[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?
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.