BUNDLE: Identity problems (1)

What’s Been Studied

We have seen what causes people to have a unified personal identity. We’ve also looked at the parts of the mind.  We can use this knowledge to look deeper into the construction of identity.  Under the rock of unified identity there are some interesting problems crawling around.

The Three Problems.

The consciousness theorists glibly divide their studies into a Hard Problem (subjectivity) and an Easy Problem (everything else). Identity studies, in contrast, are often divided according to the time scale involved.  Table 1 shows a division of analysis into three parts: longer term continuity, shorter term coherence, and multiplicity. These divisions are often seen in the literature about the origins and significance of personal identity.

Table 1: Problems in Understanding Personal Identity

Problem Focus Denoted by Characterized by
Lifetime Diachronic: longer term cohesion.

Psychological continuity (John Locke)

True self.



Physical body (bodily self).

Interpersonal uniqueness (social self).

Life story/biography (narrative self).

Right Now Synchronic: Shorter term coherence.

Who I am right now.

Minimal self (Shaun Gallagher).






Agency (volitional self).

Mental stance/POV (perspectival self).

Ownership (bounded self)

Plural Different selves within one person. Sub-self.


Coexistence, level of integration.

Competition, exclusion and control.

Degree of development.

The problem that we addressed in the UNITY chapter is the maintenance of longer term cohesion, which we might call the Lifetime Problem. This was the problem posed so clearly by John Locke, and then Thomas Reid, with his example of the callow youth, young lieutenant, and old general, all the same person.  When we talk about the person, their personality, or their true self we are in the territory of the Lifetime Problem.

The Right Now Problem is about shorter term coherence of personality.  We take as granted that at any one time in our consciousness that is happening happens to a single person, ourself.  This happens on the “thin moment of the present” time scale of the perceiving self, fed by the Self’s body-grounded senses of agency and ownership. However, for identity there is something more, an immediate sense, not just that “I am”, but “who I am (right now).”

The first two problems have technical names: diachronic (across time) and synchronic (at one time) identity. The third problem might be called the Plural Problem. We can seem, within ourselves and to others, to have multiple identities. These come and go on different time scales.  Different identities may overlap or alternate in time, compete or coexist.  Some identities can be stronger or more intense.  Multiplicity can vary: from mundane normality (such as playing different social roles or having imaginary playmates) to shocking pathology (dissociative identity disorder). The existence of multiplicity gives real spice to how we understand “who I am (right now)”.

The Lifetime Problem.

The Lifetime Problem of Identity, as we saw in the UNITY chapter, is fairly well understood.  Biological boundaries and our social environment are ultimately responsible for the coherence of a personal identity over one’s lifetime.  Throughout life we retain the material boundaries of body, brain and immune system, while social contacts and institutions reinforce our history to make us a particular social being. The Lifetime Problem is “easy”, but only in the analytic sense that we have access to the information needed to study it: the observations of others and of oneself about oneself.  It’s not like the social scientists, psychologists, philosophers and others haven’t fought over both theories and evidence since the time of John Locke.

Nor is it easy in terms of managing one’s life. First of all, far too many people find that maintaining an identity is a struggle against marginalizing prejudice and oppression. The magnitude and scope of this problem is such that, in the late twentieth century, schools of social criticism pronounced a coherent identity to be impossible, destroyed by power structures and the impotence of language itself.

Even for the more privileged in the world, life transitions such as graduation or parenthood are sometimes actual, problematic transitions and not just the next step. Secondly, in our current culture lots of us often need to or want to reinvent ourselves. After a mess of some kind, we may need to start over.  Or we might be lucky enough to have means and opportunities to, for instance, have a second career, or even a sequence or parallel collection of short-lived careers.  The old “modernist” industrial treadmill of one life trajectory no longer binds us, and, necessarily, no longer leads to a single lifetime identity.


