MIND: Identity rides this horse (3)

Inside and Underside

Inside of a person it’s too dark to read. — after Mark Twain

There is another realm of perception — that of internal (bodily) perception.  On our mind map  (Figure 1) internal perception (in purple) is a gateway connecting the conscious Ego Tunnel with bodily events in the unconscious realm.  Philosophers are interested in our internal events because they long believed that, compared to our perception of the outside world, internal perceptions are special and thus contribute to our gaining and retaining a sense of self.


Figure 1: Map of the Embedded Mind

There’s a paradox here.  Even if you were a “philosophical zombie” (behaving like a person but with no sense of self), you would still have a rich inner life because of all the bodily sensations that you have.  But what is special about them is that (to yourself) they are so clearly yours and yours alone.  Nobody else has the itch that you are currently feeling.  Nobody else feels that particular stomach grumble, heart beat, knee pain, nausea, or dizziness.  Nobody else can use your muscles to guide your finger to your nose with your eyes closed.

This knowledge is an instance of the philosophical notion that there are some first person things we cannot be wrong about.  The philosophers say that we can’t be wrong about who we refer to when we say “I believe”, “I am” or “I feel”.  We might be wrong about the truth of a belief itself (such as “Climate change is a Chinese hoax”), or be deluded about some quality that we think we have (”Trust me, I’m like a smart person.”)  But we can’t be wrong about the fact that we are talking about ourselves, that we believe a thing.  Philosophers call this principle “immunity to error through misidentification”.  That is a truly awkward phrasing.  Even they are glad to shorten it to “IEM”, because they like to talk about it a lot.

Some things that our body knows and deals with may never rise to consciousness: that we need more blood flow, more glycogen dumped from the liver, more digestive acids, and other stuff that just keeps the human animal running.  If you went to school in the twentieth century, this was called maintaining homeostasis, a steady state. The idea that life needed a steady state was, in a way, a reflection of the needs for stability that we had in that turbulent century.  Now in the twenty-first we are all about finding and pushing our limits. We only have some inkling of these unconscious processes if we are exceeding our operating specifications.  Such excess can happen, for example, because of disease or because of some cheerleading (”Go! Do something unusual or hard to prove how good you are.”) from the conscious mind.  So a big dessert after a plenty big meal might have you tasting excess stomach acid.  A marathon makes you feel, rightly, that all the glycogen is gone, and that your heart couldn’t possibly pump any faster.  We push beyond homeostasis, and automatic processes can rise to consciousness.

There are some other internal things that we just know, as the philosophers say, transparently, without thinking about them.  These include such things as the position of our limbs, whether we are tired or hungry, where we hurt.  These may pop into consciousness or not, depending on our current needs.  If they do, they are IEM, that is, we know they are happening to us and not someone else. We probably don’t start out life knowing this IEM stuff, because for a while it is hard for us to discriminate between what is true of ourselves and what is true of others, particularly our caregivers.  We presumably learn the difference ultimately by observing others, that their reactions to things are different from our own, which leads to us acquiring the above-mentioned theory of mind.  Theorists have noted that knowledge of others might very well contribute to the development of our own sense of self.

In the long run we get quite sophisticated about inferring (or knowing) things about our selves.  These things divide quite nicely, from a philosophical point of view, into agency and ownership.  Agency is the sense that you and you alone have caused something to happen, such as taking a walking step, or heartburn after over-eating.  Ownership is the belief that some attribute (like your having two legs) is, without a doubt, yours and yours alone. These aspects of self knowledge are not always IEM (immune to error about whether they refer to our self), but we tend to think they are because we are so familiar with other aspects, as explained above, that are IEM.  Philosophers currently love to talk about agency and ownership because (1) they are important to our sense of self or personal identity, and (2) the situations where we can get them wrong are ripe for arguments over what they mean.

