Many neuroscientists, myself included, went into brain research because of an interest in the fact that our brains make us who we are. But the topics we end up working on are typically more mundane. It's much easier to research the neural basis of perception, memory or emotion than the way perceptual, memory, and emotion systems are integrated in the process of encoding who we are. Questions about the neural basis of personhood, the self, have never been at the forefront of brain science, and so are not, strictly speaking, lost questions to the field. But they are lost questions for those of us who were drawn to neuroscience by an interest in them, and then settle for less when overcome with frustration over the magnitude of the problem relative to the means we have for solving it. But questions about the self and the brain may not be as hard to address as they seem. A simple shift in emphasis from issues about the way the brain typically works in all of us to the way it works in individuals would be an important entry point. This would then necessitate that research on cognitive processes, like perception or memory, take subjects' motivations and emotions into consideration, rather than doing everything possible to eliminate them. Eventually, researchers would study perception, memory, or emotion less as isolated brain functions than as activities that, when integrated, contribute to the real function of the brain-- the creation and maintenance of the self.
JOSEPH LEDOUX is a Professor of Neural Science at New York University. He is author of The Emotional Brain.