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How well do we know ourselves?

kmanning's picture
It is well known that our unconscious is receiving many more signals than the conscious mind eventually becomes aware of, or than the unconscious is choosing to use in its creation of the coherent story of “reality” it makes available to the conscious (7). Neuroscience and neurobiology increasingly support the idea that much of what we eventually understand to be behavior governed by our free will is in fact initiated by the unconscious slightly before the conscious mind even becomes aware of it (2). This is not to say that consciousness is epiphenomenal, for it certainly influences the unconscious through a system of causality that is only beginning to be known, but what it does say is that what conscious attention and intention consist of is only a small fraction of the knowledge contained within the unconscious. The conscious mind is constantly picking, choosing and confabulating the information provided to it by the unconscious, and the result is the coherent story of reality that we believe to be true (7). But why do we need this coherence? Why must we believe that all of our actions are working together towards some unified goal within a logically consistent world? If we are consciously aware of only part of the knowledge contained within our body, couldn’t we perhaps function at an even higher level if we had access to all of our knowledge?

That consciousness has perhaps developed as a result of evolution, or at least persisted up until this point in evolution, implies that such a consistent story is advantageous for humans in some way. As consciousness became more and more prevalent throughout the species, having it and having the capability to interact socially and culturally became necessary for survival. Having the mixture of reason and emotion we associate with consciousness provided those endowed with it an advantage in survival and reproduction (5,6) Additionally, “at its simplest and most basic level, consciousness lets us recognize an irresistible urge to stay alive and develop a concern for the self.” (1) A host of reasons, evolutionarily speaking, can be given for why consciousness and having a coherent story of reality became advantageous for species, and I will argue the most foundational and fundamental of all those reasons was the creation of the self.

The existence of the self necessarily arises simultaneously with the existence of consciousness. Until the self is created, until some structure or coherence is applied to the interactions of a body with its surrounding environment, there is no significance to those interactions; they are nothing more than the interactions between any two inanimate objects. We must have coherence, both at the complex level of creating coherent stories of reality and at the more basic level of unifying our sensory interactions with the outside world, in order to have consciousness; in order to be bounded.  Additionally, I believe the complex level of coherent reality the unconscious provides our conscious does not contain all of the self, but merely represents one of the essentially infinite possible selves that could be created depending on what information the unconscious chooses, and how it chooses to unify it into a coherent story of reality.


“Late at night, when deciding not to bother setting up the coffee machine for the next morning, I sometimes think of the man who will wake up as a different person, and wonder, What did he ever do for me? When I get up and there’s no coffee ready, I curse the lazy bastard who shirked his duties the night before.” Paul Bloom, The Atlantic

In his article, “First Person Plural”, Paul Bloom explores the idea that in each of our bodies resides not one, unified “self” but a multitude of selves, constantly fighting for control over the body and its actions (4). We all, in moments of regret, ask ourselves of past actions: “what was I thinking?!” But perhaps, Bloom proposes, this is not the right question to be asking at all. Instead we should be asking which “I” it was that was thinking and why perhaps this “self” had control of the body at that moment in time instead of the current “self”. Rather than one consistent self sometimes failing to consider all the options or factors when making a decision, perhaps truly different selves with different agendas are making behavioral decisions at different times.

Certainly we have all had days or weeks when we have not felt like “ourselves” - aspects of who we were seemed different – perhaps we were more sad than usual, or we suddenly found new activities interesting that we had previously found boring. But is there a point at which so many characteristics about ourselves could be different that we might conclude that perhaps, in fact, we had become a different person?

In order to break down the concept of self, we must first examine what other concepts it necessarily implies the existence of. In order for there to be a self, there must be things that are not-self. We are surrounded in space by many objects, all of which we would not consider part of ourselves, so it is those things that are physically outside of our body that we shall consider the not-self for now. Additionally, without saying anything about the nature of what is outside the self, we will assume for the purposes of this paper that what is outside the self does causally interact with the self (and we are not all watching a pre-programmed movie in the brain).

Additionally, in the conception of self just described, we are assuming some kind of permanence, or sameness, even if it is only fleeting. For if we are able to recognize the causal interactions of other objects with the self, this means we are assuming a point of reference against which to notice the change these interactions have. If I cut my leg on a twig, it is clear how the twig interacted with “me” because I will now have a bleeding cut. But what about interactions we are much less aware of? Everything that interacts with the body, whether it is through a sensory organ or some kind of previously undiscovered extrasensory method, is having an effect on the body. In addition, these interactions are happening all the time, and are constantly being refreshed. Outside objects are causally relating to the body in infinitely fast and repetitive waves of interaction, such that if it were possible to stop time at infinitely small intervals and observe how the body was interacting with everything around it, each time interval would contain a unique overall set of interactions.

