MIND: Identity rides this horse (1)

The Mind Map

Personal identity rides the mind.  The mind rides the brain.  The brain rides the body (surprised you there?).  The body rides whatever conveyance (horse, skateboard, car) that the identity chooses.  So it’s not riding “all the way down”, as the old joke goes.  However, the joke is about the concept of nested  levels of organization.  That concept is a powerful aid to understanding, especially when we think of holons.  A holon is a whole, made of parts whose integration into the whole creates an entirely different thing from the parts.  And of course every part is also a holon made of other parts. So it really is holons “all the way down”. What makes this so useful is what Ken Wilber claims: anything that exists or that you can name is a holon.   We are interested in personal identity.  I can summarize a lot of esoterica by stating that a personal identity is a holon made up of a human organism and a mind, embedded in a multi-layered social system.

But what’s a mind made of?  What are mind parts?  The previous chapter on the durability of personal identity made a start in naming some key parts of the mind.  But if we want to understand identity, and its most mysterious and intriguing part, indeed the very horse it rides, is a mind, then we need to know what’s included in a mind and how it all fits together.  Any solid concepts that we find could help later when talking about current and future changes to identities, and to what extent a person might have more than one.

Actually attempting to map the parts of the mind in public like this is risky because it is contested territory; the authorities, experts all, agree to disagree.  The risks might not be like walking in the proverbial mine field, but they are like walking in a dog park where the canines themselves are in charge of cleaning up: messy and likely to be embarrassing.  Still, we are engaged in chimerealism, so let’s get to it.


Figure 1: Map of the Embedded Mind

Behold Figure 1, a diagram of the holon called embedded mind.  It’s jam packed with concepts that we are going to need.  To some people it will be scary looking, having too much going on at once.  But consider it to be a map.  We can all read maps.

Our map is a necessarily simplistic guide to the territory called mind.  It’s also a way to anchor a vocabulary that will allow us to explore that territory in detail without having to deal with so much of the technical language used by the sciences and philosophy of the mind.   The map refers to models made by different experts with various purposes, so some things that might be implied by it will doubtless be wrong, or in expert eyes, incompatible.  And, as us nerds sometimes say, wrong for multiple values of wrong.  However, like any good map, it is replete with interesting places to stop off and visit.

What’s in Your Ego Tunnel?

Let’s start in the middle. There’s a circle made of a wavy blue line.  This is the surface of Thomas Metzinger’s Ego Tunnel[1].  Each one of us is enclosed inside of our own simulation of reality, which Metzinger likens to a tunnel, because all that we experience is confined to that tunnel. It’s as if we are moving through the tunnel while over time our experience changes. He might have picked another metaphor: a jail cell (too restrictive) or a cave, but that’s Plato’s metaphor and so might be confusing.  Metzinger implies that the walls of the tunnel (the “surface” in the diagram) are like a movie screen upon which our model of reality appears.  But to whom does it appear?  In the last chapter we called it “the “I”, a term that goes back to William James.  But something like it has been called other things, including the ego, the illusory self, and pure awareness.  Let’s call it the I* (think “eye-star”) just to keep it distinct. The I* in Figure 1 is a gray oval, but we think that it doesn’t have any real physical boundaries.  Research says that it is not a fixed part of the brain, but some kind of fluid, ever-changing process that provides us the illusion of a point of view.

Thinking about that “point of view” can lead us back to misunderstanding.  The error goes all the way back to Rene’ Descartes, who said that someone must be perceiving what our senses bring into the mind.  He described the perceiver as a homunculus, a little man inside your head.  Now generations of college students have been told that old Rene’ was dead wrong, because how could the homunculus perceive anything unless it had another homunculus inside it?  And then what about the third little person inside the second one, and so on “all the way down”?  The problem is that once we walk out of the classroom our experience says that someone is home inside of us, that we have, or are, a Self.  So all the philosophy and research disproving the existence of a self is hard to grasp, to put it mildly.

