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The Illusion of Self

November 27, 2011

I’ve never really found any definition or account of the “self” to be satisfactory.  To me, it’s the single most important question to answer, but I never seemed to make any progress.  The self is something unique, the set of all essential qualities making someone distinct from everyone else.  I’ve never been able to find any criteria which can set us apart from one another, and that has always troubled me.

I found myself falling back on the existentialist philosophy of Jean Paul Satre, and I conceived of myself as a sort of “freedom”.  If you’ve read his book Being and Nothingness, you’ll find it’s a book intended to battle determinism and any casual influence over us.  Though a great read, overall, the idea of “free will” doesn’t make any sense.  I don’t see any evidence that we have such a thing, and the more time I’ve spent dissecting the idea, I can’t understand what such a concept would even be. I’ve written about it before, and there’s no need to go into all of it again.

I read John Locke, David Hume, Hegel, and others.  How could I define myself, distinguishing myself from others and the world around me?  I thought that maybe it’s our thinking processes which set us apart.  But no,  animals can think too, just not to same degree we can.  Before long, we’ll have computers which will be able to out-think all of us, but will they have a “self”?  Their neural networks will process information according to the same algorithms our brains use, but whether or not they’ll be conscious, who knows.  As I’ve written neural network algorithms which emulate many forms of intelligence, I find human intelligence to just to be one algorithm our brain does, and it isn’t nearly as remarkable as people think it is.  In fact, I’d argue that we humans aren’t all that intelligent.  If we were, we wouldn’t struggle to exist and there wouldn’t be so much poverty and misery.

I thought that maybe it’s our memories and the timeline of our lives which define us.  But no, memories can be altered either by brain damage, disease, or if you were skilled enough, inserting false memories into someone’s brain.  Maybe we’re our physical bodies or our desires?  But no, none of those work either.  Our bodies are changing every day, cells dividing and splitting, and old cells dying.  Every so often, our entire bodies are rebuilt from new materials.  The same materials are reused by all of us.  And our desires are created by our brains.  If you alter your brain, you alter your desires — and the brain is chemistry all the way down.  Quantum effects are negligible at the scale of neurons.  To top it off, a person’s desires can be changed by what they know, and we learn by our experiences.  It’s “your” desire until you learn there’s better choices you could make.  When would that process ever end?  It doesn’t.  All evidence suggests we’re determined.  What you want is to feel happy and satisfied.  What you actually experience and do is beside the point.

Frustrated, I left the philosophy of self alone for years and dedicated myself to physics and other physical sciences where I could feel I was at least making some progress instead of just spinning in circles.  But then I got into neuroscience which brought me right back into the debate.  Being a rather philosophical kind of guy, I found myself reading the American Journal of Bioethics and came across a rather intriguing article called Personhood and neuroscience: Naturalizing or Nihilating?  It begins with the following introduction:

Personhood is a foundational concept in ethics, yet defining criteria have been elusive.  In this article we summarize attempts to define personhood in psychological and neurological terms and conclude that none manage to be both specific and non-arbitrary.  We propose that this is because the concept does not correspond to any real category of objects in the world.  Rather, it is the product of an evolved brain system that develops innately and projects itself automatically and irrepressibly onto the world whenever triggered by stimulus features such as a human-like face, body, or contingent patterns of behavior.  We review the evidence for the existence of an autonomous person network in the brain and discuss its implications for the field of ethics and for the implicit morality of everyday behavior.

I was drawn in like iron filings to a magnet.  This article shows the brain regions involved in creating the illusion of the self, and gives a basic understanding as to how they work.  Our brains process certain types of stimulation in special ways, and that’s where we get this idea of “self” and “others”.  After discussing how our brain processes faces and other types of human stimulation in these special areas, the authors move on to explain how there’s also special areas of our brain to process certain special patterns of motion.  These patterns are hard-wired in us to ascribe intentionality.  (quoting again from the article):

In addition to visual shape features such as static eyes, faces and bodies, certain patterns of motion are also effective at engaging the system.  In particular, contingent “behavior,” by which a stimulus seems responsive to its environment, can evoke a sense of intentionality and personhood.  In the famous animated film of Heider and Simmel (1944) two triangles and a circle move around the screen with motions that are interrelated, giving an impression of three entities interacting with motivations and intentions (see http://pantheon.yale.edu/~bs265/demons/causality.html).  The automaticity of this attribution is apparent in the difficultly of describing this film without using psychlogical terms such as “wants” and “tries” (Scholl and Tremoulet 2000).  This automaticity seems related to the trigger of the person network, in that a patient with complete bilateral amygdala degeneration described the film purely in pshysical terms (Heberlein and Adolphs 2004).

