What parts of your body feel the most like you?
This may sound like an odd question. Traditionally, cultures either teach that our whole body is us, or that our bodies are just a container for our souls--either your body is you, or else it isn't. But that's not how it works in real life. We privilege certain parts, and disregard others.
In the brain, we devote more real estate to certain parts than to others. The hands, lips, tongue get a lot of neural space, and the elbows and lower legs don't. This disturbing-looking little guy, called the "cortical homunculus," shows what the body would look like if the size of your different body parts corresponded to the amount of space they get in your somatosensory cortex:
The representation of the body in the brain isn't entirely hardwired; devote a lot of time to a martial art emphasizing elbow blows, for example, and your brain will start dedicating more space to the elbow. The reason people have phantom pain after losing a limb is because while the limb is gone from the body, it isn't gone from the brain. It takes a long time before the brainspace dedicated to an amputated limb gets reassigned.
Beyond the physical brain, though, is the mind. This, to me, is where it gets interesting. The cortical homunculus is bald, for example, because hair can't move voluntarily and can't feel. But most people have a strong sense of identification with their hair--that's why, when men join the armed forces, it's shaved off. Removing someone's hair is a powerful way to destroy their individuality. Women have more options, and more requirements, culturally, about hair, but men have a lot of identity invested in their hair as well. If they didn't, they wouldn't worry about going bald. (Women are all over sexy bald dudes, so that's not really the problem.)
From what I've read, people with disabilities often come to view their equipment as part of their body. This is why it's extremely bad etiquette to touch a PWD's wheelchair or cane or oxygen tank without permission--it's part of them. You don't tug on Superman's cape.
So what parts of you feel most like you? I think a lot of "me" is in my upper torso. I have broad shoulders and a generous bust, which I find both attractive and strong-looking. I have slight scoliosis in my cervical vertebrae, and get neck pain when I'm stressed out, which serves as a warning system that I need to make some changes. I like the way I can affect the impression I make on others by how I adjust my shoulders--down or up, forward or back. I like the way I can affect the impression the world makes on me by breathing deep and slow. I like feeling the rising hum of my voice coming up my throat and the burn of hot tea or whiskey going down it. So the sensitivities and strengths and communicative potential of my neck-to-waist area just ... feel like me.
But my legs? Meh. I like them; I'd give my gams a solid B for both form and function (and I'm a tough grader), but if I could snap 'em off like Bratz Dolls' feet for a better model, sure, whatever. They're not part of my identity. Same with my hands--Mr. Improbable feels that his hands are a major part of him, but I don't feel that way about mine. Mine are tools that I use, not me. (Being left-handed is important to me, though. I like having a visible symbol that my brain isn't wired like most people's!)
So what parts of you feel like you? And is there anything outside your body, like glasses or a wheelchair or even a wedding ring, that feels like an intrinsic part of who you are, a part of your body and your self?
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Welcome to Miss Conduct’s blog, a place where the popular Boston Globe Magazine columnist Robin Abrahams and her readers share etiquette tips, unravel social conundrums, and gossip about social behavior in pop culture and the news. Have a question of your own? Ask Robin using this form or by emailing her at firstname.lastname@example.org.