Kinds of Selves

What do you think it’d be like to not have a self?

Take a moment and actually try to imagine it: a subjective experience that’s just as rich with sensory experiences, thoughts, and feelings as your life is now – but entirely devoid of an “I” to assign them to.

A self, as rendered by Natalie Dee.

If your mind works anything like mine, you probably found it difficult – if not impossible – to conceive of such a thing. After all, in any such experience, there’d still need to be someone perceiving those thoughts and feelings. It’s fairly straightforward to imagine life without a continuing abstract sense of self, but it’s much harder to imagine life without any “I” at all.

This points to an important distinction: your abstract concept of “I” is not the same thing as the subjective experience of “I”-ness. One is an idea; the other is an entire mode of perception. Let’s translate that into neurophysiological terms.

The human brain actually has an entire region – the left temporoparietal junction (TPJ) – that’s crucial to processing self/other distinctions. When the TPJ is stimulated with electrical current, patients experience a “shadow self” that lurks behind them:

For the few seconds that the electrical stimulation was occurring, [a patient] described a sensation of a shadowy man hovering behind her. And when she was asked to lean forward and hug her knees, she said it felt as if the man was (unpleasantly) reaching around to grasp her.

In other words, under artificial stimulation of the TPJ, the patient’s mind projects its own body’s movements – and even its sense of its position and shape in physical space – onto an imagined other.

So as we can see, having a self requires several distinct types of processes:

a) raw subjective experience
b) the TPJ’s ability to help make distinctions between the self and others
c) a continuing and self-reinforcing abstract concept of “I.”

The third of these – the abstract concept of “I” – might be considered a complex symbol rendered by a connectome. But the distinction between “me” and “not me” seems to be rooted in much more fundamental brain processes – after the occipital lobe/visual cortex, the temporal lobe is one of the most primitive (i.e., oldest) cerebral structures.

The temporoparietal junction.

I bring all this up because I’ve been re-reading Douglas Hofstadter’s book I Am a Strange Loop this week (if you’ve never had the pleasure, I highly recommend it) and I ran across a passage that stopped me in my tracks. See, Hofstadter’s work is the first place I encountered the distinction between the subjective self that actually experiences the present moment, and the abstract conceptual “I” to which we ascribe the sensations and motivations encountered in that subjective experience. In the passage that captured my attention, Hofstadter is explaining how human consciousness synthesizes this abstract “I”-concept from raw experience:

We are powerfully driven to create a term that summarizes the presumed unity, internal coherence, and temporary stability of all the hopes and beliefs and desires that are found inside our own cranium – and that term, as we all learn very early on, is “I.” And pretty soon this high abstraction behind the scenes comes to feel like the maximally real entity in the universe. (p. 179)

I’m in complete agreement with Hofstadter as far as the idea that concepts like “brown,” “ball,” “between,” and “big” all have some sort of neural correlates – in other words, that they’re all symbols within the representational architecture rendered by a connectome.

But the subjective self and the “other,” it seems to me, are far more than just two symbols – they represent two entirely different categories of symbols, whose inherent differences are hardwired into the brain. If the self is just another concept we invent, why are our brains specifically geared toward differentiating that self from the external world? It seems to make more sense to say that the self is not just a concept, but an entire mode of perception.

Then again, Hofstadter seems to have planned for this objection; he navigates these treacherous waters by keeping his definition of “symbol” fairly vague – in his explanation, any pattern in brain activity that corresponds to a concept is a symbol. Thus, brains have symbols for “dog,” “running,” “excitement,” and so on. We even carry around a symbol that corresponds to “subjective experience” – a complex Gödelian loop, as Hofstadter puts it, but a symbol nonetheless.

This idea may be helpful for understanding some aspects of human self-consciousness, but it also seems to be the sort of reasoning Hilary Putnam was objecting to with his famous “There are a lot of cats in the neighborhood” analogy.

Without delving into too many details, the heart of the argument is this: there can be no empirically detectable mental state (i.e., symbol) that corresponds to the concept, “There are a lot of cats in the neighborhood,” because each individual brain has its own unique ways of rendering concepts like “a lot of,” “cats,” and “neighborhood.” We might agree on the overall meanings of these words, but the precise ranges of concepts attached to each of them are dynamic and unique to each brain.

It seems to logically follow from this that while subjective experience (i.e., self-hood) seems to be an inherent aspect of connectomic functionality, a concept like “me” is as dynamic – and as dependent on the previous experiences of the brain that renders it – as are concepts about cats and neighborhoods. It also makes sense that the more any symbol grows in complexity, the less likely it is to correspond directly to a roughly equivalent symbol in another brain (see also: Wittgenstein).

So even if the abstract concept “me” is a highly complex symbol, it’s a symbol whose very structure is unique in every individual. I don’t think Hofstadter would disagree with that.

But what do you think about the subjective experience of self-hood? Is it just another complex symbol too, or is it a different category of perception altogether?

5 thoughts on “Kinds of Selves

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