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Revising the self: The names we use

From the parts of Douglas Hofstadter’s books that I’ve read so far – and correct me if I’ve misunderstood – our minds can be conceived of as a network of “symbols” representing every distinct concept we have, with the meaning of each symbol being derived from its connections to various other symbols. On page 376 of Gödel, Escher, Bach, Hofstadter illustrates a small portion of his wider ensemble of concepts and their linkages. One section:

He later states that “I”, our self, can be represented as a symbol as well – “probably the most complex of all the symbols in the brain.” This is unsurprising, as any useful concept of our self needs to provide us with a model of the overall set of symbols in our brain and how they’re connected. If all of our symbols comprise “things we know”, then our self-symbol represents the Rumsfeldian “things we know that we know”. Or, as Greg Egan described a self-aware alien species in Diaspora:

He led Paolo into another scape, a representation of the data structures in the “brain” of one of the squid. It was – mercifully – three-dimensional, and highly stylized, with translucent colored blocks to represent mental symbols, linked by broad lines indicating the major connections between them. Paolo had seen similar diagrams of citizens’ minds; this was far less elaborate, but eerily familiar nonetheless.

Karpal said, “Here’s the sensory map of its surroundings. Full of other squids’ bodies, and vague data on the last known positions of a few smaller creatures. But you’ll see that the symbols activated by the physical presence of the other squid are linked to these” – he traced the connection with one finger – “representations. Which are crude miniatures of this whole structure here.

“This whole structure” was an assembly labeled with gestalt tags for memory retrieval, simple tropisms, short-term goals. The general business of being and doing.

“The squid has maps, not just of other squid’s bodies, but their minds as well. Right or wrong, it certainly tries to know what the others are thinking about. And” – he pointed out another set of links, leading to another, less crude, miniature squid mind – “it thinks about its own thoughts as well. I’d call that consciousness, wouldn’t you?”

Considering how large the self-symbol must be, and the important role it plays, it’s easy to see why substantial alterations to that symbol are afforded such significance. Changing something we see as a part of ourselves, like our political, religious, moral or sexual views and identities, can be such a difficult process that it’s often described as a “crisis of faith”. This is why Paul Graham recommends to “keep your identity small” – if you regard a certain concept as being a piece of “you”, you’re liable to see it as something that needs to be preserved and defended regardless of accuracy or intellectual integrity. It’s become more important to you than some other belief that isn’t part of your personal identity and can be honestly evaluated and appropriately revised.

So, revising your understanding of who you are can be a challenge. It’s more difficult than recognizing that you were wrong on a certain point of fact, correcting yourself, and moving on. It takes some getting used to.

What would be one of the most prominent elements of your self-symbol? Your name.

Zinnia hasn’t appeared in the top 1,000 American names for the past century. This makes it an excellent and recognizable “brand”, but for me, transitioning involved finding a name that blended in, didn’t draw the wrong kind of attention, and was appropriate for my age. This had the added benefit of my partner now having an easier time casually mentioning me in conversations with co-workers without the risk of drawing odd questions (not that this ever stopped her before).

But just deciding you have a new name isn’t that easy. It’s not a switch that flips and immediately updates everything tied to how you’re known, while erasing every trace of the old name. You’re trying to change the label for who you are, and that’s a big thing. It’s linked to every official document and record with your name on it, other people’s concepts of you (and how they might unconsciously relate you to others who share your name), how you’re addressed in your day-to-day life, how you’re mentioned in conversation, how people remember any events involving you, and all of your own memories of the occasions when you’ve used your name throughout your life. It would almost be easier to ask what it isn’t connected to.

This makes it a somewhat awkward and slow-going process for everyone. Other people have to get used to using your new name. You have to get used to hearing your own name, responding to it, and internalizing the fact that this name refers to you, and you are that name. All of this can feel like chipping away at a mountainside – or trying to re-color it with a single paintbrush, one stroke at a time. It’s not as easy as you, or others, learning your name the first time around and simply acquiring the appropriate label for a person. We’re working against an established history here. Even after moving from the Central timezone to Eastern almost a year ago, I still occasionally catch myself looking first at the “7” of “8 / 7 Central” when TV shows are announced, rather than the “8”. My name is much more deeply entrenched than this.

