The Fiction of You: The Self as Social Technology

When I was about five or six years old I plagued my parents with strange questions. One I remember in-particular was “who would I be if I wasn’t me”? Such riddles are not uncommon at this age because it is around this time that children begin to develop – or construct – a rudimentary form of identity. An embryonic Self that will grow into something resembling a final form during puberty and early adulthood. As we age, the foundations of identity sink into the subconscious, their origins lost, becoming so conflated with the notion of consciousness to the point where we can no longer tell them apart.

We talk of Self as if it is who we “really are”, like some kind of secular Soul, but there is growing evidence that the very notion of our personal identity is a fluid and ever-changing fiction that emerges through the brain’s interaction with society and the environment. A cognitive technology built from the lego blocks of language to tie together past experiences into a cohesive whole and use them as a blueprint for anticipating future events. The ultimate tool of a species of toolmakers.


Forever Now

That language is so fundamental to the human sense of Self does not mean that language is a requirement for Self-Awareness, however. There is compelling evidence that Self-Awareness is a product of social interaction rather than language; it has been identified in other social animals such as Elephants and Chimpanzees, who correctly identify themselves in “mirror tests” despite lacking any discernible language other than one-way broadcasts. Somewhat controversially, there are also indications that Self-Awareness is lacking in some humans, such as feral children. In an overview of such individuals his book The Myth of Irrationality, John McCrone concluded that; [4]

“A final characteristic shared by the feral children was that they seemed somehow to lack memory and self-awareness. As the detailed accounts of Bonnaterre, Itard and Singh make clear, the thoughts of Victor and the wolf-girls were limited to the world of the here and now. They could make simple associations and learn to recognise familiar people and situations. But they seemed unable to reflect on the past or the future, or to have any insight into their own plight.”

It is McCrone’s opinion that the lack of language mean the children had no “inner voice” to give rise to Self Awareness. However, given that chimpanzees and elephants lack language skills (as opposed to one way communication that exists throughout the animal kingdom), it may be the case that the lack of Self-Awareness is more to do with deficiency of social context, rather than necessarily a lack of language. As I explored in a previous blog on the prehistory of language, Self-Awareness arises from social interaction. Language is layered atop such primate politics, enriching it with a thousand generations of culture, technologies and ideas. The Self, in a human sense, is a tool for keeping track of what is relevant and storing it away in the brain for recall in the future. Without it, would we exist to a in state of timelessness? Forever experiencing “Now” devoid of the human notion of past and future?

Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman makes a distinction between such sense of “nowness” and the context of the Self, and describes them as the remembered self and the experiencing self. For Kahneman the experiencing self is intimately tied up with the notion of “now”, or rather a continuous series of discrete points of subjectivity associated with short term or “working” memory. [6] The remembered self is instead an assortment of relics of these moments that act as the cognitive context for the experiencing self, and are associated with the hippocampus, which sorts information from working memory before filing it away in long term memories.

Without memory to provide context to the experiencing self, an individual would exist in a state of perpetual Now. We have some idea of what this may look like in the case of Clive Wearing, a Cambridge University music expert who’s hippocampus was irreversibly ruined by Herpes, and who is now incapable of forming new memories. With his hippocampus gone, his memory was constrained by the 20 second window of “working memory” that, with nowhere to be stored, was thrown down his own private memory hole every few seconds. His wife, Deborah Wearing, recalls in her book Forever Today, that; [7]

“It was if every waking moment was the first waking moment. Clive was under the constant impression that he had just emerged from unconsciousness because he had no evidence in his own mind of ever being awake before… ‘I haven’t heard anything, seen anything, touched anything, smelled anything’ he would say ‘its like being dead’”

Clive at least had some notion of identity based on long-term memories before his hippocampus was ruined, and thus possessed a vestigial sense of Self that gave at least some context to awareness. The feral children discussed by McCrone would lack this entirely, but would they have some other sort of remembered context for their awareness? He concluded that their sense of time was remarkably different from our own, but it must have been qualitatively different from those of Clive. They perhaps had memories, but of a more primordial form.

