Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Self as Guest Star

The idea of the narrative of the self has been making a big comeback in psychology, apparently. Well, I don't know if I can call it a comeback; I honestly don't know if it ever left. But I've come across two article-essays in the past few days that have coincided with some thoughts I've had about the self-story, which is enough consilience for me to write about them.

When I was out for a run a few days ago [okay, that's one part of this story that I need to write more about], I had a sort of mini-epiphany, the sort that everyone has throughout the day but quickly looses as 'real' life gets in the way. We're all telling each other stories. All the time. And sometimes we tell other people stories about ourselves, to the point that we start to think those stories about ourselves ARE ourselves. I realize this isn't anything new or shocking. Just read any Buddhist text, or Stoic treatise, and you'll find this very same idea. But when you have the thought on your own, independent of a reading of those texts [haven't been on my recent reading list], it makes you take notice.

There's even one theory that the self it-self originated because of the stories we tell others about ourselves, and more importantly, about others. As social animals, it's vital to know what's going on in someone elses head. So we create a model of what that person must be like, based on certain assumptions about how they have acted in the past and how are acting now. Eventually, we start doing the same thing to our thoughts. We make our own narrative string about ourselves with Mr. Fles as the main character. And in the process, we make something out of nothing. In a way, the self is a spandrel [something that occurs not because it was intended, but because it's consequence of some other intention], a vestige of a skill we needed to live with other social organisms. I wish I could remember exactly where I read that [because God knows I didn't know up with that on my own!]. I think it had something to do with all the research about mirror that has come out in the past decade. But I digress.

Daniel Dennett, the freaking amazing philosopher who wrote Breaking the Spell, wrote a nice little piece about the self as an illusion in The Self as a Center of Narrative Gravity. He begins by explaining how the center of gravity in an object is an IDEA, not a THING. You can't point to a certain atom in an object and say 'That's where the center of gravity is.' Yes, the center of gravity is inherent in all materia, but it still has not physical locality. As Dennett explains:

This is a well-behaved concept in Newtonian physics. But a center of gravity is not an atom or a subatomic particle or any other physical item in the world. It has no mass; it has no color; it has no physical properties at all, except for spatio-temporal location. It is a fine example of what Hans Reichenbach would call an abstractum. It is a purely abstract object. It is, if you like , a theorist's fiction. It is not one of the real things in the universe in addition to the atoms. But it is a fiction that has nicely defined, well delineated and well behaved role within physics.
I hope you can see where I'm going with this. The self can be placed under the same category as an 'abstractum.' The self has no physical correlate. You can understand the complete workings of the brain and the entire nervous system, you can know all the neurochemicals, all the electrical activity, but still you cannot point out to me the location of the self. That is because the self isn't some grand unified homunculus in the body. There isn't some soul sitting behind the eyes, guiding everyone's actions. This is pretty old news. It goes back at least 2000 years to Siddhartha Gautama. And in neuroscience it's almost a cliche. The 'divided brain,' etc. And it's not just the brain that's divided: it's the self that eminates from that brain. Just read anything about Gazzaniga's split brain experiments and you'll quickly realize how little continuity there really is within the human mind. We're all just a hop, skip, and a jump away from schizophrenia.

So if it's all just a bunch of disparate parts, how the heck do we put it all together? With a story. A story that the brain tells itself in order to form some sort of coherent picture of the mind emerging from the brain so that the brain can understand the mind sufficiently to make predictions. And the best way the brain knows how to do that is to confabulate, to tell stories.

We all know we don't experience reality objectively [or at least one would hope]. No matter how much we pay attention, every experience we have will be colored by our past memories, present states, and future expectations. That's just a part of the human condition. And try as we may, we can't escape it. So basically, even if we know that the story that is our self is complete crap, there's really nothing we can do about it. I don't know if it's really possible to live without a narrative thread [I know I live with one right now, in fact, I've just started a new 'chapter' known as the summer after my freshman year of college {boring title, I know. But I'm working on it!}]. In which case, the only real option is to choose an empowering narrative and live it to the fullest. Realizing that it's just as real as Santa Claus, God, and the Easter Bunny. So be a warrior, a bum, or a victim. Though the last two may not be optimal for living a fulfilling life.

Funny how it ends up that way. Comforting though to realize that there's no point in trying too hard to follow a certain plot.

And on a random note, want to be absolutely certain that you'll never die? Just keep asking yourself, 'Am I dead now?' The answer will never be no!

If you want some more coherent / interesting readings on the self as narrative, check out this NY Times article on narrative psychology. This stuff is picking up some major steam in the mind community.

1 comment:

dave in the back said...

I think I finally see what you mean by "the self doesn't exist." Well, I've always sorta understood what you meant, but it wasn't until now that it really made sense.

The self is just a model, but models go a long way to help make things easier. That's why I wasn't sure why you were talking about it so much. Well cool, interesting way of looking at it.

I would tell you to keep reading, but I'll tell you to get a job, then read, lol. Anddd... good luck at physics tomorrow morning.