So how do you start to think of yourself as Rachel? (Not my actual name.)

Practice is a big part of it. Every time I wake up, the first thing I do is remind myself: “I am Rachel. I am Rachel. I am Rachel.” But I often feel like this is just an attempt to rush the process along, skipping a few steps ahead in what seems like a lengthier sequence of adjustment:

1. “My name is Zinnia, but it’s been changed to Rachel.”

2. “My name is Rachel.”

3. “I am Rachel.”

4. Rachel supplants Zinnia as the background wallpaper for my self, and I naturally think of myself as Rachel without it needing to be explicitly affirmed.

But even this addresses only part of the whole edifice of my old name that’s been built up over my life. “I am Rachel” is directed to the present and the future. What about the past? People might just think of me as Rachel-who-used-to-be-Zinnia, or Zinnia-but-now-Rachel, instead of simply Rachel. And I might, too, if I don’t make a concerted effort not to. How can I come to internalize “I have always been Rachel”?

I decided to start at the very beginning.

My first memories are about being at my grandparents’ house. When I was 3, they got a PC. They didn’t actually use it for anything – it was there for me to play with. This was my first computer: MS-DOS, no mouse, and educational games. My absolute favorite was Treasure MathStorm, a game about ascending a mountain by solving basic counting and arithmetic problems, and collecting treasures along the way, before going back to the beginning and doing it all over again. I spent hours on this almost every time I went to Grandma’s house, doing problem after problem and somehow never getting bored, carving those equations deeper and deeper into my mind, and gathering ever more treasures under my name.

I only had one opportunity to play it again some years after that, when my grandparents dug out that old computer while preparing to move. I couldn’t resist booting it up again, and it still worked just the same, with everything saved to my name. Of course, by now I wasn’t spending so much time at their house, so they soon decided to ship the computer to some of their friends in Maryland who had small children. Just like that, Treasure MathStorm was passed on. I assumed I would never get the chance to play it again. Sure, there were new releases of it with updated graphics, but it would never be the same as running it on a 25 MHz PC with nothing but a keyboard.

As it turns out, I was wrong. Some people had managed to get their hands on that first 1992 version, which could be run in a DOS emulator. I have never downloaded anything so quickly in my life.

Everything I had forgotten about it came rushing back: the elves, the time igloo, the cave of counting, the angry snowballs, rewards like a boot with a white mouse in it, it was all there. Sure, some of it seemed dated and repetitive (and I now recognized how unbalanced its economy is, as using one net to catch one elf gave you enough money to buy four nets to catch four elves…), but even all the grinding was still fun. And after completing each level, the game counted up all the treasures I’d collected:

Rachel. That’s me.

It sounds absolutely ridiculous, but it really does help. I ended up doing the same thing with old ROMs of Pokemon Gold and Silver, which I wasted an incredible amount of time on in my preteen years before the Pokemon trend waned in my neighborhood. And every time I see my name, it’s reinforced just a little bit more: “Rachel – me.”

Heather’s been helping me with my more recent history as well. One advantage of keeping digital versions of the notes we sent to each other is that they can be edited. We can almost literally rewrite history, so everything that was to and from Zinnia is now to and from Rachel. And when we look over them again, we see that Rachel is just as real as Zinnia was. Indeed, Rachel was there the whole time. We’ve spent hours reminiscing about everything we’ve done together, the highlights as well as the simple everyday moments,  and reminding ourselves: “I was there. That was Rachel. That was me – us. Heather and Rachel.”

And it’s starting to sink in. Sure, I still have to make an effort to think and talk about myself as Rachel, and so do my family, Heather, her family and our kids. This doesn’t happen overnight. It doesn’t happen in a week, or a month. But it’s happening nonetheless.

In terms of continuity, I’m still the same person I was before. All of those other features that make me myself don’t change with my name. But my identity is becoming something different, and this has an effect, big or small, on everything connected to it. After all, if this wasn’t going to change anything, then what would be the point?