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Re-imagining the Sacred Self

Angel Desai's picture

Personal identification and the self have long been considered points of debate relevant in philosophy and religious thought. Considered the central text of Hindu philosophy, the Bhagavad-Gita is a prime example of literature which concerns itself with the multitude of layers surrounding the study of the ego and an everlasting consciousness. The Gita states, “[a]s a man discards worn-out clothes to put on new and different ones, so the embodied Self discards its worn-out bodies to take on other new ones." [1] The eternal Atman or Self as described by Vedic scholars illustrates a dualistic model of envisioning the "I-function" in relation to ones physical identity as observed by ourselves and the rest of the world. More specifically, it suggests that the self which is imagined by most individuals to be separate from the neurobiological workings of the brain is in fact an illusion created by the mind. This same consideration has been pondered for centuries however it is only in recent scientific history that the I-function has been studied as a legitimate source of query. While this field of study has various branches which are in the process of being explored, the important question of if a distinction exists between the self and the brain will be discussed here. Moreover, is it then more productive to label identity as simply the product of centralized, neuronal functions occurring in the brain? In this examination, the idea that the self can be equated with the I-function will be assumed. The goal of these observations is to firstly present a range of current academic beliefs on this issue, and then approach a resolution between self as traditionally presented by Vedic philosophical thought, and the brain as extrapolated through scientific inquiry.

Conventional knowledge points to the belief that the self as experienced by an individual represents a cognizant, unified whole. As such, it is universally assumed that there is a location within the brain that centrally controls all thoughts and perceptions related to personal identity.[2] In reality, there are multiple facets which come together to symbiotically represent what we perceive as our own character. Perhaps more significant is the underlying question of how the brain is able to interweave these differing mental processes into what appears to the individual to be one fundamental source. What is perceived to be the I-function is not simply the product of one principle element, but an amalgamation of sensory excitations and experiences. It is this idea that drives contemporary research into if and how identity and the self are then seamlessly woven together on the neurobiological level. Some neuroscientists have begun to examine the medial prefrontal cortex as a potential region which unifies varying perceptions and occurrences to create what the individual experiences as a complete sense of self.[3] For example, Debra A. Gusnard of Washington University has investigated and inferred from her observations that the medial prefrontal cortex becomes more active at rest as opposed to during periods of active thinking. This might suggest that while day-dreaming, (an activity which usually references our own self-reflection) a particular region of the brain responds.[4] Perhaps a larger issue here points to the now increasingly debated hypothesis that an individual may view the self as "special" in relation to others and as such, processes information relevant to one's identity differently than other facets of life. At the same time, certain detractors believe that "self as special" studies may actually highlight what is just the familiar, and equate that with a uniqueness which does not actually exist. Such studies point to the idea that personal identity does in fact spring from the brain and that perhaps the self is an interrelated component of that structure.

Alternatively, certain experts have discussed cognitive neuroscience in terms of disconnect rather than unity. While the extent to which sense of self can be explained in neurobiological terms is illustrated as an ongoing and ultimately complex debate, one author from Nature Neuroscience suggests that it is more beneficial to consider the idea of "I" not as an indivisible entity, but rather as the sum of components which emerge gradually as an expression of developmental consciousness.[5] In some ways, this belief aligns with long established theories of identity and self materializing through human progression rather than existing as a physical accumulation from the time of birth. If this theory is to be examined, then the claim can be made that while the I-function and the brain are in fact undividable, there is some component of the self that must be separately acquired from what is given to each individual at birth.

Still others attempt to define self as synonymous with the ego, or the biological consciousness constructed solely by the brain. Dr. Avtar Singh, author and engineer, describes the human brain as

... [a]n instrument that is driven by the electromagnetic energy of the universal consciousness, and regulates the firing of neurons to regenerate the perceptible emotions and thoughts that form the so-called ego, the biological consciousness or the limited consciousness of the bodily self.[6]

In this framework, the self as represented by the ego simply depicts filtered perceptions of the external world in terms of experiences absorbed by the brain. Through this scenario, the biological "I" becomes the product of the human brain which in turn is an apparatus functioning through neural circuitry and guided by evolutionary behavior. It is important to note however, that while this view appears to support the idea of the self as merely a creation of neuronal stimulation, it also posits the existence of a universal consciousness which resides outside of the brain. It is at this point that returning to the concepts put forth by the Gita may deliver a notable mode for further investigation.

