People get attached to their stuff. Two-year-olds, for instance, have very strong opinions about what’s theirs (“MINE!”), and are suspicious about sharing, no matter what nonsense their adult caregivers spew about this caring thing. And although (most) people eventually learn to follow appropriate social norms, that relationship to stuff and things still matters throughout the life span, and even, in a way, beyond it — when you’re gone, after all, your loved ones will likely inherit your most prized possessions. If nothing else, at least your memory will live on through, say, a particularly nice set of dresser drawers you once owned.
People express their self-identity through their belongings, a notion that psychologists and neuroscientists are lately finding empirical evidence to support, though the idea itself is of course not a new one. In 1890, William James, the 19th-century scholar who is considered by many to be the founder of modern psychology, wrote in The Principles of Modern Psychology, “a man’s Self is the sum total of all that he can call his, not only his body and his psychic powers, but his clothes and his house, his wife and his children, his ancestors and friends, his reputation and works, his lands and horses, and yacht and bank-account.” (Former President Jimmy Carter was a little late to this conclusion, observing in a 1970s speech, “Human identity is no longer defined by what one does but by what one owns.”)
But this idea — that you imbue your possessions with pieces of yourself, like a benign Voldemort — becomes especially intriguing when you consider a case study published online last week in the journal Cortex (and first spotted by science writer Rolf Degen), about a woman who, at least temporarily, lost her sense of ownership over her belongings. What can a mind that’s lost its sense of that feeling of mine-ness as it relates to stuff and things tell us about our own relationships to our stuff and things?
Here’s an overview of the case study:
The patient: She’s not named in the report, but her neurologists — all from Lisbon, Portugal — do provide some biographical details of the woman at the center of the case study. At the time of the incident, she was 65 years old and widowed, a retired translator who had lived in the same house for more than three decades. She lived alone — well, alone save for the eight cats with which she shared her home. She had recently suffered a stroke, which caused her trouble with speaking and partial facial paralysis. After treatment, however, she was once again able to speak clearly.
The problem: The trouble started after she came home from the hospital after being treated for her stroke. Suddenly, and for seemingly no reason, nothing in her home quite felt like hers. “When I looked at my belongings, I felt they were not mine,” she told her doctors. “As I opened my door, I looked at the painting on the wall, had a perfect recollection of it and knew it was mine. However, I did not feel a sense of belonging as before. Then, I realized I had the same feeling with the sofa, the living room’s furniture, the frames with family portraits, the flowers of the balcony … everything!”
Intriguingly, she told her doctors that she never felt that same sense of detachment toward her own body, or toward the places and the people she knew and loved — and yet the eerie feeling did extend to her cats. She recognized them, and remembered each kitty’s name, but none of the animals quite felt like they belonged to her. “I felt as if I was not emotionally attached to my things anymore,” she said.
The diagnosis: These symptoms don’t really have a name, or a specific diagnosis, at least not yet. But brain scans showed damage to a few particular areas: the left insula, the left anterior cingulate region, and the left supramarginal gyrus. This wouldn’t mean much to anyone if it weren’t for a 2011 neuroimaging study, which found that these areas appear to be associated with a person’s sense of ownership; the researchers, from the University of Aberdeen, found changes in brain activity in this network when their study participants were looking at images of their own things, but not at others’ things. As the authors of that paper note, these brain regions have also been linked with “self-referential encoding and memory” — the formation of a self-concept, in other words.
Some developmental psychologists have theorized that when a 2-year-old insists that anything he’s touched (and many things he hasn’t) is “MINE!,” it’s a first stab at asserting independence, through the beginnings of the formation of self-identity. As psychology writer Christian Jarrett has noted, nearly 25 percent of all day-care squabbles recorded by a team of psychologists in 2008 were about just what belonged to whom — the “child either defended his or her objects from another child, or wanted to take an object from another child.” Children at this age are using their things to build their own understanding of who they are, in other words, and this is something that doesn’t exactly diminish as we grow older. Younger drivers, those between ages 18 and 25, are more likely to personalize their cars in some way, “as if marking out their territory,” Jarrett further observes, and when your self-identity is threatened, research has suggested you may be more likely to try to make yourself feel a bit better by buying fancy stuff. “It’s as if reflecting on our things restores a fragile ego,” he concludes.
This woman’s story helps shed a little more light on the tangled-up relationship humans have with their things, a subject which has led many to conclude, somewhat cynically, that “we are what we own.” Fortunately for her, the strange feeling regarding her stuff only lasted three days; one morning she woke up, and everything she owned felt like hers again, as if she were awakening from some fairy-tale curse meant to teach her a lesson about materialism.