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Where are you?

Posted by Robin Abrahams  August 13, 2008 07:27 AM

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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?

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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10 comments so far...
  1. Back when I was a management consultant who traveled weekly on business, my rolling suitcase felt like a part of my body.

    Posted by Mansfield Mom August 13, 08 12:40 PM
  1. I lost my hair a couple of years ago due to alopecea so I wear a wig. That feels like part of me and I don't really recognize myself when I take it off. It was very hard to adjust at first but now it's not as big of a deal to me. I am grateful that I have that option.

    Robin says: Thank you for sharing that. Hair loss for women can be an extraordinary psychological blow--and it happens so much more often than we realize.

    Posted by Lynn August 13, 08 01:26 PM
  1. Not sure if this will go through (or already did - please delete if so!) - tried once and a network error message came up.

    I'm most fond of my communicative attributes - my eyes, my smile, my hands - and my handwriting, which I absolutely consider an extension of my self (and still write lots of snail mail letters because of it). But I also consider my blackberry a part of me, because it is my primary communication tool with most of my friends and family.

    Posted by Ariel August 13, 08 01:52 PM
  1. Like you, I could care less about my legs, although I appreciate that they're functional. The part that is most ME is from the shoulders up - I'm tremendously proud of my shoulder/upper back strength, my face is what makes me unique, and my frequent migraines constrain my life at times. I've been utterly nearsighted all my life, so I really am lost without contacts/glasses.

    Robin says: We seem to be alike in that it's the combination of strength and vulnerability that makes a certain part feel like us.

    Posted by Jennie August 13, 08 02:59 PM
  1. I'm taking beginning steps toward getting in better shape this summer. When I walk, after working out, I've noticed a sensation that what is moving forward is a center of mass located between my hips, in front of my tailbone. This is pleasant, as that weight balances easily over my feet, and my head and shoulders balance easily over it, working much less hard. This feels like one of those discoveries that everyone else already knew.

    That said,
    The significant thing that is Me in the world is my voice, whether singing, speaking, or writing.

    Posted by Carolyn, Cambridge August 13, 08 08:31 PM
  1. I think most people would at least identify their torso as part of who they are. I think it's a natural response. Ask someone to point at who or "where" they are, and they'll usually point at their chest. Which is odd, because you'd think some people would point at their heads. I suppose this would be an interesting survey, especially with people who are not as aware of these ideas--children. Ask a kid, "where are -you-?" or "point at -you-" and I bet their response would be interesting and surprising.

    Robin says: I think you're right; a lot of cultures believe the "self" is located in the heart, not the brain. Regarding kids' innate conception of things, I *highly* recommend "Descartes' Baby" by Paul Bloom. Really fun, fascinating read about how kids make sense of the world, and why.

    Posted by Chris S. August 14, 08 02:35 PM
  1. I spent some time in Japan, and was surprised to learn that pointing at one's chest to indicate self is a cultural thing. There, the appropriate "who, me?" gesture is to point at your own nose.

    For me, though, I'm in my head. I think it's partly because that's where my eyes are, so it feels like command central, and partly that I have one of those personalities where I really am in my head most of the time.

    Posted by Lola August 15, 08 03:28 AM
  1. I agree with comment #5 - I have started to take dance classes this year, and notice an axis of sorts between my hip bones. It's hard to explain, but I'm very aware of being able to move that axis separately from my shoulders & legs as I dance.

    Also, I think my sense of what part of me IS me has changed as I have begun to lose weight. When I was heavier, only my face, hair, and hands were "me." I'm a little thinner now, and I'm noticing things like extra girth on my arms. Feels like the arms underneath (which are strong, now!) are "me," and the fat is an invader that's slowly slinking away. Weird, huh?

    Posted by Kate August 17, 08 09:33 AM
  1. I have skin problems on my hands, and when they got infected last fall, I spent a couple weeks wearing gloves non-stop, so now I am extremely protective of this one pair of gloves. If I don't put them on before I go to sleep for some reason, my hands feel too empty and light. The gloves are disintegrating at this point, but it's going to be hard to get used to a new pair of gloves.

    Posted by ACS August 17, 08 02:12 PM
  1. Looking at that model, I have to wonder if the penis is realistically-sized. Wouldn't the penis get a lot of play in the somatosensory cortex? Just wondering.

    Great question. The part of my body that feels the most like the essential *me* is my pelvis ... area .. and stomach (viscera) -- where all the mojo lives, but also where I carry the most excess fat, which I hate.

    I also feel very connected to my tiny, silly feet. And while I don't think my face is anything special from the exterior, I feel very at home looking out from behind my eyes, and I really feel well-represented by the expressiveness of my features when I'm animated.

    Robin says: I'd have to look up research, but my guess is that although the penis is very sensitive, the fact that it can't be moved voluntarily reduces its representation. The homunculus I've got is a combination of both. I think you can find separate drawings of homunculi for sense and movement.

    Posted by Victoria Weinstein August 18, 08 01:28 PM
About Miss Conduct
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

Who is Miss Conduct?

Robin Abrahamswrites the weekly "Miss Conduct" column for The Boston Globe Magazine and is the author of Miss Conduct's Mind over Manners. Robin has a PhD in psychology from Boston University and also works as a research associate at Harvard Business School. Her column is informed by her experience as a theater publicist, organizational-change communications manager, editor, stand-up comedian, and professor of psychology and English. She lives in Cambridge with her husband Marc Abrahams, the founder of the Ig Nobel Prizes, and their socially challenged but charismatic dog, Milo.

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