On a recent trip, I stopped in at the Art Institute of Chicago, which has a marvelous collection of Impressionist paintings. Among them, a self-portrait of Vincent van Gogh, completed in 1887 and one of the dozens of self-portraits the artist would complete in his lifetime. To me, this particular version is one of the broodier iterations, with the subject’s striking blue-green eyes seeming to emanate a kind of melancholy. I couldn’t help but wonder if van Gogh’s many self-portraits were an endeavor to know himself better—or perhaps know the version that friends and passersby might describe.
To be sure, we humans are fascinated by ourselves, and yet research shows that our self-image is quite different from reality. As Steve Ayan writes in “10 Things You Don’t Know about Yourself,” our knowledge of ourselves can be distorted, and yet it can influence how we behave. But perhaps being a mystery to ourselves isn’t such a bad thing. As Ellen Hendrickson writes in “Why Everyone Is Insecure (and Why That’s Okay),” “a healthy dose of self-doubt spurs us to monitor ourselves and our interactions. It prompts introspection and helps us identify how to get along better with our fellow humans.”
Elsewhere in this issue, Alison Abbott covers a promising new area of research on the impact that immune molecules in the brain have on dementia and neurodegenerative disorders. Read more in “Is ‘Friendly Fire’ in the Brain Provoking Alzheimer’s Disease?” As always, we love your feedback!
This article was originally published with the title “The Introspection Illusion”