One of the things that fascinates me the most about the brain is the way it makes up coherent, mostly convincing stories with great confidence, even in the face of incomplete or puzzling information. It’s a dangerous trait, true, but where would we be without it? In particular, our selves seem more seamless than they are; they seem to stretch from the past to the present with some understandable gaps in memory but an overall sense that we were in charge the whole time and have reasonable insight into what went on. Sometimes, though, my past self is a foreign country.
For some reason the subject of diaries has come up several times in my life lately. Actually the subject of unexpected death has been on my mind, for a variety of reasons, and that led me to think of diaries. The thought of unexpected death is no doubt what led me to finally draw up a list for my sons of my retirement accounts and so forth, so that if, as I euphemistically put it, anything happens to me, they’ll be able to find all the accounts for which they are the beneficiaries. While I was at it, I made some notes about disposing of my things, and noted in particular that I would like my sons to destroy my diaries after I am gone, except for a couple of journals I once kept for the sole purpose of recording the notable events in their early lives. (It’s safe to assume they would have gotten rid of my private papers unread anyway, but still I figured it wouldn’t hurt to write it down.)
This reminded me of my mother’s diaries, which my father threw away after she died. I’ve never asked him about this but I’m guessing he was honoring a request from her that no one else ever read those diaries after she was gone. I can understand that entirely, of course, having just made a similar request myself, and I’m glad my father protected my mother’s privacy. But I can also understand why it could be upsetting when someone’s diaries are destroyed after they’re gone: It’s like a last part of themselves that they left behind has been removed. I don’t believe in an immortal soul, but I do believe that my mother left parts of her self or her identity behind when she died, not just the diaries she wrote for herself but letters she wrote to others, and the memories that each of us have of her. Douglas Hofstadter, in I am a strange loop, writes about a concept of the self that remains behind even after death, not in any supernatural sense but in the sense that mental states or patterns peculiar to a person can be recreated in other brains.
This article from Philosophy Now gives a nice overview of various concepts of personal identity, beginning with Locke’s idea that we are who we remember ourselves being (which I find useful as a starting point, but not the whole story). Philosopher Bob Harrison discusses some of the legal and psychological meanings of identity, and then wonders whether selves are not conventions, useful conventions (like speed limits or legal drinking ages) that nonetheless are not related to a real entity that exists in the outside world. In closing he writes about the idea of the extended mind, in which the tools we use to support our cognitive processes (e.g., a notebook kept by a hypothetical Alzheimer’s sufferer as an aid to memory) can be considered to be part of those processes, and so a part of ourselves.
To the degree that I kept a journal to help me remember past events and feelings, a believer in the extended mind could argue that destroying the journals after I’m gone is akin to destroying a part of my self. (I guess if it’s my self I have the right to ask that it be destroyed after the more substantial parts of my self are gone.) I’m not sure I would agree that mental tools are really part of anyone’s identity, but thoughts committed to writing (both personal diaries and published books, which are not merely attempts to communicate but also mental edifices built to house part of the contents of a unique mind) can allow an unusually direct access to the thoughts of another person. Maybe they’re best described as a peculiarly powerful adjunct to identity.
A couple of researchers at Harvard have investigated people’s perceptions of other people’s minds. Volunteers had to consider 13 different entities: “7 living human forms (7-week-old fetus, 5-month-old infant, 5-year-old girl, adult woman, adult man, man in a persistent vegetative state, and the respondent himself or herself), 3 non-human animals (frog, family dog, and wild chimpanzee), a dead woman, God, and a sociable robot.” (For some reason that pairing of God and a sociable robot at the end makes me laugh.) For each of these 13 cases, the volunteers had to specify the degree to which they thought the being had various abilities or capacities such as memory, the ability to feel pain, self-control, etc. Their responses indicated that our perceptions of another person’s mind involve two independent dimensions: agency, which is the ability to plan and take responsibility for actions, and experience, the ability to feel things. (Because they’re independent, you could have entities with agency but no experience–which is how the volunteers viewed God–or experience but no agency–like babies.) This press release has more info. It doesn’t use the word “personhood” but it sounds like that’s more or less what it’s describing, because it mentions the implications for questions about rights and responsibilities, and how our answers could be based on our beliefs about someone’s degrees of agency and experience. The volunteers in this experiment scored normal adult humans the highest on both scales, and rated dead people at zero on both, with the other cases at various places in between. I guess “personhood” isn’t quite the right word, now that I think about it, because dead people, while lacking agency and experience, are definitely still persons and it even feels sometimes like they have rights. (If someone dies and leaves behind diaries that you know they don’t want you to read, for example, it would still feel, at least to me, like the dead person has a right to privacy and that it wouldn’t be right to read the diaries.)
