Robert Fuller

Robert Fuller
Berkeley, California,
October 26
Author of "Somebodies and Nobodies" and "All Rise" (on the politics of dignity), writing and speaking on dignitarian politics, rankism, quests and questions. Formerly taught physics at Columbia University and served as president of Oberlin College. In 2004, he was elected as a Fellow of the World Academy of Art and Science. Fuller's most recent books are "Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship?", "Genomes, Menomes, Wenomes: Neuroscience and Human Dignity", "Belonging: A Memoir", "The Wisdom of Science", and "The Rowan Tree: A Novel".


MAY 9, 2013 9:07PM

Who Am I?

Rate: 7 Flag

[This is the first post in the series Why Everything You Know about Your “Self” Is Wrong. The series explores how our understanding of selfhood affects our sense of individuality, our interpersonal relationships, and our politics.]

Confusion about fundamental notions such as selfhood, identity, and consciousness distorts personal relationships, underlies ideological deadlock, aggravates partisan politics, and causes unnecessary human suffering.

A better understanding of selfhood holds the promise of resolving perennial quarrels and putting us all on the same side as we face the challenges in a global future, not least of which will be coming to terms with machines who rival or surpass human intelligence.

While we all casually refer to our self, no one knows quite what that self is. Nothing is so close at hand, yet hard to grasp as selfhood. To get started, think of your self as who or what you’re referring to when you use the pronouns “me,” “myself,” or “I.”

Am I My Body?

babymirror As infants, we’re taught that we are our bodies. Later, we learn that every human being has a unique genomic blueprint that governs the construction, in molecular nano-factories, of our physical bodies. But we do not derive our identity from our genome or from the body built according to that blueprint. By the time of adolescence, most of us, though still concerned about physical appearance, and in particular sexual attractiveness, have begun to shift our primary identity from our body to the thoughts and feelings that we associate with our minds.

Am I My Mind?

The mind is embodied in the connectivity of the central and autonomic nervous systems that determine our behavior, verbal and otherwise. By analogy with the genome, the map of neural connections is sometimes referred to as the connectome. The connectome for an individual can be called the menome (rhymes with genome).

Like our genome, our menome has Homo sapiens written all over it. And, like the genome, every menome is unique. Unlike the relatively stable genome, the menome is always changing.

As we’ll see, the menome isn’t the whole of selfhood any more than the genome. Before going beyond the menome, however, let’s take a look at one of the mind’s most noteworthy features: its ability to witness itself. Could the witness be what we mean when we refer to our self?

Am I My Witness?

I am an other.
– Arthur Rimbaud

The witness is a neutral, observational function of mind. It should not be thought of as a little observer in our heads, but rather as a cognitive function of the nervous system, namely that of monitoring the body and the mind. By childhood’s end, no one lacks this faculty, though in some it seems more active than in others.

The elderly will tell you that although their bodies and minds have aged, their witness has not. Even in old age, it remains a youthful, detached, outspoken observer. Whether ignored or embraced, the witness continues to whisper the truth to us as long as we live.

For example, it’s the witnessing faculty that notices that we’re ashamed or prideful, or, possibly, losing our hair or our memories. Without judging us, it registers outcomes and thereby provides evidence we need to manage.

The witness stands apart from the rush of worldly life, overhearing our thoughts and observing our actions. Although it has no rooting interest, it records the successes and failures, and the comings and goings, of the personal identities that we field in the game of life.

When the spectacle of life becomes intense, the witness often recedes into the background, but continues observing through thick and thin. So long as we remember that the witness is not an ethereal being in our heads—the ghostly “captain of our soul”—but a function, or an application, of the nervous system, it does no harm to personify it as a detached reporter of the spectacle that is our life.

The critical inner voice we sometimes hear scolding us is not that of the witness, which is indifferent to our ups and downs. Self-accusation is rather the result of internalizing others’ judgments. In contrast, the witness neither blames nor praises no matter what we do or what others think of us. While not given to displays of emotion, the witness is our closest ally. It may whisper rather than yell, but it speaks truth to power.

