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The Science of Selfies: How Pictures Help Us Claim Our Identity

Image: Selfies

There's been an explosion in smartphone-enabled self-portraits, also known as "selfies." Can you spot the celebrities? Collage by NBC News

This week's selfie at the Oscars was a record-breaker for Twitter, but just a drop in the bucket for the traffic in smartphone self-portraits.

A survey commissioned by PicMonkey suggests that nearly half of all U.S. adults have taken selfies — making enough of a cultural impact that "selfie" was crowned as Oxford Dictionaries' word of the year for 2013.

We may be in the midst of a golden age for selfies, but the phenomenon raises its head every time a pictorial form rises up, whether we're talking about mummy portraits from ancient Egypt, marble busts from the Roman Empire, pictures from the dawn of photography in the 19th century or an eerily modern-looking group shot from 1920.

Image: Five photographers pose together for a selfie in 1920.
Five photographers pose together for a photograph on the roof of Marceau's Studio, while Joseph Byron holds one side of the camera with his right hand and Ben Falk holds the other side with his left hand, in 1920. Museum of the City of New York

Is there a reason why selfies have resonated so deeply throughout history? They could well feed a psychological need to extend a claim of personal identity into new territory, in real life or cyberspace. That's according to Jennifer Ouellette, a science writer whose latest book is "Me, Myself and Why: Searching for the Science of Self."

"Your Facebook page, for instance, is one gigantic identity claim," Ouellette told NBC News. "It's how you wish to be perceived. If you want to get artsy-fartsy, you could say it's a form of performance. ... I think the selfie phenomenon is a different version of that. It is definitely a way of saying, 'Here I am. This is me.' It's a mirror kind of thing, particularly since people often turn the camera on themselves.'"

So many selfies are being taken that it's become possible to do statistical analysis, as an international project called SelfieCity did for a study released last month. Researchers grabbed 656,000 photos from Instagram and winnowed them down to concentrate on 3,200 selfies from five cities. They found that women consistently posted more selfies than men did, and that Bangkok's selfies were significantly happier-looking than Moscow's.

Avatars and totems

Prolific selfie-makers may suffer from the same rap that applies to celebrities and reality-TV contestants — that they're narcissistic and focus too much on appearances. But such efforts to claim identity are, well, part of being human.

As Ouellette explains in "Me, Myself and Why," we all have a need to assert who we are, and understand who we are in the context of a wider world. That's why we create online avatars that may or may not reflect our real-life personality. (Ouellette admits that her avatar, Jen-Luc Piquant, is far more narcissistic than she is.)

Image: Carroll and Ouellette
Science writer Jennifer Ouellette and her husband, Caltech physicist Sean M. Carroll, gaze into the camera for a selfie at left. At right, their Second Life avatars, Jen-Luc Piquant and Seamus Tomorrow, sit for a virtual selfie. Courtesy of Jennifer Ouellette

It's also why we surround ourselves with "totems" that serve as external connections to our internal lives — items that can range from posters on the walls and pictures on our desks to trophy cases and custom-made bobbleheads.

Such objects can play multiple roles: Ouellette points to the fob on her key chain as an example: It's decorated with the astrological symbol for Taurus, which has earned her a little grief from some scientists. Sure, Ouellette was born under the sign of Taurus — but she puts absolutely no stock in astrology. In this case, she keeps the key chain instead to remind her of a close friend and fellow Taurean who died of AIDS. It serves as what psychologists call a "feeling regulator" rather than an identity claim.

Here's another example: Which way are the pictures on your office desk facing? If they're facing toward you, they're feeling regulators. If they're facing toward your visitors, they're identity claims. Either way, they serve an important role in defining the self.

"Without external props, even our personal identity fades and goes out of focus," Ouellette quotes cultural historian Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as saying. "The self is a fragile construction of the mind."

Image: Five photographers pose together for a selfie in 1920.
How was that 1920 selfie taken? Here's a side view of showing the photographers while they were snapping the picture. Museum of the City of New York

Ouellette delves into the entertaining experiments she went through to test the limits of the self. She took a battery of personality tests to find out where she landed on the Myers-Briggs and Big Five scales. (You can take a free online test to get an idea how it works ... bearing in mind that you may get what you pay for.) She had her genome analyzed by 23andMe to fill in the gaps in her family history. She underwent an MRI scan to trace the geography of her brain. And she took a closely supervised LSD trip that almost literally blew her mind.

"I now totally get the art from the 1960s," she joked. "I liked the feeling of being disembodied, and having my eye floating and merging with all the other molecules. ... What it does is, it messes with your boundaries between self and the other."

The future of the self

Technology may well turn tomorrow's selfies into immersive, interactive virtual snapshots that persist long after you've passed away — kind of like the portraits of long-dead headmasters that hung on Hogwarts' walls in the Harry Potter novels.

"My great-grandchildren can come and talk to me," virtual-world researcher Jacqueline Morie told Ouellette. "I may look like an eight-bit video game to them, but it will be charming, like looking at a black-and-white photo, except it will be interactive."

After all this self examination, what has Ouellette learned?

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"I certainly have a much deeper, more nuanced notion of the self than I did before," she said. In her view, the self is not something that exists apart from the body, like the classical conception of the soul. But neither is it an illusion. Rather, it's a construct that emerges from experience.

"This notion of the self being rooted in mind and matter being intertwined makes perfect sense to me," she said. "But the brain does construct something that's far greater than the sum of the parts. It creates this amazing thing that can always be in flux, always changing and evolving and adapting to circumstances. ... I have tremendous respect for just how complex the self is."

For more about Ouellette's book and the science of self, tune in "Virtually Speaking Science," an hourlong online talk show that airs on Blog Talk Radio and in the Exploratorium's auditorium in the Second Life virtual world. The show, featuring NBC News science editor Alan Boyle as host and Ouellette (a.k.a. Jen-Luc Piquant) as his guest, starts at 8 p.m. ET Wednesday. If you miss the live program, never fear: You can download the podcast afterward from Blog Talk Radio or iTunes.

The 1920 pictures of that selfie moment on the roof of Marceau's Studio are republished with permission from the Museum of the City of New York. View more old photos from the Museum of the City of New York.