What would be some examples of getting them wrong?  In terms of errors about agency, people with schizophrenia often say that someone else put a thought in their own mind, or that someone else caused them to believe or even do something. A more everyday occurrence is when those of us who are not psychotic still find a way to blame someone else for our actions.  Doubt about self agency can be more subtle, as when one says or thinks: “Did I just say that (awkward or regrettable utterance) out loud?”

The most commonly known example of error about ownership is the rubber hand illusion.  This illusion, even though it is really quite mind-blowing, can be produced by anyone; you don’t have to be an experimental psychologist.  The illusion pairs the stroking of a subject’s concealed hand with a view of a rubber hand being touched in the same way.  Eventually the subject will feel his own hand being touched when he sees the rubber hand being touched, even though his own hand is NO LONGER being touched.  In effect the subject takes the ownership of the rubber hand to be his own.  We could also say that some things that happen during hypnotism disconnect us from ownership, e.g., of a physical symptom, or an emotional connection to a traumatic memory.

I leave it to the reader to imagine ways in which drunkenness could mess up agency or ownership.  In general, though, agency and ownership tend to work pretty well nearly all the time. I can tell whether I moved my arm or whether the doctor did it while examining me.  So we know what’s us and what’s not.  Some argue that such knowledge is foundational, that without it you would not have the kind of sense of self that you take for granted.  Even the Buddhists, when speaking about[1] the illusory Self, note that one may identify with some mental events as “me” (= agency) or “mine” (= ownership).  What I want to emphasize here is that these everyday things we know about ourselves, and that give us the feeling that “this is me” generally are either directly retrieved from the unconscious or else built on top of knowledge from the unconscious.

Note that if you are not psychotic, drunk or brain-damaged (which is hopefully most of the time), the self knowledge described above is also, according to Quassim Cassam[2], “trivial” because it is so easy to come by.  Cassam notes that philosophers nearly always ignore the kind of self knowledge we really care about, “substantial self knowledge”: that is, a more or less accurate understanding of our own character, limitations and aspirations.  Such knowledge requires mental sophistication and use of information from other people.  We can be very deceived about this.  A person might not know that he is a narcissistic bastard, while others, perhaps many others, do know.   Nearly all of us choose to believe only feedback about our imagined good qualities, throwing anything else into a mental trash can.

Which brings us to the fact that some deficits in our substantial self knowledge are also traceable to the unconscious.  We often feel things or take actions that seem to come from nowhere, because unconscious parts of us suddenly seize control without yielding any awareness about why.  Some people give the Jungian name, the Shadow, to these part/parts of the mind responsible for perplexing bursts of temper or tears.  These parts may have been actively repressed earlier in life.

Another mode of unconscious expression, according to anthropologist Gregory Bateson[3], is our nonverbal communications.  He said that we express though body language and tone of voice things that are not really translatable into words.  While some nonverbals can be feigned by actors or other speech makers, they normally happen without a conscious decision or even awareness.  Thus some expressions of our personal style and feelings, which might otherwise give us self insight, can be obscured from us, and often are perceived only subliminally by others.

We are only hitting the highlights here, so it is time to talk about how things get to be conscious.

Fishing in the Unconscious Reservoir.

“Consciousness … does not appear to itself chopped up in bits.  It is nothing jointed; it flows.  A ‘river’ or a ‘stream’ are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described.” — William James, 1890

William James’s metaphor of a conscious stream is meant to emphasize continuity, how one thing flows into another. He says that we have transitions from one focus of thought to another, but each transition partakes somehow of both the previous and following thought, the net result being absolute subjective continuity.  We noted before that with modern research tools we know that  there are tiny gaps that happen in perceiving and mental processing, but we aren’t aware of those in consciousness.  Therefore James is, once again, correct from his perspective of more than a hundred years ago.

