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Personhood Week: Why We’re So Obsessed with Persons

It’s Personhood Week here on Only Human. To recap the week: Monday’s post was about conception, and Tuesday’s about the age of majority. Wednesday’s tackled DNA and dead bodies, and yesterday I took yet another opportunity to opine about the glories of pet-keeping. Today’s installment asks why we’re so fixated on pinning down the squishy notion of personhood.

I’d love to hear about how you guys define personhood, and why. Feel free to leave comments on these posts, or jump in to the #whatisaperson conversation on Twitter.


People have been trying to define personhood for a long time, maybe since the beginning of people. The first recorded attempt came from Boethius, a philosopher from 6th-Century Rome, who said a person was “an individual substance of rational nature.” Fast-forward a thousand years and Locke says it’s about rationality, self-awareness, and memory. Kant adds that humans have “dignity,” an intrinsic ability to freely choose. In 1978, Daniel Dennett says it’s intelligence, self-awareness, language, and being “conscious in some special way” that other animals aren’t. The next year Joseph Fletcher lays out 15 criteria (!), including a sense of futurity, concern for others, curiosity, and even IQ.

“Personhood is a concept that everyone feels they understand but no one can satisfactorily define,” wrote Martha Farah and Andrea Heberlein in a fascinating 2007 commentary for The American Journal of Bioethics. Farah and Heberlein are neuroscientists, and they note that neuroscientific tools may be useful for investigating some of the psychological concepts — reason, self-awareness, memory, intelligence, emotion — historically associated with personhood. But even if we had complete neurological understanding of these skills, they say, it would be no easier to define what a person is and isn’t.

But neuroscience does have something interesting to contribute to this discussion: a provocative explanation for our perennial obsession with personhood. “Perhaps this intuition does not come from our experiences with persons and non-persons in the world, and thus does not reflect the nature of the world,” Farah and Heberlein write. “Perhaps it is innate and structures our experience of the world from the outset.” In other words, maybe we’re born with the notion of personhood — and thus find it everywhere we look.

As evidence of this idea Farah and Heberlein turn to study of the so-called “social brain,” regions of the brain that help us navigate life in our very social world.

Take faces. We know that certain brain circuits are responsible for recognizing faces because in some people those structures don’t work properly: People with a condition known as prosopagnosia have no trouble distinguishing between complex objects, and yet they can’t tell one face from another. And some people have the opposite problem: They can’t tell objects apart but have no trouble recognizing faces. Almost 20 years ago, scientists discovered a region of the brain, called the fusiform face area, that is selectively activated when we look at faces.

Farah and Heberlein go on to list many other brain areas tied to people-identification. Looking at bodies (but not faces) activates another part of the fusiform gyrus, and watching body movement (made up only of points of light, and not actual body parts) activates the superior temporal sulcus. The  temporal parietal junction, meanwhile, seems to process the theory of mind, our ability to think about what other people are thinking.

The neuroscientists argue that this network of people-related regions has “a surprising level of automaticity,” meaning that it’s activated regardless of whether we’re consciously thinking about people. Social brain areas are activated not only when we look at realistic photographs of faces or bodies, but when we look at smiley faces or stick figures. Some of us might see a man in the gray craters of the moon, or the face of the Virgin Mary in the burned folds of a grilled cheese sandwich. We automatically assign agency to things as well. In one famous experiment from the 1940s, researchers created a simple animation of two triangles and a circle; watching it, you can’t help but think that the larger triangle is bullying the poor circle:

The social brain also has “a high degree of innateness,” the scientists write, meaning that it’s switched on even in newborns, who have obviously had scant real-world experience with people. A study in 1991 found, for example, that babies just 30 minutes old are more likely to look at face-like shapes that other kinds. (You can see those shapes for yourself in this piece about illusions I wrote for Nautilus.) Some research on autism, a strongly genetic condition, also bolsters the idea of the innateness of the social brain. Many people with autism prefer to interact with objects rather than people, and have difficulty processing facial expressions. People with autism also show differences in activity in the “social brain” regions mentioned above.

At the end of their commentary, Farah and Heberlein make an interesting distinction between persons and plants. Science, they say, offers an objective definition of plants: they are organisms that get their energy through photosynthesis. But science has found no such criteria for personhood. Why? “We suggest that this is because the category ‘plant’ has a kind of objective reality that the category ‘person’ does not,” they write.

Let’s assume for a moment that these neuroscientists are right — that the distinction between persons and non-persons is not something that exists in the world outside of our minds. Does that mean I’ve just wasted a week going on and on about this illusion?

Here’s why I think the personhood notion so valuable. We are people. Our people-centric minds evolved for a reason (namely, our species depends on social interactions) and our people-centric minds dictate how our society works. So maybe personhood is not based in reality. It’s the crux of our reality.

9 thoughts on “Personhood Week: Why We’re So Obsessed with Persons

  1. The human consciousness- “I think; therefore I am”. Excellent, informative and thought provoking series. This particular person enjoyed it.