Some who hold to the illusory self theory still find the I*/Me distinction useful, where the I* is the pure, moment-to-moment awareness and the Me* is the observed, ongoing content of our internal lives. Let’s call it the “Jamesian Self” model, since William James stated the modern version of it[2].  There is supporting evidence for it from a number of directions.

Self Talk.

There’s a hint about the Jamesian Self in everyday life. Sam Harris reminds us that we talk to ourselves.  He notes that once children start to gain language, we hear them engaging in long monologues. The function of this might be to practice speaking out loud, but to whom are they speaking?  One possibility is imaginary friends, a subject to which we shall return later.  For now it’s worth asking, what would be the beginning of an imaginary friend except some part of your Self?

Talking to yourself, out loud or not, is common enough throughout life.  You might announce, that “I found it!”, “That was tasty”, or “I need to get going.”  If in fact someone else hears us, we can be somewhat embarrassed, depending on what was said and whether we know the hearer.  These announcements seem to be part of a private conversation.  Could it be the I* talking to the Me*? No, we have assumed that the I* is a pure observer, so it is mute. Maybe “self talk” is the Me* reporting to the I*.  This is all bound up somehow with what we know from people with split brains, that language issues from the left hemisphere.  That also is a story for later.

Meditation Can Isolate the I*.

And every morning we are chased out of bed by our thoughts. — Sam Harris, Waking Up.

Sam Harris has pointed out that the traditional rationales for meditation often come with medium to huge doses of religious ornamentation, but that the practice of meditation, while difficult, gives reproducible results.  Internally its goal, and its result when successful, is the isolation of awareness itself (the I*) from the thoughts and perceptions (the Me*) of which we are aware.  Meditation has externally measurable effects on brain function and body physiology.  Meditators have been in great demand by researchers for years now, as serious (”respectable”) interest in consciousness swelled like some kind of economic bubble.

Research has found that meditators produce strong oscillations in their gamma band brain waves.  These waves apparently reflect how the brain synchronizes data coming in from different senses with slightly different delays.  In that way it can put together information to meld sensations together, so that, for example you would both hear someone talking and see their mouth moving at the same apparent time.  The intensity of these waves is higher when meditators think that their meditation is deeper.  So perhaps gamma band synchrony is a big part of the moment to moment perceiving I*.  Studying meditators allows scientists to see the synchrony.  Outside of meditation, the brain activity of the ever busy, chattering Me* probably obscures our ability to externally measure the simpler process of the I*.

The lore of meditation says that there are levels at which the practitioner starts to perceive the universe directly, as a kind of ultimate reality.  This goes beyond our scientific understanding at this time.  Nothing we know from external study would suggest that the brain, no matter how synchronized its internal workings might get, would be able to sense anything except through the sensory equipment (eyes, ears and so on) that we all agree that we have.  Thus current mainstream theory sees no way for us to bypass those senses and “get under the skin” of reality to perceive it more like it “really is.”  The same unanswered question applies to some experiences from psychedelic drugs.

There are of course plenty of thinkers who already offer explanations, and perhaps some of these will provide a spark to work on a new consensus when mainstream science and philosophy become ready to tackle the next level. On the other hand, maybe the final understanding will somehow derive without destroying the current consensus.  The current Dalai Lama, who might be said to speak for meditators in the same way that the Pope speaks for pray-ers, has said out loud, in public, that maybe even the highest forms of consciousness must depend on the physical brain.

The Experiencing and Remembering Selves.

Research from a Nobel prize winner in Economics is a surprise fit to the theory of a Jamesian Self.  Daniel Kahneman, a cognitive psychologist and not an economist, won the prize in 2002 for work showing that people do not make decisions in the rational, self-interested way that had been assumed by economists.  These days Kahneman gives TED talks[3] about a much bigger topic: how a division between an experiencing self and a remembering self affects how we evaluate all parts of our lives.  This division helps explain many puzzling cognitive biases (thinking and judgement errors) that we all have.  Few researchers have earned the right to have a theory this broad be widely accepted.