Some people identify the self as the witness, that is, they see themselves as that part of the mind that watches over the rest and reports its findings. While self-surveillance is essential to maturation, the witness is but one mental function among many. We sell ourselves short if we equate self with witness. The witness is no more the whole self than a smartphone is one of its apps.

The signature application of mind is to fashion serviceable identities. That is, to put together a persona that, by virtue of its contribution to others, gets us into the game and, once we’re on the field, garners enough recognition to secure a position. I’ll develop this idea in a series of posts that follow.

A word about the umbrella title: Why Everything You Know about Your “Self” Is Wrong. While everything you know about yourself is certainly not wrong, in fact, it’s probably right, that’s not what the title says and not what it means. Rather, this series of posts focuses on common misconceptions regarding selfhood. The focus is not ourselves—our personal histories—but rather our selves—that is, what we mean by “me,” “myself,” or “I.”

 Robert W. Fuller is an author and independent scholar from Berkeley, CA. His most recent book is The Rowan Tree: A Novel.

Your tags:


Enter the amount, and click "Tip" to submit!
Recipient's email address:
Personal message (optional):

Your email address:


Type your comment below:
Way cool

I'll be following this one
Good to know you're still there, kioshersalaami.
This topic is of strong interest to me. I am very curious to see where you take this.
Hello again onislandtime, I'll be posting one per week, on Thursdays, for a total of 6. Hope you find them useful. -- BF
Fascinating post. To me, my mind is a useful (and entertaining) tool, but sometimes very troublesome or troublemaking. My own body is a lot of fun to live in, tastebuds and skin are both excellent, undecided on the nose, aging joints are the pits.

I spend a lot of time paying attention to the witness, it's my habit to detach and observe myself, others, and actions and reactions, especially in stressful times. I never thought of it as my witnessing but it is. I just learned that if I didn't detach that I couldn't be both focused and objective in my observation of myself (and others). I've learned it's often less painful to learn from observation than experience.

I'm really looking forward to the series and where you'll go with it. Thank you for the post.
Just started reading "Going to Pieces without Falling Apart", by Mark Epstein. Great stuff, have many other books on psychology and buddhist meditation. The great question is always, Who do I think I am? What part of me is "I"? I like to think of all of us as cosmic radio towers, our DNA building up a unique little piece of machinery that is designed to drive around our consciousness, which picks up the signal that is always there, and tunes into the frequency of that being. Maybe that makes me a cosmic bus driver, but that isn't too bad?
Enjoyed this, especially the concept of "the witness." Looking forward to more.
You seem to be on the right track in presenting the mind as a mosaic of components. I have some difficulty in separating the witness from the consciousness of self. And I find, within that great internal intermix, a powerful component that has tremendous things available to it that is not available t my conscious self. And that component, so to speak, has a mind of its own that is the greater part of my being. I characterize my consciousness as a diplomat to the real world that feeds conscious information to the tremendous internal trapped in the dark isolation of my skull, like a prisoner listening to strange noised and flashes of light coming from a distant outside. It never knows what is reality since reality is merely what this trapped being formulates from the bits and pieces of sense apparatus input and how they are integrated into a whole. It is a Rorschach pattern that can be manipulated in many ways and changes as one manipulates it. Our sense apparatus was constructed for survival and the economies of biology made only what was necessary for survival leaving out huge possibilities of sensation that were irrelevant to that basic need so the bulk of reality always escapes us. But other creatures like undersea animals, insects, and even plants have a different selection so they live in a different world. As an artist and a poet I find this internal being feeds me in dreams and in other ways with its huge variety of multiple possibilities of how reality might be and lets me play with its possibilities, it is the true creator and I am merely its instrument.


