psycho" and "Jaws" caused entire generations of people to avoid the shower and the ocean, respectively. If entertainment can cause such extreme emotional and physical reactions immediately after being exposed to it; it's a safe bet that it probably has a deeper, and much more profound psychological impact on us, for good or ill.
Another type of media, one which is designed to have a psychological effect, is advertising. And considering how many millions of dollars is put into advertising each year, I think we can assume that it probably has some effect on our minds and behavior. Of course, we shouldn't forget about good, old fashioned propaganda. Since true objectivity seems to be impossible for us humans, it can be easily argued that all media is propaganda, one way or another (in that it's taking a side or putting forth a particular viewpoint). But there are certain types of media that can much more easily be put into this category than others (as a villain, one of the greatest compliments I've received about this site was when someone accused my Villains & Heroes comics of being "philosophical propaganda"; I love it!).
More insidious still, is news media. If you really think about it, everything that we believe that we know is going on in the world comes to us via news media. It's not hard to understand how this could have a powerful impact on our world view. In fact, every piece of data that we have on anything, that we didn't witness or experience firsthand, comes to us through some form of information media (or other people). And so much of our knowledge (and any ideas, believes and emotions that arise from it) stem from these sources.
So, with all of these things affecting who we are, how we think, what we believe and how we feel; is there any "real" us? Yes there is. However, the real you is a unique mixture of all these elements and more. Your mind and your sense of self are a blended stew of all of these kinds of influences. Of course, genetics plays some role in this as well. But it is impossible to tell which elements of your individual composition that you were born with and which ones are at least partially a result of the types of things you been exposed to throughout your life. Considering that everything which we are exposed to can somehow affect us, this is the only rational conclusion that I can see based on this analysis. There simply is no "us", as we understand the concept, without all of these external factors. We are what we... everything!
Now, as usual, this revelation will be interpreted different ways by different people (often, according to what information the individual has already been exposed to). Some of you will say "yeah, I already knew that, so what?". This could be an indication that you failed to grasp the significance of this information (meaning that, just because you heard it before doesn't mean you really understand the implications of it or truly "get it"). On the other hand, many will cling to ideas about a soul, a more permanent self that cannot be affected by these earthly influences. It is a convenient way to dodge this issue. And still more, will understand what I'm saying logically, but will find this realization to be very depressing and stifling; and thus emotionally reject it. These are not the types of people that I have written this rant for. This rant is for those unique individuals that will see this idea as a positive thing, as an advantage, as an asset to be exploited.
While the "good guys" often fight for a sense of stability and security, we villains have always embraced change and personal transformation. Villains are often the catalyst for change, after all. And it is not unheard of for villains in movies or anime to transform themselves to the degree of sacrificing their own humanity in order to achieve power or their personal goals. A less dramatic type of metamorphosis is available to us real villains. Like a laboratory monster or a cybernetic organism, we can switch out parts of ourselves that we dislike and replace them with better ones. Yes, we as humans can upgrade.
Acceptance of one's ability to improve and change is the first step towards actually doing it. This ability to self-evolve is what separates the predators from the victims. You can become stronger, more talented and better adapted to swiftly and powerfully cruise through this environment or you can do as most do, and simply let the tides of fate decide your direction; thus leaving yourself vulnerable to more well adapted predators. You may be wondering if I have any more specific advice on how to use these external elements to improve your internal psychology and thus become a superior version of you? Well, as it just so happens, that's what I've reserved the entire next rant for. I assure you that there is method to my madness.