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Me, Myself, and Why

Searching for the Science of Self by Jennifer Ouellette

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Near the end of Ouellette’s new book — a personal journey exploring what shapes people’s sense of self — she pops a candy tablet of LSD and settles in for her first psychedelic experience. Ouellette had heard that once the drug wore off and the acid-induced wonderland slipped away, the “self” came barreling back.

“I had to experience this firsthand,” she writes. “After all, it was ‘research.’ ” As the chemical toyed with her brain, Ouellette saw kaleidoscopes of swirling patterns and watched her husband transform into a dragon-man. She keeps the scene light, but her nonrecreational drug use adds a dogged, truth-seeking vibe to her latest project. It’s an ambitious effort to dissect the hodgepodge of genetic and environmental factors that sculpt people’s identities.

Ouellette submits herself to various scientific methods to figure out what makes her who she is, from a brain scan to personality tests to decoding her DNA. But the book isn’t just a lighthearted romp in and out of research labs. It also delivers meaty dollops of biology and history.

As the author of The Calculus Diaries and the blog Cocktail Party Physics, Ouellette is a veteran at breaking tough scientific concepts into bite-sized pieces. She offers richly detailed backstories about genetics and personality science, from Gregor Mendel’s pea plants to Franz Joseph Gall’s early efforts to read people’s traits by touching the bumps on their skulls.

Occasionally the book bites off chunks of science that could be too big to chew, but Ouellette tempers discussions of the latest research on gender identity and consciousness with her own journey of self-discovery. She steers tricky subjects away from textbook terrain by hopscotching through pop culture, dropping names from the X-Men to Harry Potter. Still, the book might appeal most to readers with a good grasp of the basics of biology and psychology.

The overall trip is as colorful as the one Ouellette took as “research” — and it’s probably more illuminating.

Penguin, $16

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