Researchers have recently turned their attention to understanding mind wandering.  This is a mental activity that occupies some 2/3 of our conscious time.  Hundreds of times a day we involuntarily turn our mental attention from our outside surroundings or current task and start to mentally meander.  Sometimes a wander is a minor interruption from which we return to a more focused kind of thought.  Often it is reflections on our past, present, or future that may ultimately change how we behave. And for a few people a wandering mind can be pathologically diverting from real life. But the main and normal function is now believed to be knitting together pieces of our memories and imaginings, creating, in our friend T. Metzinger’s words[1],an “adaptive form of self-deception, namely, an illusion of personal identity across time.”

So for Metzinger and others mind wandering is the Right Now mental activity that solves the Lifetime Problem for us.  It’s our bridge between the present moment and our need for a continuous, cohesive identity.  We should perhaps consider it as the core activity of the narrative self.  We shall learn more later about how mind wandering fits in the spectrum of conscious states.

The Right Now Problem.

“The only Existence, of which we are certain, are Perceptions. … I never can catch myself at any Time without a Perception, and never can observe any Thing but the Perception … I may venture to affirm of the rest of Mankind, that they are nothing but a Bundle of Perceptions … ” David Hume[2], 1745

Identity’s Right Now problem perhaps began with David Hume reducing the self to a structureless bundle of perceptions.  He seems, posthumously, to have triumphed.  If there is any substantial consensus in the study of the conscious self, it is what is commonly referred to as “bundle theory” (honoring Hume).  As we have seen, experts say today that our minds are just a bubbling stew of disconnected, competing functions and mechanisms, adding up to an illusion like the Great Oz behind the curtain.  So you could say that bundle theory leads to the belief that the conscious self is an illusion. IF bundle theory THEN illusory self.

But what actually was behind that curtain?  In the Wizard of Oz, it was a man, a coherent and purposeful, if goofy, particular agent.  He had a life story.  Intuitively you might think that whether or not the self is an illusion, personal identity is a different kind of thing to understand, and it has its own properties and reality. Experts tend to agree – those who focus on the Self tend not to talk about identity, and vice-versa.  Nevertheless, the Right Now Problem of identity has a lot of overlap with study of the self and consciousness because they both are focused on the present moment.

Thus ideas we have already seen — being the agent of ones actions, ownership of ones body and perceptions, and the first person point of view — are important for understanding the internal sense of identity.  These are what give us the feeling of being a particular someone, a single coherent entity, at any given time.

The influence of bundle theory has also led research to focus instead on lower level issues: why there is (A) only one consciousness (B) with the illusion of a now, a present moment.  The estimable Thomas Metzinger calls these the one world problem and the now problem. You might have noticed that philosophers prize Problems over money.

The answers to these are being sought by research into brain activity happening during conscious experiences.  I mentioned gamma band synchrony before in connection with meditation.  Researchers have studied rhythmic synchrony (like the gamma band), other kinds of synchrony such as simultaneous activation of multiple broad brain regions, and exotic measures of the complexity of brain activity.  These are all taken to be “neural correlates”: brain measures that occur at the same time as conscious events and thus underly or explain those events.  There are quite a few theories[3] that try to explain how the mechanisms of these neural events account for features such as the unity of conscious experience or the sense of now-ness and the passage of time.  However, no clear winner has emerged.

So for the Right Now Problem of Identity we have two lines of investigation.  We can look at the neuroscience about the present, unitary conscious moment.  We can also look at psychological studies of agency and ownership.  You might say that these emphasize the “right now” part of “who I am right now.”  We shall come back to how to approach the “who I am” later.

The Plural Problem.

‘Dear, dear! How queer everything is to-day! And yesterday things went on just as usual. I wonder if I’ve been changed in the night? Let me think: was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I’m not the same, the next question is, Who in the world am I? Ah, THAT’S the great puzzle!’  – Alice, speaking from Wonderland

The Oxford don Charles Dodgson must have read the previous century’s philosophical arguments about identity depending on memory.  His character Alice was often confused about who she was, and the word “remember” appears 21 times in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland[4].  Dodgson himself seems to have felt a deep divide between being a popular writer and being an unhappy mathematician.  He also juggled being a reluctant Anglican deacon, a noted photographer, a casual inventor, a love poet without any obvious lover, and — in his words — “a vile and worthless sinner”, whatever that might have meant.