Since we cannot communicate with them, we will probably never know. Even when reintroduced to society, they could not be taught language or develop an identity. Whatever structures of the brain that once had the potential to develop language and Self were gone; cannibalised by the brain for functions relevant to survival in the wild. That this potential was lost shows how crucial childhood is in developing a sense of identity. We now also know that a sense of identity is tied to notions of what we consider reality.

The Mind as a Mirror of the World

Disassociation is the strange disorder manifests as a sensation of things not being “real” and can be is experienced by those with depression, on drugs, suffering from trauma or occasionally via certain types of ritual activity. It is also thought to be the default setting in human infants [7]. Children below the age of two fail the Self-Awareness mirror test mentioned above, are thought to exist in a permanent state of disassociation until their sense of Self evolves through interaction with the world. Bruce Hood argues in his recent book “The Self Illusion” that;

“It is not that you have forgotten what it is like to be an infant – you were simply not “you” at that age because there was no constructed self, and so you cannot make sense of early experiences in the context of the person to whom these events happened.”

Just as depriving an infant of light will result in its visual cortex failing to develop, leaving them blind for life even if they have fully working eyes, depriving them of social interaction will make them incapable of developing a notion of Self and Self-Awareness by starving the language centres of the brain. And just as infancy is crucial for the development of identity, the process of coming of age and finding who we “really are” can be seen as the culmination of this process. A settling into the social and environmental context of the world, often by adoption of roles imposed on us, or equally by rejecting them. Either way, we are defined by the world around us.

Over a century ago, Sociologist Charles Horton Cooley developed the notion of the “looking glass self” to describe how we define as ourselves as a reflection of others around us. Cooley argued we have different but overlapping selves for different social groups and there was no “real” self in all of this. Scottish philosopher David Hume had a similar notion to this in his “bundle theory”, that our Self is not a single entity bur rather a collection of different sensations that collectively give rise to the idea of personal identity. This is why most of us have different personas for work or different groups of friends, or for intimate moments with a lover. It is an idea vindicated by our current understanding of how the brain constructs the Self. Neurologist Kevin Nelson shows this view is borne out by cognitive science; [8]

“Self is a synthetic process that pulls different components distributed throughout the brain into the illusion of a unified whole. The neurologist in the hospital or in the laboratory often sees firsthand how fragmentary this illusion is, and how fragile it is to certain kind of disruptions. We see this again and again.”

The context of our awareness – the remembered self – is social and symbolic in nature precisely because so much environmental information is stored in the networked repository of culture. Indeed, culture evolved precisely for the purpose of accumulating environmental data. As we saw with the feral children mentioned above, a human who is not “logged in” to the rest of human culture exists in a massively impoverished mental environment. Without others, we are literally nobody, devoid of even a name or sense of identity. Without a conceptual world to reflect upon, the Self cannot exist. But what if the conceptual world we inhabit is not quite what we think it is?

The World as a Mirror of the Mind

The problem with memory providing the context for the experiencing self is that it is fundamentally unreliable and prone to errors. Distortions happen at about every level of perception as our brain biases our sensory experiences before they even reach our conscious mind. Why? Because to perceive the world without such filters would present to us an incomprehensible fog of confusion and complexity. To operate effectively, our bodies use try to judge what information is useful to us at any one moment. To find a signal within the noise.

The bulk of this is done below the levels of consciousness. This is why you cannot feel your clothes, or smokers cannot tell now bad they smell. It is why we can tune into one conversation in a crowded party while comfortably ignoring the surrounding din. In terms of the Self is also why two people perceiving the same event can recall entirely different stories of what happens, for their brains are tuned to different aspects of any one scenario to look for signals and symbols appropriate to their imagination of the world. The act of experiencing an event is a work of storytelling, and narrative structure is a form of data compression.

In the view of philosopher Nicholas Nasim Taleb, information is costly to store, so the brain compresses information by automatically imposing a simplified narrative version of what it perceives. According to Taleb, random information takes up a lot of space and is “cognitively expensive” (try remembering a password that is made of a random string of numbers – much harder than just typing 1234) so committing it to memory it in the first place is a form of “dimension reduction” indistinguishable from storytelling. [11] Similarly, Pioneering cognitive scientist Ulric Neisser’s research into memory showed the brain relies on on narrative strategies familiar to any writer of fiction. [12] Taleb believes this built-in fictionalisation of perception gives the impression of order in the world, and shields us from its inherent randomness and chaos.

