Who Are We Really?

“There’s someone in my head but it’s not me.” ~ Pink Floyd

For most of us it feels as if we are independent agents that control the choices in our lives. It feels like there’s a “me” that’s in charge. From a scientific perspective, however, the self may be illusory, since objective investigations reveal no agent or homunculus in the brain, no fixed self-entity, no “me.” Instead we experience a sense of self, which is generated by the brain to help us to plan our behavior.

Like all animals we have a central nervous system to help us coordinate our motor movements. Without coordination our legs might both step forward at the same time, or one might jump, while the other one stayed put. Clearly it is vital for physical movement to be coordinated. Planning any future behavior requires coordination as well, but of a different sort.

If you are presented with a survival challenge, for example having to cross a wide river to obtain some food, solving this problem takes a lot of planning. You have to be able to picture, in your mind, the river, the act of constructing a vessel to cross it, actually crossing in the vessel, then getting the food and bringing it back. (You’ll probably also picture yourself happily eating it afterward.) So there are mental representations of the river, the raft, the other side, the food itself, and so forth. But at the center of it all is a representation of you, the person taking all the actions.

To creating this self-image, the brain generates a mental representation that includes an image of your body as well as your autobiographical memory, your skills, knowledge, and so forth. It assembles all these elements into a compelling, immersive mental model of you, the human organism.

This mental representation feels like a solid and enduring self, but it isn’t one. It is a process that functions as a sort of virtual avatar, useful and necessary for the brain to simulate the impact any future event might have on you.

“Nobody ever had or was a self. The self is not a thing, but a process.” ~ Thomas Metzinger


photo by lance pulliam


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