When we look to others and conceptualize “who they are”, we think of bounded entities, removable from their environments and fully containing of all of their selfhood within the confines of their physical body. We could identify their personality traits, how they look, funny things they have done in the past. As far as others concern us, such a representation is fairly functional. But is this who their “self” is, or is this the memory of all the interactions their self has had on us and what we have interpreted those to mean? (I’d say the latter). The conception we each have of ourselves cannot possibly be like this however. One’s own sense of self is an inherently related and relating being. Our “self” is not the mental image we have of our self, but rather it is the effect, the change in our physical organism, of every single interaction we are having with the outside world.

Antonio Damasio, in his book The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness, lays out a scheme for this idea of the self as the sum total of all the effects the outside world is having on us at any one time. He first begins with the  “proto-self”, as he calls it, which is the non-conscious ensemble of brain devices that constantly represents the state of the body. (1) The state of the body is, as discussed, a result of how the body is interacting with the outside world, however the proto-self represents not interactions, but the resultant effects those interactions have on the body. Damasio described it as “an interconnected and temporarily coherent collection of neural patterns which represent the state of the organism, moment by moment, at multiple levels of the brain.” (1) The is no relation to the outside world in the proto-self, there is only information about the body. (For this reason I hesitate to call this representation of the body a self at all, but as it is Damasio’s concept I shall continue to use his terminology)

Perhaps it seems belabored to specify the proto-self as the state of the body not considering the causes of that state but rather just the state itself, but the main reason for doing this is to specify where exactly we might first say the self begins. As discussed above, in order to have interactions, and not just effects, we must have a point of reference against which to notice changes in effects. Damasio’s next level of representation, then, will contain an element of permanence, and this element is what we will call the self.

The core self, as Damasio calls this next level, is in effect putting a word on the entire set of interactions between the body and the outside world, or rather, on the changes to the body brought about when the self interacts with the outside world. These interactions are constantly occurring and constantly changing as the body moves through space and as time passes. The permanence of the self then is not really permanence at all, but rather the self is defined through constant and consistent (permanent, if you will) change. As Damasio says, the core self is “continuously generated and thus appears continuous in time.” (1) The self is an inherently related concept, so the only way to know it is through its relations; through how those things it relates to changes it. As Damasio beautifully explains: “The first basis for the conscious you is a feeling which arises in the re-representation of the nonconscious proto-self in the process of being modified within an account which establishes the cause of the modification.” (1) The proto-self is a representation of the states of the body, and the core self is its derivative. This step of modifying the proto-self is the first time we become bounded in such a way that we can know our limits, that there can be something that was and something that is now, and that our self is the change between the two states.

When we commonly refer to ourselves, however, as Bloom did above in his account of the man who was too lazy to set up the coffee machine, the concept of the core self is not the self we have in mind. What we commonly think of as the self is a much more coherent, bounded being. It is another yet higher order of organization that picks and chooses aspects of the core self to combine into a more coherent story. The core self is everything. It is the full account of all relationality that defines the self. It encompasses every object the self is interacting with and the nature of how that object is changing the self. But the “self” who didn’t set up the coffee machine is a much more contained and concrete concept. We describe its being in terms of much more broad scale relationships, that consist of massive collections of past interactions as well as predictions of future ones. Somehow the core self has been limited to form this “autobiographical self,” as Damasio calls it (1). This self has access to the records of past core selves, in the form of memories. Yet what factors bring this about? How do certain aspects of the core self get selected over others? As we travel through time, do we lay down patterns of aspects of the core self that will necessarily always be a part of our autobiographical self, or is complete redefinition of the autobiographical self a possibility?