Sits in my skull
A curled gray beast
Molded to its cup of bone,

The outside world
It cannot know.
Not light, air, bulk nor hues.
Just clues.

The nexus of
A finespun net
Which terminates its axon knout
In doubt.

Its billion lines
Transmit responses
Sifting pulses; all compiled
And filed.

Confusion, first ubiquitous.
Unvectored bits, zero, one
'Til the sources are assigned,

Woven nerves
Festooned with figures;
Puzzled with the patterns, matching,

Lacing through
From point to point.
Architecting, congruencing,

Congealing concepts.
Counting, seeking.
Logic engine freely dreaming,

Fitting this,
Forming that,
Smoothing, joining, multiplying.

Granting trope
Its own dynamic.
Now it all agglomerates
And mates.

Sloughing off
All errata,
Chaos clears.
I'm witnessing a perceptive article. Thanks.
Daniel -- I appreciate your comment, especially its irony! -- Bob F
On further consideration I am beginning to suspect that each of us may not be constructed with the same mental components. Although you may have a detached witness neutral in judgment I do not. The Freudian triplet of ego, superego and id is the classic concept and that does not fulfill my working components either. I have what might be termed the engineer or perhaps superintendent that sees to it that the working machinery functions properly which might be compared to Freud's id but I have a hunch it is not all that simple since component cells of all organs probably have some kind of mental components so that the brain itself is not alone in this complex basic functioning. Beyond that, since there is a large component of alien cells throughout the system which can be both malignant and/or beneficial it has been observed that these cells may have some importance in both general function and even decision making, something which is still very much under discussion. There are various bundles of informational cells which form bundles of discrete habits and unconscious functions which can be of genetic origin tied closely to basic survival such as the filtering systems of sense input which decide on which inputs are significant and which can be ignored. Beyond the genetic bundles tied to specific phenomena there are the learned ones out of experience which are conscious at inception but can become automatic and unconscious such as in the skills of driving a car or flying an airplane or working with special tools or even in very basic religious or political or other areas of general orientation. These can be so firmly installed as to be totally permanent and even effect each other in their total output.

The ego and what I consider my conscious self incorporates this witness you propose and is not, in me, a neutral element but swayed by many factors and, under many circumstances, can be totally unaware of some sense inputs, either external or internal depending upon circumstance and past experience. I have, many times, injured myself with cuts and bruises but been so intensely occupied with an interesting activity that they were completely unknown until later when my attention became free.

My big unknown is an individual separate from myself who is truly the master of this machine wherein I reside. It invents and conducts my dreams and inspirations and has at its mental fingertips all the massive memories which elude totally me, my conscious mind. It writes my poetry, visualizes artworks far beyond my ability to execute, and teases me continuously with my inability to perform to its immensely creative thinking. It is not me, and I am it's contact with the outer world and its rather helpless plaything.
Hello again Jan Sand,

You've obviously thought long and hard on this subject. Hoping you'll continue to post your comments and observations as the series unfolds. -- Bob F
Who or what am I is my main mystery. Beyond the obvious attempts to figure how that piece of meat might be configured to result in the inner sense of my working processes, there are the far out speculations that this whole universe and me within it may be some sort of video game with controllers placing goals that I must reach to make a score. The theological and spiritual thoughts are far too naive and illogical to take seriously.
Insofar as the function of the brain is concerned, as far as my mind works, it is all based on pattern matching. In graphic work shapes that look alike in a piece call out to each other as do matching colors. In poetry metaphors and similes have the same function on matching as also alliteration does with sonic patterns. These art forms become more interesting as pattern matches that are unusual and not obvious are called to mind. My musical capabilities are not particularly great but it seems to me the same tendencies in matching patterns should hold. Pattern matches can also be a barrier to comprehension when patterns may match or be similar with no real useful relationships such as our comprehension of the nature of light which can seem similar to particles or waves but these two are so different that it seems a different match should be made but that match has not been discovered so the nature of light is not an easy perception.