Brain imaging studies of Heider and Simel-type animations show that all of the brain regions shown in Figure 1 are activiated (Castelli et. al 2000; Martin and Weisberg 2003; Schultz 2003).  For example, in the study of Martin and Weisberg (2003), two sets of animations were presented: both were composed of moving squares, triangles and circles, which moved in a contingent interactive manner (e.g., as if dancing together or chasing each other) in the “social” set and in a manner consistent with mechanical motions (e.g., like billiard balls or objects on a conveyer belt) in the “mechanical” set.  Despire the absence of anything resembling a human being in these animations, the former set and only that set activated the fusiform face area, amygdala, temporoparietal junction and medial prefrontal cortex.

After I read this I thought, “Of course!”  When doing research on space and time, I wanted to know how well the brain intuitively understood the laws of physics.  It turns out that we have a system which is alright at judging the movements and behavior of objects in certain everyday situations, but it’s lacking in many ways.  Take a common mechanics problem.  Say you place a solid wood cylinder beside a hollowed out aluminum can, both with the same radius, and roll them down a ramp.

Which will reach the bottom first?  People have no idea.  (In fact, the university that did the study found that physics professors weren’t any better at this than normal people, without first doing their mathematical computations).  This isn’t surprising considering the brain has no way of figuring out problems like this.  Like our sense of space, which is only partially correct, our brain’s intuitive sense of how objects move and behave is only partly correct as well.

What does this have to do with personhood and the self?  People don’t move in simple patterns like the objects of the world.  Their movements are largely unpredictable.  If I were to throw a baseball in the air, it goes straight up, then back down toward the ground.  But if I throw my arm up and it stops mid-way in its free-fall, you’re not surprised.  Why is this?  You say, “Jason stopped it for some reason.”  Our brains evolved a separate area to identify special objects (living things), and we process them via a different system.  When an object seems to be “attuned” to its environment, responding to stimuli it like an animal with sense organs, we process it using special brain regions.  Instead of using the brain’s physical mechanics system, it instead analyzes motions of these special objects according to “intentions”.  It thinks in terms of locations of food sources, mating, desires, and trying to get “inside the head” of the thing you’re looking at.  We think, “What does this thing want?  What is it after?  What is it trying to accomplish?”  Your brain tries to imagine what that thing will do by simulating what you would do in that situation, and so forth.

This intuitive and automatic intention system is what we’re mistaking for free will.  People were too complicated to understand by other means, so the brain evolved the easiest route to analyze these complex behaviors – self reflection.  It’s not that people have free will.  It’s just our brains gave up trying to predict such complex behavior and instead found a new way of dealing with others.  This sense of “self” has allowed us to interact and cooperate with others in ways we couldn’t have otherwise.

To illustrate this point, think of autistic people.  An autistic child will climb up your body like you’re just another piece of furniture to use.  That’s because their “person network” in their brain isn’t working like ours, so they’re more “selfish”.  Ironically, they’re not more selfish, they’re less so.  They less understand their own sense of self and yours as well.  And as anyone who has worked with autistic children knows, they’re harder to work with and are less cooperative.

Our own sense of self is an illusion created by this person network.  We’re not separate from our world or those around us, but our brain creates this illusion because it was useful for these human shells to cooperate.  Even though it’s a fiction, it’s a good one.  It allows us to love, understand, and work with one another.

This explains why the self can’t be defined – it never existed to begin with.  Like many things, when you look at the problem from the wrong angle, you never find a solution.  The self is a useful illusion, nothing more.  If you pull open the curtains, you find that it was never there, but it certainly feels real doesn’t it?  Our own fear of death is a way for us to give value to our time here and to also value the lives of others as well.

Even still, this all leaves me with a lot to think about.  I think we’re so unhappy dwelling on ourselves because it’s a hollow illusion.  There’s just not enough there to keep any real thinking person occupied, though it will leave you confused as you’re navigating the maze of mirrors.

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