Kahneman starts his story with a classic description of the “present moment” aspect of conscious experience.  We know that our sense of what is “now” lasts about 3 seconds.  He dramatically points out that we have about 600 million of these moments in a lifetime and yet there’s a sense in which they all flow away, lost to us like a tear dropped in a river.  As they are happening these moments are apprehended by what he calls the experiencing self.  We may naively think that we remember important ones of these moments as they were at the time, but many experiments show this is not so.

Earlier I wrote about Julian Jaynes showing us graduate students that our simplest memories, such as when we went swimming, were not recalled in a form that reproduced what we actually experienced when we swam.  Kahneman’s theory also says that memory is handled by a remembering self that summarizes what happened in ways that are definitely not the literal truth.

One of his classic studies involves the memory of pain experienced by (voluntary) immersion of a subject’s hand into cold water.  Ina typical study all subjects got a fixed period, say 60 seconds, at a painful temperature of 57 degrees Fahrenheit.  This period was continuous with another 30 seconds during which (unknown to them) the water had been warmed slightly, to 59 degrees. Half the subjects had the warmer period at the beginning, and half at the end.  Only 7 minutes later all were asked which part of the experiment they would be more willing to repeat.  The idea was that they would be more willing to repeat the part that was remembered as less painful.  Eighty per cent of them preferred to repeat the part that ended with warmer, less painful water.  This is even though both parts, as moment-to-moment experiences had exactly the same amount of time in colder and warmer water.

Kahneman did this and other studies, including ones of a naturally painful medical procedure, to show that, basically, memory is biased to emphasize the more recent experience in an event.  If a painful episode ends with a decrease in discomfort, or even some reward (as when we give a treat to a child or pet who has had to endure an unpleasantness), then the episode will be recalled as less painful than it actually was.  Note that in the cold water study this happened only 7 minutes or 140 “now moments” after the painful experience.

In study after study, the separation between memory and experience seemed to be very strong. Yuval Harari[4],in recounting Kahneman’s theory, prefers to say “narrating self” instead of remembering self, apparently because memory is often likened to story creation.  Harari points out that in our self narration we often create stories of the future.  These are plans, everything from what to do to get the kids in the car, to New Year’s resolutions.  Plans are made by the narrating self, but for them to get executed they have to engage the experiencing self.  As Harari puts it, just as the narrating self cares not for what really happens to the experiencing self, the experiencing self is not bound to the plans of the narrating self.  Thus so many times immediate experience overrules those plans.  We don’t eat the right things or we don’t maintain our cool under stress.

Kahneman’s theory of the experiencing versus remembering selves is based on findings of cognitive biases and failure of plans. There are plenty of other psychological explanations of these, but Kahneman’s theory of the two types of self fits them into a very broad picture.  How much alike are our Jamesian (I/Me) Self theory and Kahneman’s theory?  Certainly the experiencing self seems very much like the I* of pure awareness. Note however that to say the experiencing self cares for something, or “must be engaged” for something to happen, goes beyond an I* of pure awareness.  Still there are philosophers who identify Kahneman’s experiencing self with the I* that is the subjective side of the Jamesian Self.

Before going on to the Me* there is one other tidbit about the I*.  Metzinger actually gave us an evolutionary adaptive reason why the I* needs to be so focused on the present moment.  He says that it’s the present moment that carries information about immediate risk (such as an approaching predator, falling rock, falling stock price).  Therefore we have to be aware that we are in the present moment, and that the moment is more real than “our memories and fantasies” being entertained by the Me*.  So it’s no wonder that Kahneman found that, in a manner of speaking, the I* (experiencing self) does not give a cr*p about anything but right now.

