Add to Favorites


Who Do You Think You Are?
Being Human

Self-portrait with data glitchesPhilosopher Thomas Metzinger says, “Nobody ever had or was a self.” That is, the perception that we have—that there is a person inside us who is “us,” guiding our behavior and having our experiences—is an illusion. There is no inner being or true self inside your head. Instead, the sense of having a self is generated by the brain.

The purpose of the impression of being a “me” is to unify the behavior of the many parts of the organism. For example, one module of your brain may notice that you are tired, and be guiding behavior toward sleep. Another part of your brain wants to reproduce, and so is pushing to have you stay up later to keep interacting with others. And yet a third part may be noticing that you have not had enough to eat today, and so is wanting you to go elsewhere and find some food.

Obviously, you cannot do all three at once.

How is the conflict between these three competing desires resolved? The brain generates an “overseer” who sifts through these various wants/needs and comes to a consensus. Maybe you will choose to go with your friend to a restaurant before you retire for the night. Neuroscientist David Eagleman calls the brain a corporation, and this overseer the CEO, and it is the reason that you have the conscious experience of being a self.

And yet, even though there is no such thing as the self, we still feel as if we have a self. It's an extremely useful illusion to have, because it allows us to plan for the future. Human beings must be able to predict the world and their own future actions, and it is this self-model that allows us to plan ahead. Seeing your existence as the story of one coherent entity—the self—allows you to make decisions that affect that entity in the future; for example, you choose to look for food now so that your future self will not be hungry. We plan for future success and guard against future failure because we are convinced that the person benefiting in the future is the same person we are now. In fact, the self may be one of the reasons why humans have become such a successful species, because it allows us to plan for the welfare of ourself and our loved ones very effectively.


photo by stallio