Of course a real stream might have different currents going alongside one another.  Sticking with the stream metaphor, that would allow that we could have two or more thoughts running in parallel.  Can you think about more than one thing at a time?  Not at a conscious level.  You might do more than one thing at a time, but you are doing it by rapidly switching back and forth.  So our prized “multi-tasking” is just an illusion, and, research shows, is neither efficient nor harmless.  Trying to do chores and manage young children “at the same time” is incredibly wearing.  Trying to drive and mess with your phone is a major cause of “accidents.”

Now there’s a paradox here.  The brain has often been described as an enormous parallel processor.  And we know that it does fantastic numbers of things at once, like an octopus with a million arms.  But, consider that we have this commonsense concept about “paying attention”.  Attention is also a longstanding concept in psychology.  What both concepts mean is that at any given time the stream of consciousness has a single directed focus.  Our attention is on one thing at a time, such as: the appearance of the person in front of us, or what they are saying, or how what they are saying relates to what they said before, or how having to listen to them is annoying because we need to get a drink instead.  Note that in the first two examples attention is focused on the Ego Tunnel surface facing the external world.  In the other examples attention is focused on the internally facing surface, the border between consciousness and the unconscious.

“Attention” then is our everyday term for changes in the contents of our single stream of consciousness.   For a while I thought that we could blame the I* for changing attention, like it was some sort of channel changer remote control.  But that gives full control over consciousness to the part that we have described as pure awareness, i.e., an observer only.  Changes of attention are the same thing as changes to the contents of our conscious stream.  If we now sort out how those changes happen, then this long-winded “basic” overview of our simple mind map can come, mercifully, to a conclusion.

The stream of consciousness arises from five main mechanisms.

  • Unconscious mental processes have to take turns getting access to consciousness.
  • Subjectively we see this as shifting of our attention. Sometimes the shift seems volitional and sometimes it seems to be imposed upon us.
  • Memories come into consciousness, sometimes being pushed up from the unconscious and sometimes after a mental effort to find them.
  • We explore the future by imagining it.
  • We annotate our own perceptions and thoughts, adding or extracting meaning that also serves to help future extraction from memory.

So we only have a single stream of thought, more like a water pipe, really, but there’s a lot going on, both in the world around us and in the many parts of our society of mind.  How is it determined which things get into consciousness?  My 2 1/2 year old daughter once said to me, “Daddy, I know everything now.”  That would be us if we knew how consciousness keeps filled up. One natural model would be to suppose that thoughts and perceptions have to compete for access to the stream, based on some criteria.  It feels like a competition at some times (when driving, lost, in fast traffic in the rain with a baby crying in the back seat) more than others (reclining on white sand with a mild breeze and gentle waves rolling in).  But what kinds of mental events would compete?

First of all there are immediate, deliberate decisions.  Following our train of thought, we just naturally decide: to look at something, to listen for something, to say something, to recall a name or what someone said last time we saw them, to memorize a phone number, that it’s time to stop and look for birds, to take a selfie, to … OMG did I leave the water running?

I threw that last one in even though it feels different.  It might be an unconscious warning that somehow finally got access to consciousness.  It instead might be the result of thinking about what you have to do when you return home, which causes some kind of mental spark to jump from the idea of home to the memory of turning on the garden hose.  That spark is not necessarily intentional, but is a bit more than a happy accident, because you are a person who tries to avoid goof-ups.

The unconscious is a huge reservoir of stuff that sometimes becomes conscious. As Galen Strawson said, “The conscious/non-conscious border is both murky and porous.”  We symbolize this by double-headed arrow in our Map.  Some unconscious material emerges (from our conscious perspective) apparently spontaneously.  But it is probably the case that we have a large number of unconscious watchers, each with permission to interrupt consciousness when certain things happen.  This could be a long list, including internal and external perceptual events: sudden loss of balance;  the urge to sneeze; large object approaching fast; hearing your spouse’s voice; bell on the shop door rings. Basically our conscious bell gets rung because of unplanned events related to a whole spectrum of biological drives, emotions, motives and preplanned goals or intentions, all of which live in the unconscious part of the mind.