We all have our divisions.  Some of us are different people when we’re hungry and when we’ve eaten. Many of us have conflicts between social roles, like Lewis Carroll/Charles Dodgson.  Our conflicts can also be between current and future selves.  A few people lead such extraordinary or difficult lives that Arya Starck in The Game of Thrones saga might seem like at most a caricature for them.

The Plural Problem (last row in Table 1) is about accounting for all these different selves.  It tends to be the province of psychologists, psychiatrists, and people who share their orientation.  Consider that a recent encyclopedic history[5] of the idea of self and personal identity, written by two philosophers, has only a few lines about multiple personalities, and a few pages out of 380 about plurality of selves.

Plurality gets studied as a side effect of psychological curiosity about why we do what we do.  Over and over, new theories come up that try to account for the maddening inconsistency of our behavior.  America may be the home of rugged individualism, but it was two American philosophers, William James and George Herbert Mead, who brought the world’s attention to the now-obvious fact that we get nearly all of our identity from interaction with other people.  It was the philosophical interest in this kind of stuff that spun off the fields of psychology and sociology.  Indeed, James was also an early psychologist and Mead an early sociologist.

Since their beginnings in the early twentieth century, the two fields have struggled to find the right scientific methods.  How do you find a parsimonious explanation of the bewildering variety of our behavior and, even more challenging — the contradictions inherent therein?  The models that have been willing to tackle that problem have usually had some flavor of identity plurality in them.

“Life is a cabaret, old chum” — Cabaret, 1966

The song, Cabaret, has had many interpretations, but the broadest is that life is bittersweet and is like a stage production.  The musical came 10 years after the seminal dramaturgical theory[6] of the self from Erving Goffman.  He explained our playing of social roles with (you guessed it) an extended theatrical metaphor, in which we behave front stage, back stage, and off stage to make impressions on our social audience that harmonize with the roles they expect of us.  Even 60 years later this view of self presentation permeates culture, with Facebook, selfies, and personal “branding” expanding our opportunities to be “on stage.”

Goffman emphasized the self’s attempt to influence the other.  But much earlier a peer of James and Mead, Charles Horton Cooley, theorized[7] that we are in fact molded by how we imagine that others see us.  He called this the “looking glass self” because, although others are involved they don’t so much tell us directly what we ought to be. Instead we tell ourselves, based on our imaginative interpretation of what the others expect (remember his “I am what I think that you think I am”).  This is a subtle and nuanced idea for its time, early in the history of social science.

The latter half of the twentieth century was spent working out the details of these social connections that make each of us such a multifaceted person.  A lot of this development clung to the idea of a core or true self and how our multiple roles derived from, or interfered with, that central part.  We were integrated or fragmented, authentic or counterfeit, rational or automatic.  Some theorists emphasized developmental stages with major changes in our lifespan.  This was plurality where a single self held sway during a stage.  True plurality (multiple selves coexisting or alternating over a shorter time frame) would then occur in transitions between stages, when the new you and the old you were fighting it out.

Eventually, leading up to now, researchers started attributing divisions in self more to divisions in the underlying mind, as we have seen.  However, interest in plurality also cropped up from two other directions.

The first of these was microeconomics.  It started out with models of ideally rational behavior of individuals but these were found to be simplistic. Better models took into account the fact that we have conflicts behind our decisions.  Perhaps the first notice of or impetus for this work was an influential essay from Nobel economist Thomas Schelling.  He contributed this scientific insight to the erudite readers of the Journal of Political Economy back in 1961[8]: “… everybody behaves like two people, one who wants clean lungs and long life and another who adores tobacco, or one who wants a lean body and another who wants dessert.”  It came to be understood that these types of conflicts are between our immediate self (Kahneman’s experiencing self, the I*) and our longer-term self (Kahneman’s remembering, narrating, planning self, the Me*). Theorists took special notice of one self’s tricks to force “self control” on the other self.  This would include locking up the booze, or the cigs, or the potato chips, or the gun. In our house the chocolate gets stashed in the fridge crisper along with the lettuce and parsley.  There’s also the dodge of mailing yourself the smartphone to keep it away for a while. Or let somebody else do the policing: send the kid to boarding or military school; tax tobacco.

