Voice and Personal Identity: Is It Really You?

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The sound of our own voice is something we take for granted as just a part of who we are, but what if our voice were to change drastically or be taken away altogether? How would that affect our sense of who we are and how we are perceived by others?

There’s a grim scene early in the science fiction film The Matrix, in which Neo, played by Keanu Reeves, is being interviewed by the mysterious and somewhat disturbing ‘Mr Smith’. What has seemed so far to be a fairly standard police-type interrogation suddenly mutates into horror as Neo’s mouth is nightmarishly fused shut, and he panics, no longer able to give voice to his fears. I remember how disturbing I found it the first time I saw the film — to have your voice taken away from you like that.

This week’s news that film star Michael Douglas faces the prospect of losing his voice due to a tumour which may require surgery is disturbing too — not least on a personal level for him and his family, but also because as an actor, his voice is his stock-in-trade, his means of portraying the personalities, emotions and motivations of the characters he plays. I was reminded of the British actor Jack Hawkins, star of many war movies, whose larynx was removed because of cancer when he was already a master of his craft. Despite the loss of his voice, he continued his career with his lines often re-recorded in the studio by another actor, as Hawkins’ mechanical larynx was unable to produce a suitable substitute for his own natural and distinctive voice; it wasn’t quite ‘him’.

The human voice is a potent and fundamental part of who we are and how we express ourselves — we use our voices to convey emotions, to comfort, cajole, argue, order, persuade and soothe. Our voices have character, personality, even soul; they give an indication of our mood, our health, our level of fatigue. We make assumptions and build stereotypes based on the sound of others’ voices. Politicians, actors and singers undertake years of voice coaching to train their voices to sound a particular way, to promote a particular message or image.

Voices are one of the main ways in which we make contact with other human beings, building those social connections which I wrote about in an earlier post. (See “Connecting: Social Connections in a Fragmented World”.) Our voices are how we talk to ourselves as well, and don’t we hate it when we hear ourselves on tape, because we never sound the way we think we do in real life? (Apparently it’s to do with the way the sound of our own voice is partly transmitted through the bones of our skulls when we speak aloud). On tape, we don’t sound like our own true selves any more — our identities have been altered. In our heads we sound one way; to those who hear us, we sound different.

We talk about oppressed peoples around the world being ‘denied their voice’, so it’s a potent symbol of something very profound about our identity as individuals and communities. But what if I were to lose my voice permanently or have it altered beyond all recognition? What might that do to my sense of who I am, and how might it affect how others see me — or hear me? Might it change my identity in a fundamental way? How would I feel if I had to have a voice box transplant, and what would it be like to speak with a different voice entirely?

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These are all questions that must surely have faced those few individuals who have so far undergone partial or full face transplants. In 2005 French woman Isabelle Dinoire became the first recipient of a partial face transplant. I remember fervent debates in the media about the ethics of the procedure, partly on the question of whether the face is the key, as it were, to individual identity; if I take on someone else’s face, am I taking on (even in part) that person’s identity?

This very same question was raised at the time of the first organ transplants, in particular the first heart transplant in 1967: is the heart the core — literally, the ‘heart’ — of an individual’s identity? Is it truly the seat of the emotions, the driver of passion and feeling, and are our identities to be found encoded somehow in the physical space of the heart itself?

A quick search of the internet will turn up numerous examples of cases where people who have been given donor hearts (and other organs) claim to have taken on specific characteristics or personality traits of the people whose organs they have received. Whether or not there is any scientific evidence for or against this theory is neither here nor there, it seems to me; what seems more important and interesting is the fact that we are so fascinated by questions of identity and where it might be found within us.

Stripping away the accoutrements and identity-forming aspects of everyday life, like relationships, work, religious or political beliefs, sexuality and so on, at the root of it all are the questions: What makes me, me; and how do I express that ‘me’ to other people? And if my means of expressing it change, does that change the fundamental ‘me’ inside?

I’d like to come back to questions of identity and how one’s sense of it can change, but in the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts on identity and what is at the heart of it for you. If you’d like to leave comments, I’ll do my best to respond to each one.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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