Other changes to the conscious stream are deliberate, activating dormant parts of the mind to do specific jobs.  You might need to do some arithmetic, or estimate your chances of getting away with something, or make a pizza crust, or type on a keyboard. These mental parts have been variously characterized.  For Minsky they were the utility parts of the society of mind.  Metzinger calls them “virtual organs of consciousness.“ The psychologist Robert Ornstein said they are “small minds” of different types, made up of major and minor abilities and biases.

All of your memory is unconscious until you actually recall something from it.  The act of trying to recall can provide a simple demonstration that conscious thinking is not necessarily done in words.  When you try to recall a name or other word you cannot say the word mentally because you don’t at that time know it.  But in some sense you know about it, as a hole or gap in your knowledge.

Suppose you have an intention of telling someone that the new English teacher’s given name is Myrtle.  You might want to ask Dan if he’s met Myrtle.  Mentally you start to formulate a sentence like, “Have you met the new teacher?”  But you don’t even finish the plan for saying the sentence out loud because you can’t supply her name.  So you try to remember her name, a mental effort that doesn’t use words, but instead is sort of a mental reaching that is associated with thoughts about the missing name.  Maybe you think that the name had an “r” sound, or you can “see” (i.e., recall) her face, or you know where you first met her.  Your conscious mind is doing something like a search engine query, and it somehow knows when the right answer is recalled.  This is because other memories come along with it that confirm the episode in which you learned the name.

Very often we begin with recall of an episodic memory, and then we consciously wander through other memories, exploring the past.  The conscious stream can also be taken over by explorations of the future.  We start to imagine plans and fantasies: how the future might be shaped by actions or events.  We compare this future with the past or present.  Conscious wandering in the past and future is, we think, one of our big adaptive advantages compared to other animals.  But we need our unconscious watchdogs to also take care of the present.  Early humans who were too lost in thought also got “lost” to predation, or walked off a cliff.

There is another category of conscious activity that seems obvious to me, although I have not yet seen it described.  At times when we are experiencing or thinking, we seem to mentally annotate those experiences or thoughts.  We do this by thinking or feeling more deeply about those mental events, perhaps extracting meaningfulness or assigning importance, either of which might change how the “remembering self” has access.

It is probably obvious that any overview of the mind’s structure and function, and certainly this overview, has to be shallow, ruthlessly pruning away sometimes famous material.   For instance, if you were taught Freud or Jung back in the day, you might miss them here. Some important concepts didn’t make the cut yet, but will be developed later if they help with our theme of personal identity.

[1] Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy. Evan Thompson, 2015.

[2] Self Knowledge for Humans – Beginner’s Guide. Quassim Cassam.  http://www.self-knowledgeforhumans.com/beginners-guide.html

[3] Steps to an ecology of mind: Collected essays in anthropology, psychiatry, evolution, and epistemology. Gregory Batesony. University of Chicago Press, 1972.

MIND: Identity rides this horse (2)

The BodyMind

These days the mind is rarely considered in isolation from the body.  Even in science fiction, with mind transplants, uploads, and teleportation, they write about how mind and body are entwined, so that new minds adjust to bodies, or they miss the old bodies.  It’s also true that when people speak about the brain and the mind, it’s a shorthand because what matters is really the whole nervous system.  As time goes on, research has expanded the physical basis of the mind.  We now know that bacteria in your gut can do things like make you want to eat sugar, apparently by affecting the large part of the nervous system in the gut.

So, in Figure 1 we don’t hold body and mind that much apart.  The map has one big beehive shape, the BodyMind, that is their combination.  Its orange outline is more or less the border of the body.  The rest of the diagram is a square-topped shape representing the Outside World.