Not only this, but the each act of remembering something subsequently automatically overwrites the original memory, resulting in a form of cognitive Chinese whispers that distorts memory further with each iteration. Professor of neuroscience David J.Linden writes in that “it is now clear that consolidation of long-term memory is also reinforced by subsequent conversation – when you repeatedly tell the story of where you were on 9/11, this repetitive narration reinforces consolidation [13].” Harvard University’s Daniel Schacter has also identified numerous problems with how the brain retrieves stored memories, such as misattribution, in which we think one person said something when it fact it was another, or when our recollection of a past event is distorted by our emotional state. With this in mind, Professor of experimental psychology Bruce Hood thinks that metaphors such as photographs and videos are entirely incorrect to describe memory; [7]

“If any metaphor is going to capture memory, then it is more like a compost heap in a constant state of reorganisation. Just like garden refuse that you put in a compost heap, experiences are laid down with the most recent still retaining much detail and structure, but, with time, they eventually break down and become mixed and integrated with the rest of our experiences. “

From such distorted data, we build our sense of Self; grandiose narratives in which we are the protagonist. Psychologist Dan McAdams argues that this myth is constantly updated and refined as we travel through life to reflect changing conditions and circumstances. It guides our conscious attention, and confers a powerful confirmation and selection bias on incoming data, it also rewrites our internal history if it doesn’t gel with the story we’re building. Such stories are of course replete with plot holes. For we are, after all, making it up as we go along.

So what are we to make of all this? Philosopher and neuroscientist Thomas Metzinger asserts that in the world of neuroscience, the idea that the Self is a fiction is “uncontroversial”. For those of us that have what we imagine as a solid sense of identity, this idea may seem uncomfortable, even disturbing. But even if we are to grab onto such notions as incontrovertible fact, we have no choice but to live our daily lives wearing such masks. Acting out stories embedded in a mesh of other cultural fictions, drifting through the medium of a shared dreamtime evolving with each thought and motion. Who would I be if I wasn’t me? The answer, it seems, is nobody.

Sources / Further Reading

  1. Alper, Matthew, The God Part of the Brain, Sourcebooks, 2008

  2. Wiley, Norbert, The History of the Self:From Primates to Present, 1994

  3. Metzinger, Thomas, To Be or Not To Be: The Self as Illusion, The New York Academy of Sciences, 2010 (Debate) 

  4. McCrone, John, The Myth of Irrationality:The Science of the Mind from Plato to Star Trek, Carroll & Graf Pub, 1994

  5. Moll, Henrike and Tomasello, Michael: Cooperation and human cognition: the Vygotskian intelligence hypothesis, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, 2000

  6. Kahneman, Daniel, The riddle of experience vs. memory, Ted, 2010

  7. Hood, Bruce, The Self Illusion: Why There is No ‘You’ Inside Your Head, Constable, 2011

  8. Nelson, Kevin, The God Impulse, Simon & Schuster, 2012

  9. Simon & Chabris, Selective Attention Test, 1999

  10. Richard Wiseman’s Colour Changing Card Trick

  11. Taleb, Nicholas N, The Black Swan” The Impact of the Highly Improbable, Random House, 2007

  12. Neisser, Ulric and Fivus, Robyn The Remembering Self: Construction and Accuracy in the Self-Narrative, Cambridge University Press, 1994

  13. Linden, David J, The Accidental Mind: How Brain Evolution Has Given Us Love, Memory, Dreams, and God, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008

  14. Quoted from Shields, David, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, Knopf, 2010

  15. Tsakiris, Manos and Haggard, Patrick, Touching a rubber hand: feeling of body ownership is associated with activity in multisensory brain areas, Journal of Neuroscience, 2005

  16. Proffitt, Dennis R. et al, The Role of Effort in Perceiving Distance, Psychological Sciences, 2003

  17. Belk, Russell W. Journal of Consumer Research, University of Chicago Press, 1988