Andrew Butterfield examines to what extent we can really be ourselves…

Photo credit Magnus Manske

Individuality is one of the cornerstones for how we define ourselves. Yet when you really think about it, true individuality is the most difficult thing to find. Don’t get me wrong, I firmly believe that every single one of us is capable of being wholly and truly themselves; set apart from anyone else, interacting with other people but not feeling the need to conform to them or to mimic them. To be brutally honest, though, I can say that I’m not like that, and I can’t think of anyone I know who is.

From birth we are genetically programmed to copy our parents in order to learn about the world around us.  Neuroscientists have discovered a phenomenon known as ‘mirror-neurons’, which is the effect that happens in your brain when you watch someone perform an action or feel strong emotion. If you can see them then the same neurons fire in your brain as if you were doing or feeling it yourself. It’s that creepy feeling you get when you see an insect crawl up someone’s leg on TV: it’s empathy. We’re naturally bound to each other, and I’m not saying that this is a bad thing; it’s just that we take it further than we should. We begin copying each other’s behaviour, clothing, speech patterns and more. Where is individuality in all of this?

Not only are we naturally pre-programmed, we are then socially programmed. From age five we are pushed into a system that was designed in the industrial age to mimic a factory. We are put through school in batches: all taught the same lessons at the same speed. We are told to sit still, to not talk, to pay attention, to all be the same. We wear uniforms – as if somehow learning were based on appearance – and are subconsciously told that to succeed we must fit in. Of course some rebel, they try to stand out on (when not in uniform), wearing what they perceive as ‘alternative’ clothing. However, goths, hipsters, emos, punk-rockers and the rest, all have one thing in common: they have large groups of people following the trend. So if hundreds of thousands of people are doing it then it’s hardly individual, right?

Okay. So from birth to school we seem to get the raw end of the deal, but what about university? Surely it’s there where people blossom into their individual selves and overcome their past?! Sadly no. People are just as desperate to find their ‘crowd’ and fit in; altering themselves as much as necessary. I have watched people start a conversation with one opinion and as soon as they find out that the person they’re talking to disagrees they say ‘Oh but that’s what I really mean’ or ‘I only meant that about this specific and slightly bizarre situation’ as if the need to agree was more important than thinking for themselves. Then of course we’re stuck with the same problems as school. We’re still taught in batches and treated like interchangeable dolls, the only difference is that the ‘teachers’ aren’t going to shout at you if you don’t turn up to class… you’re just going to fail. We are – almost subconsciously – divided up into sections by what we study, through buildings and class schedules, and unless you get heavily into societies you might not have a chance to meet many people outside of your faculty. So what you study clearly has absolutely no bearing on personality!

I might be going too far, and I’m sure there are many people here who do what they want and wear what they want without any thought for how they are seen or for conforming to their friends’ standards. All I want is to see it first-hand.


Andrew Butterfield