There is current neurological evidence that in fact some parts of the self do become hardwired into our brains over time, and that the parts of the core self they correspond to are consistently chosen (with choice here not involving agency, but rather some network of causal relationships) to be in the autobiographical self in each of its recreations. Damasio writes:

“In a number of sites of both temporal and frontal regions, convergence zones support dispositions that can consistently and iteratively activate, within early sensory cortices, the fundamental data that define our personal and social identities… At any moment of our waking and conscious lives, a consistent set of identity records is being made explicit in such a way that it forms a backdrop for our minds and can be moved to the foreground rapidly if the need arises.” (1)

Thus, over time it does appear that certain elements of the core self do become more permanent than others. Perhaps this depends on the frequency with which certain relations appear in the core self, or on the physical proximity of the neural pathways involved in representing them. Disorders like Synesthesia, where parts of the brain located near each other on the Penfield map become hardwired together and thus simultaneously produce two effects from one stimulus (the image of a number might co-signal the creation of a color in the mind) show the extent to which we already know hardwiring has an effect on what makes it into consciousness and into the self (2). Though it used to be believed we were born with most of our neural connections already in place, increasingly evidence is showing that in fact new neural connections are made throughout the course of one’s life (2).

Additionally, there is a built in feedback method of sorts most likely taking place between the autobiographical self and the core self in the form of memories. Damasio explains how memories –constructs of the autobiographical self - might function as objects interacting with the body in the same way as external objects interact with the self. The way that memories change the body – most likely in terms of an emotional response - gets represented in the core self just like the effect of any other interaction. Memories can thus help reinforce the selection of certain elements of the core self by the autobiographical self by reintegrating themselves in core selves created far after the event that actually created the initial memory (1).

And what of the hardwiring we are born with? If, as Damasio explained in the above quote, consistently activated convergence zones help to define what ends up in the autobiographical self, perhaps the neural connections we are each born with will influence selection of elements of the core self as well. Or, perhaps it makes more sense to say that our natural hardwiring first exerts its limiting effect in the creation of the core self, not the autobiographical self. The core self consists of how the body changes over time, and this is of course limited then by what they body is. Hardwiring will limit the full set of options the autobiographical self has to choose from in creating itself. Though it is possible to conceive of neural connections that influence the selection process of elements of the core self to be a part of the autobiographical self, such physical pathways are harder to conceive of, as the jump from one level of selfhood to the other is itself a philosophical idea rather than a biological one (at least in terms of how I am discussing it in this paper!)

It is also interesting to consider all the parts of the core self that do not make it into the autobiographical self. What of them? We are still aware of them in the moment they occur, as the core self is indeed part of consciousness, but we don’t retain conscious memory of them. Are all previous representations of the core self stored somewhere in us, accessible to autobiographical self if it desires them? Perhaps the autobiographical self uses “hidden” memories in the retrieval of other memories, though those memories themselves may never be consciously remembered. (1)

If this is the case, is it a vast oversimplification to call the autobiographical self a self at all? Though we are bounded by what the core self contains, because we are bounded by our physical body in that it is the medium through which we interact with the world (assuming there is no extrasensory perception), within the immense range of information contained in the core self, are we essentially unbounded? Even though we think we are finite, bounded selves, at least at the level of the autobiographical self, perhaps this sense of finitude is in fact only an illusion. Maybe we are all switching between multiple selves, like Bloom proposes, and it is a trick of the mind that we feel any constancy. If the fundamental set of data that Damasio says is repeatedly activated and as a result creates our sense of self only contains a very small portion of the information that actually defines us at any one time, do we really know ourselves at all?


1) Damasio, Antonio. The Feeling of What Happens. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1999.
2) Ramachandran, Vilaymur S. A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness. New York. Pi Press, 2004.
3) Locke, Simeon. Consciousness, Self-Consciousness and the Science of Being Human. Connecticut. Praeger Publishers, 2008.
4) Bloom, Paul. First Person Plural. The Atlantic. November 2008.
5) Sabbatini, Renato M.E. Do Animals Think? Brain and Mind. May 2003.
6) Pinto, Argos de Arruda. Our feelings; why do we have them? Brain and Mind. June 2002.
7) Grobstein, Paul. Making the Unconscious Conscious and Vice Versa. Serendip: /sci_cult/mentalhealth/unconcon.html


Paul Grobstein's picture

Know then thyself, the proper study of humankind is ...

"Maybe we are all switching between multiple selves, like Bloom proposes, and it is a trick of the mind that we feel any constancy. If the fundamental set of data that Damasio says is repeatedly activated and as a result creates our sense of self only contains a very small portion of the information that actually defines us at any one time, do we really know ourselves at all?"

Now THERE is a very interesting question. And, if the answer is no, one that has some pretty serious implications for thinking about mental health? Both in challenging some of the current underpinnings and suggesting new ones?