Within the BodyMind there is the Ego Tunnel, and inside it, all that we are aware of: what the philosophers call the contents of consciousness.  The rest of the BodyMind, outside of the Ego Tunnel, represents the unconscious mind, which is everything from: the sensory organs and their output, to our past stored as memories, and all the other work of the BodyMind of which we are not consciously aware.


Figure 1: Map of the Embedded Mind

The Ego Tunnel’s surface (the blue, wavy line) looks like a border between conscious and unconscious territory, but it’s not just a border.  The Ego Tunnel is also a computational process, our own personal virtual reality generator that consumes some huge fraction of the processing power of our nervous system.  Also, in our visual metaphor, the inside of the Ego Tunnel is part of it, the reason for its existence — the Jamesian Self.  We have talked about the function of its parts before.  Let’s now look into how they fit into the overall holon called the embedded mind.

Metaphors for Me*

Figure 1 shows the I* immersed in/surrounded by the yellow space of the Me*The I* can be focused on things outside of the Self, via the senses, and it can be focused on itself, the Me*.  Some information, such as raw bodily sensations, no doubt flows directly to the I* from the unconscious, but many things observed by the I* are mediated by the self model, the Me*. Anything we say about the Me* is of course just a metaphor.  The Me* is a thing unlike any other, so we struggle to classify or describe it.

The narrative metaphor discussed earlier is helpful, but it’s doubtful that we could push that any further and think of the Me* as a book, even a book that continues to write itself.  People just don’t keep their whole life available to re-examine at any time. At its most reduced the metaphor would be something like Dennett’s “center of narrative gravity.”  But Dennett is a contrarian.  This is just one of his ways of saying that consciousness doesn’t really exist as a thing, that there is nothing about it that we need to explain, that there’s no Hard Problem of Consciousness.

Another powerful metaphor for the Me* is that of a model or simulation, as proposed by Metzinger.  Either term has the sense of something that stands for something else by virtue of simplifying it.  Prior to the digital age, use of either “model” or “simulation” would have meant that the simplification was rather extreme.  Even a mathematical simulation would lack dynamism and detail.  These days, however, computation allows us to simulate something to an astonishing degree of likeness, and our thinkers routinely imagine simulations of alternate realities as being possible.  So a simulation implies the dynamism that is lacking in a narrative.

But wait a minute — if you simulate part of the Self, what is the thing being simulated?  It can’t be some Self that is more real.  Philosophy’s usual answer to that question is that the simulation is of “what it is like (remember Nagel’s conscious bat from the previous chapter?) to be you.”  This still sounds circular: the Self is a simulation of the Self?  That’s why it always seems so helpful to say that there is an I*, which at least gives us something that is aware of the simulation.

Further understanding the functioning of the Ego Tunnel needs to consider what is outside the Tunnel and how it gets into consciousness.  Let’s turn to what is outside the Ego Tunnel’s border, a border that is, according to Galen Strawson “both murky and porous.”  As our diagram shows, there are two realms outside the Ego Tunnel: the outside world and the internal, unconscious mind.

Perception and Sociality.

Figure 1 shows perceptual processing, largely automatic and unconscious, as the gateway through which the simulation of the outside world arrives into the Ego Tunnel.  As we have seen, crisp and live as that world seems, it is only a model, poor in detail, with invisible gaps.  I have been hearing that refrain since my college psych courses, but always I (actually, my Me*) thought, ‘So what, it works well enough and any goofs (illusions) that it makes are just curiosities.’  The reality behind this unreal simulation is something else, however.  First of all, quantum theory completely destroys the solidity of the outside world.  All those particles that make up our illusory environment are continually forking into different parts of the multiverse as their wave functions collapse.