We next have to ask: how does the remembering/narrating self compare to the Me*? To answer this we have to be clear about what aspect of memory is involved.  Our concept of memory includes everything from piano solos to phone numbers to faces and stories of the past.  the Me* is all about episodic memory, which is our ability to recall personal experiences of an autobiographical type; essentially, what happens to us or what we did.

We have been talking about episodic memory when trying to understand Self persistence (previous chapter) and now, self narration.  The Me* is the part of consciousness responsible for the continuing story of our lives.  Therefore the Me* would have to involve the processes of retrieving, using and forming episodic memories.  This is a big part of what Kahneman’s remembering self would have to do. So Kahneman’s theory seems to support the Jamesian Self that we are using in Figure 1.  The I* is his experiencing self, and the Me* has as part of its job what the remembering self does.

(A self disclosure: I just stood up and said out loud, without premeditation: “This is just what I wanted to do.”  Nobody else here but me and the dogs.  To whom or what was my utterance directed?  By whom?)

Split Brains and Narration.

Another strong research program fits the Jamesian Self idea:  five decades of work on people whose brains have been surgically divided in half, the so-called split brain studies.  Those and related studies have shown that on the left side of the brain there is a “left-brain interpreter[5]” that produces narrative interpretations of why new information fits with what a person already knows.  This theory is from Michael Gazzaniga, who helped originate the split-brain research and remains its most important figure.  The interpreter is always on duty when we are awake because new things are always happening.  This sounds like the Me*, and indeed people have identified[6] the interpreter with the increasingly common idea that there is a narrative self[7] that gives our identity continuity by narrating a sort of never-ending story of our lives .

Gazzaniga and others find that the right side of the brain, on the other hand, helps to insure that such interpretations conform more closely to facts than to beliefs, and is necessary for making morally sound interpretations. Most important for the I*/Me distinction, however, is this, from Gazzaniga[8]:

“Our right hemisphere behaves more like the rat’s. It does not try to interpret its experience to find the deeper meaning; it lives only in the thin moment of the present.” (italics added)

This quote suggests that at least a good chunk of the experiencing self occurs in the right hemisphere.  We can’t say that the experiencing self is confined only to the right side because plenty of split brain experiments show the left hemisphere able to report on its experience of sensory events.

Narration as a mechanism of the self seems pretty widely accepted.  For example, the highly regarded and popular philosopher of the mind Daniel Dennett wrote about[9] “The Self as a Center of Narrative Gravity”.  He develops a detailed metaphor that the self is a fictional character, like an ongoing autobiographical novel in your mind.  As one of many these days who say that the self is only an illusion, he likens it to another abstract concept, the center of gravity.  The center of gravity of a worldly object is an abstraction, not as real as the object itself, but nonetheless useful in daily life.  You implicitly calculate a center of gravity when you want to set your coffee cup down near the table edge without the cup tipping over. It’s a center of gravity mistake when you swerve your tall truck to avoid something, and the truck rolls over. Dennett calls the self a narrative center of gravity, in that all your internally generated stories revolve around that imaginary self.

Use of the term, narrative, means we are talking about the realm of language.  In the sciences of the mind it is not totally settled whether you can be conscious without language.  Some of us seem to think mostly in words, while others excel at “visualizing” stories of the past or future.  Steven Pinker says[10], “Consciousness surely does not depend on language. Babies, many animals and patients robbed of speech by brain damage are not insensate robots; they have reactions like ours that indicate that someone’s home.”  However, his examples seem to be about the awareness possessed by the I*.  The Me* is the story-maker.  Pre-verbal infants and animals might be able to create a self narrative without using words, maybe analogous to a stick-figure cartoon with only non-verbal sounds.  Dreaming dogs look and sound like they are doing this.  Our own dreams are often eerily lacking dialog.  For now let’s say that the “language” of consciousness might be in some proportions verbal, pre-verbal or non-verbal.