  2. I think the most important thing to recognize about the concept of “personhood,” is that it is just that: a concept. Personhood is like a gated community in which the holders continuously redraw the boundaries and bar the gates. Take as a case in point, Louis Leakey’s telegram to Jane Goodall after she discovered that the Gombe chimps were making and using tools (thought to be a hallmark of humanity): “We must now redefine man, redefine tool, or accept chimpanzees as human.” We found it easiest to redefine ourselves. As a species, we undergo a constant metamorphosis and rebranding. The actions of past cultures become abhorrent and aberrant over time. We classify others of our species as subhuman in one place and time, only to recognize their humanity in another time and place. Perhaps, then, the most consistent attribute of the notion of personhood is its adaptive flexibility and impermanence.

  3. I wonder, are parasitic plants still plants? Does your definition include all organisms that used to do photosynthesis but lost it at some point? (but that would be us too then, right?)

    Even the objective reality of plants is a little more fuzzy than it first appears. There are other possible qualifiers to what planthood is that includes the kind of cells they have, how they grow and reproduce, what their genes do, etc. that also include parasitic plants that don’t photosynthesize.

    If we discover an animal that does photosynthesis (a sea slug was investigated recently but probably doesn’t) the other animal characteristics will predominate and we probably won’t start calling it a plant.

    I’ve been conducting an amateur survey of the biggest concepts of biology: what is life? what is an organism? what is a sex? what is an individual? what is my body (does it include microbes or not?)

    All of these wander through the realm of sorites paradox and continuum fallacy (I very much liked the essay by Dawkins on the tyranny of the discontinuous mind mentioned in a comment on the first post in this series).

    It seems to me that “what is a person?” is more a psychological or social question than biological one. I think a biologist might be more interested in the question “what is an individual?” There’s an interesting series of essays on that by Charles Goodnight starting here:


  4. Through widening the area of consciousness, the idea of the person can be extended at least partially to non-human beings, regardless of what we call them.

  5. Science gives us lots of definitions that, when you look closer are unsatisfactory. What is a species? A parasite? The color red? But I also think that what we define as ‘personhood’ tells us a lot about what we value; do you value freedom? Then free will will appeal as a criterion. Religious? Perhaps you’ll focus on ‘the soul’. Neuroscientist? Consciousness maybe.

    I would ask two things, what is personhood to you?, but also what does a person DO? Think? Feel? Make moral choices?

    1. I project my experience of consciousness onto others. Easiest for those who are like me (adult humans), reasonably easy for children, familiar animals, harder with more tenuous results the further I go. Still, ideas like animism and panpsychism appeal to me — mind as a universal aspect or dimension of matter.

  6. Virginia, thanks for the tip on Farah and Heberlein paper. I’ll read it closely later. I’m another Neuroscientist whose wondered about “personhood” (but under the topic “personal identity”, and less from a human/legal/ethical perspective). The main thing I feel Farah and Heberlein, and most others, are missing is the importance of the sense of agency — the sense of what I (self) can do; what is under my control; what action-options I have. This is, in part, a neuroscientific question. I feel it is best addressed as a developmental question: how does an infant acquire self-world differentiation and the sense of agency. A complicated issue.

  7. {Title} Who are you, really? (May 2009)

    This is my nature,
    I don’t know another way.
    This is who I am.

    {title}The ongoing debate on the nature of the Soul 2013-09-09

    Descartes thought the soul
    was not a physical thing.
    This debate rages!

    René Descartes thought
    thus: “I think, therefore I am.”
    What I think, I am.

  8. @K. Lindsay Eaves

    > Perhaps, then, the most consistent attribute of the notion of personhood is its adaptive flexibility and impermanence.

    I like that, this koan –
    “The only constant is change”.
    Our adaptations!

    No, seriously, I have heard it said that the most accurate measure of emotional intelligence is adaptability. So to that degree I must agree, even though it appears oxymoronic to associate consistency with adaptive responses.

    Maybe “personhood” is the ultimate defence we have against artificial intelligence – when, or if, we come down to the final showdown – it’s either us or “them”, or “IT”, we invoke the “but it’s not a person” motivation !!

    See Nick Bostrum, Superintelligence, 2014 – the front material speaks volumes

    The Unfinished Fable of the Sparrows

    Imagine how easy life would be if we had an owl who could help us build our nests!

    Only Scronkfinkle, a one-eyed sparrow with a fretful temperament, was unconvinced of the wisdom of the endeavor. Quoth he: “This will surely be our undoing. Should we not give some thought to the art of owl-domestication and owl-taming first, before we bring such a creature into our midst?”

    After we have succeeded in raising an owl, then we can think about taking on this other challenge.”

    constantly fearing that the flock might return with an owl egg before a solution to the control problem had been found.

    It is not known how the story ends, but the author dedicates this book to Scronkfinkle and his followers.

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