The other plurality-emphasizing movement came from depth psychology: Carl Jung and the Jungians in particular.  These theorists saw the conflicts within us not as due to social expectations, economic dilemmas, split brains, or (we’ll see this later) unconscious priming.  No, they attribute it to a mysterious shared unconscious full of mythical archetypes.  Different archetypes can compete to take over consciousness.  Jungian theory gradually became to be seen as non-scientific, but a valuable tool in a certain type of psychoanalysis.

In the 90’s a new theory came along, focused completely on plurality, that seemed to have a bit of all preceding theories in it.  Dialogical Self Theory (DST) proposes that each a human mind consists of multiple “self-positions” that act as semi-independent agents.  Some self positions are internalized versions of specific outside parties such as significant others.  Other self positions may be thought of as originating internally and include traditional social roles (son of my father, church goer, artist, soldier) and even points of view or interests (rock’n‘roll fan, foody).  These positions are “dialogical” in the sense that they each have a voice inside your head, and will engage in dialog with some of the other self positions.

DST has been used mainly for psychotherapy.  It uses questioning techniques designed to uncover self positions, and then works to externalize their dialogs so that issues and conflicts can be processed in a therapeutic setting.  When DST came along there had been two decades of strong interest in something called multiple personality disorder.  A backlash was underway, with therapists being sued for apparently promoting the creation of multiple personalities.  DST seems to be a way to accept a therapist’s ability to promote either the uncovering or creation of multiple subselves as a positive goal.  But you can also see echos of other theories.  The self-positions talk to each other like characters in a play (Goffman’s dramaturgical theory, narrative self); external characters are internalized (Williamm James, George H. Mead, Cooley’s Looking Glass Self, and many others); internal conflict (the microeconomics theorists, Jungians and many others); and there are multiple, sometimes archetypal, internal voices (Jungians).

There is very little research on DST, though its adherents would like that to happen. It appears to have some grassroots appeal to lay and self-taught therapists. We shall see later that it has been used in a cultural anthropology context to explain people who believe that they engage in “shape-shifting.”

The founders of DST acknowledge the influence of Mikhail Bakhtin, Russian philosopher, semioticist and literary critic.  They cite Bakhtin’s analysis of literary “polyphony” in which an author actually has, within particular work, multiple voices as an author, but embedded in his character creations.  This hearkens back to Shakespeare’s use of sixth order Theory of Mind intentionality in his plays.  Presumably we would have to go up to seventh order for some works (”Dostoevksy envisions that the reader must understand that Raskolnikov believes <in the truth of some narrative chain of points of view> …”).

There is a lot more to say about plurality. There are many kinds of plurality, some are obscure but not always that rare. Some of these aspects of self are claimed to come from that invisible reservoir, the unconscious, but this can happen in different ways.  Later chapters will dig deeper.  But next we need to introduce what might be considered a neglected problem of personal identity, related to plurality and quite likely caused by the late death of the Self.

[1] The myth of cognitive agency: subpersonal thinking as a cyclically recurring loss of mental autonomy., Thomas Metzinger, Frontiers in Psychology, 2013.

[2] A Letter from a Gentleman to His Firiend in Edinburgh, David Hume, 1745

[3] Models of Consciousness, Anil Seth, Scholarpedia, 2(1):1328, 2007.

[4] Alice’s Adventrues in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll,

[5] The Rise and Fall of Soul and Self: an Intellectual History of Personal Identity. Raymond Martin and John Barresi, 2006.

[6] The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life, Erving Goffman, 1956.

[7] Human Nature and the Social Order, Charles Horton Cooley,

[8] Egonomics, or the Art of Self-management.  Thomas C. Schelling, Journal of Political Economy, 1961.

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