Suppose you shrug off the idea of quantum theory as being reality’s clown suit, and assume that the body of reality somehow stands naked and exposed to us. There is still gobs of evidence that we see and hear and feel things that aren’t there, yet not some things that are there.  Our abilities are designed to maintain the illusion of a stable outside world, even though the raw data we start with represent only bits and pieces of that world.  We all know about the visual blind spot, but we never see it.  Our eyes continually make tiny movements, but we never are aware of it.  When we scan across a scene our minds fill in the gaps between the images seen at the beginning and end of a scan.  The fine detail of the world’s visual appearance is only there for focal vision.  Peripheral vision is an entirely different, lower resolution simulation, but we believe that it and the focal world are continuous, one and the same.  We finely discriminate colors when they are side by side, but can’t identify them later in a line-up.  The same color perception can be caused by different combinations of light wavelengths.

There is a theory, called critical realism, that evolution has forced us to evolve senses that accurately model the outside world, because how else would we find our food and mates, and escape danger.  This theory is being replaced by one based on a mathematical proof[1] that what matters is identifying something more quickly while expending less energy to do it.  That would mean that we would evolve perception that matches reality only if reality was already structured in a way that meets our needs.  Most of us do not think that the universe was designed in some way that favors human beings over trees or rocks.  Therefore it’s most likely that we are perceiving the world in our species’ own quirky ways.  This is nature’s way.  For my dog, half of the world is food and the rest is a parking lot.

The model in Figure 1 does suggest that, for our minds, other people are as important, or more so, than is the rest of the outside world. Like other social species, our senses are tuned to immediately pick out and identify our conspecifics from an early age.  When we are touched by another person it lights up a different part of the brain than other touches do.  Robin Dunbar, a primatologist, popularized the notion[2] that we have big brains because they are needed to deal with the complex soap opera called other people.  He also looked at neocortex size in primates and found that it correlated with the size of their social networks.  For humans the number is 150, which pops up all over the place, from hunter-gatherer clans to army companies, to the number of people with whom we can maintain personal relationships.  Dunbar and others then looked at levels of social intimacy and found that, starting with an inner clique of 5 best friends, the sizes of our expanding social circles increase by a factor of 3 as levels of intimacy decrease.  This is shown on our Map as concentric arcs in the social environment.

As a onetime primatologist, my heart is warmed by the fact that Dunbar (who did his thesis on the Gelada baboon at the same time that I was studying rhesus monkeys) using primate data, contributed perhaps the most widely known quantitative theory in all of social and psychological science.  But he went further than that, all the way out to philosophy, when incorporating the concept called Levels of Intentionality.  We know that a child first realizes at age 4 that other people have their own mental states.  We say that the child now has a Theory of Mind (ToM), meaning that the child believes that other people have mental states as well.

Philosophers such as John Searle say that some subjective (mental) states are directed to the outside world, creating a relationship between us and that world called intentionality.  There are levels of intentionality, denoted by how many such relationships hold simultaneously.  A child may have a theory of mind about her doll with whom she is having tea.  This is level two: she thinks (level one) that her doll likes (level two) tea .  Dunbar thinks that many animals have level one (they believe something, or intend something); some might have level two.  So how far can this levels business go?  Listen to Dunbar as he describes the magic of storytelling.  Count the italicized verbs to follow the levels.

  1. “… the audience must understand that Iago intends that Othello believes that his wife Desdemona wants to run off with Cassio (which would probably not be much more than idle fantasy by Desdemona were Iago not able to convince Othello that Cassio himself also wanted the same outcome) … if they also have to factor Cassio’s complicity into the equation to make the deception convincing for Othello, the audience has to be able to work at fifth order intentionality.  But to do this, Shakespeare himself must operate at one level higher: he must intend that the audience understands …etc.  Shakespeare was having to work comfortably at sixth order intentionality, and this is now one level beyond the normal limits for most adult humans. “

So now we know one more way in which Shakespeare was a brainiac.  Dunbar and others emphasize the cognitive processing power (hence bigger brains) that is needed for higher order intentionality. Hence bigger brains exist.  In primates, relative neocortex size correlates with social group size and other social behavior measures.   But is all that work being done consciously, i.e. by the Me*?  Perhaps not.  Metzinger and others have noted that many things we perceive about other people happen immediately, like other, seemingly simpler, perceptions that don’t require conscious thought.  The standard example of simple perception comes from philosophers, who nearly always cite seeing and touching a book in front of them. One can only wonder why they pick that example.  On the other hand your brain can heat to the smoke point when figuring out the maddeningly subtle and indirect intentionality of the characters in a John LeCarre’ novel.