It is clear that a unified decision regarding the self and its relationship to the brain cannot yet be completely deciphered on the basis of neurobiological observations made thus far. It can be noted however, that much of this fairly novel research appears to support certain claims made by Vedic literature regarding self and environment. A longstanding belief reflected in the Gita and other Hindu philosophical works is that of reality existing as an illusory plane of subsistence. As such, all that is experienced in terms of "I" is in fact just a product of a larger consciousness. Sir Ramana Maharshi, a sage and Vedic scholar, clarifies this point by explaining that the truly wise recognize the ego to be a perishable falsehood. The I-function in Maharshi's position is in fact the product of something greater than perception.[7] This conviction is strongly reminiscent of what neurobiologists have now begun to uncover about identity and neurophysiology. Although this type of connection remains a point of interest, it is perhaps more intriguing to consider the irregularities presented by science and philosophy at this juncture. While the Gita claims that it is a universal Self which trumps the illusive ego, the alternative offered by the neurologically-inclined sciences is not necessarily clear. If the self or I-function is simply a socio-biological construction, is it then the brain that represents some larger truth? Or even more controversially, if "I" exists only as an expression of an individual's composite sensation, then is there no absolute truth against which certain values can be compared?

Vedic tradition also demands that a distinction be made between the self or ego, and the Self as an eternal soul. The self in this case is simply a by-product of the never-ending quest of the Atman to reach an enlightened state. It can be argued that in terms of the brain, the I-function also exists as an avenue for larger processes to take place. Whether it is the necessity for purpose and therefore a sense of "I" which allows the individual to continue carrying out functions which are otherwise necessary for sustaining life, or simply an evolutionary requirement, the idea that the ego is not a separate, magnanimous entity certainly poses tantalizing questions about the very nature of human life. Although this is a somewhat abstract connection between recent research and ancient belief systems, it is important to address the possibilities contained within the idea that "I" am a product of the brain. While no definitive answer concerning this topic can be reached in the span of a few pages, one might entertain the prospect that Vedic scholars had in fact uncovered something intrinsic in the study of human identity and self-realization years before science began its own inquests. The Gita is a primary example of such insights into the complicated nature of awareness as it aptly describes " ... the self [as] its own friend and its own worst foe."[8] While self-identity remains among the most elusive of research subjects in neurobiological terms, it is the hope that further scientific inquiry will be able to elucidate what foundations tradition and conscious understanding have put in place in years to come.









[1] The Bhagavad Gita, translated by Barbara Stoler Miller, (New York: Bantam Books, 1986), p.33.

[2] “In Search of Self, “Nature Neuroscience,, 2002.

[3] “The Neurobiology of the Self,” Scientific American., Nov. 2005.

[4] Ibid., p. 96.

[5] In Search of Self, “Nature Neuroscience,, 2002.

[6] “What is Ego? Why and How to Dissolve It?” Intent Blog,, 15 July 2007.

[7] Understanding Hinduism,

[8] The Bhagavad Gita, translated by Barbara Stoler Miller, (New York: Bantam Books, 1986), p.64.


Paul Grobstein's picture

"self/mind/I-function" as "its own friend and its own worst foe"

Lots of interesting parallels/issues here (compare/contrast with Buddhist Meditation and Personal Construct Psychology?)

  • "reality existing as an illusory plane"
  • "multiple facets which come together to symbiotically represent what we perceive as our own character"
  • "if "I" exists only as an expression of an individual's composite sensation, then is there no absolute truth against which certain values can be compared?"

And a VERY interesting idea. The "self/mind/I-function" as the agent of a "never ending quest," an "avenue for larger processes to take place". And, in that regard, both a friend and a foe (Bhagavad Gita 6.6)? From Bhagavad Gita 6.7

"For him who has conquered the mind, the mind is the best of friends; but for one who has failed to do so, his mind will remain the greatest enemy."

What do you suppose is the neurobiology involved in "conquering" the I-function?
Paul Grobstein's picture

cross referencing "conquering the I-function"

For more along these lines, see

See also

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