However, consciousness science has not clearly decided whether the I* is only an observer, as it is when one is meditating, or whether it is also responsible for decisions to act.  I hinted at this when talking about Kahneman’s experiencing self, and how it can cause actions contrary to the plans of the remembering self.  Experts often cite mindfulness meditation as the pure “I”.  But when they talk about controlling action (which the philosophers, as we shall see later, call “agency”) they cite the I* as its source, apparently because action always occurs in some present moment.  But this doesn’t make any sense.  Everything in the conscious self occurs in the present moment; that’s one of the defining characteristics of consciousness.  It makes more sense to stick with the proven existence (via studies on meditation) of the pure awareness that we call I*.  This leaves action/agency to the thinking, narrating, remembering, the Me*, which is processing the information needed to decide about actions.  There are fMRI studies that are starting to localize all these functions in particular parts of the brain.  Hopefully such studies can eventually resolve the question.

It seems clear enough that what we have called the Jamesian Self of the I* and the Me* is pretty well accepted.Before moving on we have to carefully interpret this narrative thing.  Ever since the postmodernist social critics, the word narrative has been applied to many things.  Among those who study the self there are those who think that the self narrative is a life story that we try to keep consistent.  Some say that a self narrative is the only way to live a life of which you would be proud: the old “unexamined life is not worth living” idea.  Skeptics say that neither of these things is true, that, for example, some people live more in the moment, so that their past experiences are only implicit (usually not recalled to memory) in how they affect conduct and thinking. According to the philosopher Galen Strawson[11], people just differ in how much they think about the past. Some critics think that the Me*s narratives are really short, trivial,and disconnected: on the order of, I’m hungry so I should decide what to eat.

For our purposes I think we should be flexible about the scope and continuity of what we think is self narrative.  For different people, or a person at different times, the extent to which they try to connect the present to their overall life story is going to vary.  The hungry person might decide to eat just because, or because there won’t be time later, or because the mood changes from being too hungry have led to regrettable social interactions, or because Dad always said you had to “clean your plate” to the child that you once were, or because food should not be wasted when some people in the world are going hungry.  Our stories may be short and disconnected, or thoughtfully grounded in who we are, or anything in between.  None of these differences seem pertinent to our map of the mind.

In this and the previous chapter we have seen a number of theorists and theories that map well to the Jamesian Self of the I* and the Me*.  Ken Wilber calls an idea that is generally accepted an “orienting generalization”: something that is true enough to use in understanding other things.  Now that we accept the Jamesian Self as an orienting generalization we can keep on filling out our map around that center.

[1] The Ego Tunnel: the Science of Mind and the myth of the self. Thomas Metzinger, Basic Books, 2009.

[2] Principles of Psychology, William James, 1890.

[3] https://www.ted.com/talks/daniel_kahneman_the_riddle_of_experience_vs_memory

[4] Homo Deus: a Brief History of Tomorrow. Yuval Harari, Project Gutenberg, 2017.

[5] The Interpreter within: the Glue of Conscious Experience. Michael S. Gazzaniga. http://www.dana.org/Cerebrum/Default.aspx?id=39343

[6] Philosophical conceptions of the self: implications for cognitive science.  Shaun Gallagher. http://ummoss.org/gallagherTICS00.pdf

[7] Dennett, D. C. (1992). The self as a center of narrative gravity. In Self and consciousness: Multiple perspectives. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

[8] The Interpreter within: the glue of conscious experience. Michael S. Gazzangia. http://www.dana.org/Cerebrum/Default.aspx?id=39343

[9] The Self as a Center of Narrative Gravity.  Daniel Dennett.  In Self and Consciousness: Multiple Perspectives, F. Kessel, P. Cole and D. Johnson, eds, Erlbaum, 1992.

[10] The Brain: the Mystery of Consciousness. Steven Pinker. Time, 1/29/2007.

[11] Against Narrativity.  Galen Strawson, Ratio (new series) XVII 4 December 2004 0034–0006


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