So in our Map, “sensory processing” is part of the unconscious part of the mind.  We recognize birds, books, smiles and eye contact without thinking. Indeed it’s likely that all body language and other nonverbal communication is usually below the level of conscious notice entirely.  Higher level social impressions, such as any exchange involving conversation, require some conscious reflection to be understood.  Much to do with our personal identity involves higher order intentionality, as in the sociologist Charles H. Cooley’s concept of the Looking Glass Self.  There are 4 levels (just count the verbs) in his prototypical statement about social influence:

“I am what I think that you think I am.”  Charles Horton Cooley, Human Nature and the Social Order, 1902.

[1] Natural Selection and Veridical Perceptions. JT Mark, BB Marion, DD Hoffman. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 2010.

[2] The Social Brain Hypothesis and its Relevance to Social Psychology. RIM Dunbar, Annals of Human Biology, 2009.

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


UNITY: Coherence of the manifold self (1)


You asked, “How does the self learn to relate to the world?” But actually the self starts by dividing itself off from the world. Some parts, some sources, of stimulation are always here, others are not. That difference is one basis or beginning of selfhood. Then we elaborate it more, adding a social identity and relationships, and other things.
— Roy Baumeister,  Quid pro quo: the ecology of the self

Why in fact is there just one of you instead of a probability smear across a hive mind of some kind? The understanding of personal identity has been a puzzle for centuries. To grasp all that identity means now, we need to know what personal identity is at its core. Identity has continuity, cohesion and uniqueness, but each of these qualities can be somewhat hard to pin down.

All the evidence is that our minds consist of many interacting pieces, many of which are not even conscious. Nevertheless, the vast majority of us feel like, and present as, a single cohesive person, continuing over a lifetime. Much scientific and philosophical effort has been spent of late on the nature of the self and its conscious mind. It turns out that there is no single explanation for what holds you together. Instead, it is a coordinated meshing of multiple levels of reality: physical, personal, and social.

The physical level starts with DNA, but it’s really about how biological processes create encompassing boundaries within which are built the foundations of our uniqueness: a cellular structure, a nervous system and an immune system. We think that the physical body continues through our lifetime. In fact our component matter and structure changes continually, so that there is not really any specific physical thing we can claim to be us throughout life. Furthermore, quantum theory doesn’t even allow that any one of your atoms is the same from time to time. There essentially is no “same” to an atom. The prevailing theory, then, is that what persists physically is a pattern, not specific matter.

But there’s another level. Using our physical framework we develop a mental one. This is the reality interpreter called the Self. Thereby, we know things. The peculiar aspect of the human Self is that we self reflect. We know that we know. That Self intuitively believes in its own continuity over time but, like in the physical case, change is continual in the mind. This leads to interruptions and paradoxes that belie the continuity that we imagine ourselves to have.

What’s left to (finally!) hold us together? It’s our social environment. It’s our roles, our relationships, our tribes and institutions. We are the same person as last month because others who know us say that we are. We are the same person as an infant decades ago because our family knows it to be true. Our culture gives us an identity even before we are born, and it preserves it in some important ways even after death.

Throughout life these three levels of reality mesh to hold us together. The result is not only continuity, but uniqueness among our fellow humans. That uniqueness, as opposed to our place within family and society, is becoming more and more a focus of our conscious Selves. In the second decade of the 21st century, our “true self” has devolved into a personal brand, an attention-seeking marketing missile aimed at other people. It’s getting a little frenetic.