In this essay from Edge, neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran discusses how the evolution of mirror neurons might have contributed to our sense of self. He proposes that mirror neurons developed before conscious awareness of self did. Having developed this nifty ability to read the minds of others and figure out what they were thinking (and perhaps anticipate how they might behave), could we have then turned this ability on ourselves and learned to figure out what we ourselves were thinking, thus developing a sense of a self that we could observe? He notes that if this is the case, the mirror neurons might have been necessary but were not sufficient, because other primates have them but don’t have the kind of self-awareness that we do. I would like to see how his proposal could be tested, and I’m also curious about how it relates to the fact that in some ways we don’t really know ourselves all that well (of course, we don’t always know other people very well either). I’m thinking in particular of Timothy Wilson’s book Strangers to ourselves: The adaptive unconscious, which describes the ways that, for a variety of reasons, our brains keep a good deal of their workings away from conscious awareness, so that what we know about ourselves is sometimes not as reliable as what others could tell us about ourselves. (I think this is related to the “Easy Question” about consciousness that Steven Pinker mentions in the essay I linked to yesterday: “to distinguish conscious from unconscious mental computation, identify its correlates in the brain and explain why it evolved.”)
And along those lines, here is a discussion on Seed Magazine’s site between evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers and linguist Noam Chomsky about deception, including self-deception. It’s a mix of political and other examples of group and self deception (including the mental gyrations of the Bush administration in the lead-up to the war in Iraq), and some data from psychology about how people describe themselves and others (tending to flatter themselves, in general, and downplay the virtues and overemphasize the failings of the other guy).
When I read Sam Harris’s book The end of faith, I was most interested in his ideas about what an areligious, naturalistic (as opposed to supernatural) spirituality might look like. (He described spirituality as an effort to learn, rationally and empirically, how to “change our relationship to the contents of consciousness, and thereby … transform our experience of the world”, which sounds like a fascinating endeavor to me.) In this entry in the Washington Post’s “On Faith” forum, Harris makes some observations about consciousness, the self, and what neuroscience might be able to tell us about the experiences people have when they meditate or enter other contemplative states.
Toward the end, Harris mentions a series of meditation retreats for scientists at the Mind and Life Institute, which I’d never heard of. I’ve been experiencing some health problems lately that I’m told would probably be improved if I could just learn to relax (well, that’s not the first time I’ve heard that…) and so I’m particularly interested in meditation at the moment. I went the institute’s web site for more information. The institute’s vision is “To establish mutually respectful working collaboration and research partnerships between modern science and Buddhism—two of the world’s most fruitful traditions for understanding the nature of reality and promoting human well-being.” That sounds promising; I’ll have to spend some time investigating the site. All I really want to do with meditation right now is improve my well-being, but I can’t help wondering what I might learn about the nature of my own consciousness (if not of reality).
This piece from Science News covers some research into where our sense of self comes from. It describes some fairly scary disorders due to brain injury, and concludes that in most cases it looks like the right side of the brain is involved in disorders that interfere with the sense of self. But it’s certainly not clear whether there’s a particular brain network with the sole function of defining our sense of being who we are. Maybe it’s an emergent property and maybe it’s a necessary illusion. Certainy the case studies are very spooky to read about. I don’t like that feeling of being so fragile and conditional, but it’s at the heart of being thinking meat.
Here’s an article from Live Science about ways you can send an email message to yourself on some specified date and time in the near or far future. Leaving aside questions of technology change, possible data loss, and shifting email addresses, for some reason I’m having a hard time thinking about what I would want to email to my future self. One of the reasons I keep a journal is to let my future self know what life is like now, so in a sense I’m already talking to my future self. And we’re all dealing with our future selves all the time, making commitments on their behalf (like marrying, or having a child, or buying a house) and sometimes spending their money. But is there anything specific I’d want to say to my older self?
Most of the useful communication I can imagine between older and younger selves would go the other way. I want to tell my various younger selves things like: Don’t worry, it turns out to be benign. Keep going with the algebra; you’re going to need it later. Don’t microwave food in plastic containers, and stay away from trans-fats. You know that trip you were thinking of taking to Phoenix to talk to Mom and tape-record some of her family stories? Do it now. Don’t wait till next spring.
But future selves…other than telling them the whereabouts of the important papers that got filed somewhere safe (so safe that it’s hidden even from yourself), what would you say? Some people have made their messages public, and you can read them at FutureMe.org. People have pep talks and advice and conditional apologies for their future selves, along with birthday and graduation greetings. They speculate about what life will be like. (People seem particularly curious about their love lives, although one guy asks optimistically, “How does it feel to be rich?”) Some have other questions, although I can imagine future selves being befuddled by them if they’ve forgotten the context (what policy paper? Jason who?). I think the funniest one I saw, sent one year into the future, said, “Did you ever get that rash checked out?” My favorites are the ones that describe what’s going on in the writer’s life. I guess what I’d send might be a description of an ordinary day in my life right now. The details of everyday life are among the things that fade from memory the soonest, but if you recall them, they can be the most evocative of what life used to feel like. I can’t think of anything that would better resurrect a past time for a future self.
Knowing yourself is evidently easier said than done. David Dunning, a researcher at Cornell who studies people’s capacity for self-evaluation, concludes that when it comes to understanding our own strengths and weaknesses, we generally overestimate our capabilities (thinking that we’re smarter than we are, for example, and less vulnerable to threats). This is partly because we cannot have a very good idea for where the gaps are; it sounds obvious, but we don’t know how much we don’t know, and this can trip us up. Dunning has written a book about why accurate self-perception is so hard. This is interesting, and I wonder how, if at all, this is connected to depressive realism, the idea that mildly depressed people tend to make more accurate assessments of themselves and the world around them.