Existence: What is the self?
“Our sense of self is not an entity in its own right, but emerges from general purpose processes in the brain.
Seth Gillihan and Martha Farah of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia have proposed a view of the self that has three strands: the physical self (which arises from our sense of embodiment); the psychological self (which comprises our subjective point-of-view, our autobiographical memories and the ability to differentiate between self and others); and a higher level sense of agency, which attributes the actions of the physical self to the psychological self (Psychological Bulletin, vol 131, p 76)
We are now uncovering some of the brain processes underlying these strands. For instance, Olaf Blanke of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne and colleagues have shown that the physical sense of self is centred on the temporo-parietal cortex. It integrates information from your senses to create a sense of embodiment, a feeling of being located in a particular body in a particular place. That feeling can be spectacularly disrupted if the temporo-parietal cortex receives contradictory inputs, causing it to generate out-of-body experiences (New Scientist, 10 October 2009, p 34). (…)
Within the brain, it seems, the self is both everywhere and nowhere. “If you make a list [for what’s needed for a sense of self], there is hardly a brain region untouched,” says cognitive philosopher Thomas Metzinger of Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany. Metzinger interprets this as meaning the self is an illusion. We are, he says, fooled by our brains into believing that we are substantial and unchanging. (…)
Studies have shown that each time we recall an episode from our past, we remember the details differently, thus altering ourselves (Physics of Life Reviews, vol 7, p 88).
So the self, despite its seeming constancy and solidity, is constantly changing. We are not the same person we were a year ago and we will be different tomorrow or a year from now. And the only reason we believe otherwise is because the brain does such a stellar job of pulling the wool over our eyes.”
Prof. Dr. Thomas Metzinger: Brain, bodily awareness, and the emergence of a conscious self
“Brain, bodily awareness, and the emergence of a conscious self: these entities and their relations are explored by German philosopher and cognitive scientist Thomas Metzinger. Extensively working with neuroscientists he has come to the conclusion that, in fact, there is no such thing as a “self” — that a “self” is simply the content of a model created by our brain - part of a virtual reality we create for ourselves. But if the self is not “real,” he asks, why and how did it evolve?
How does the brain construct the self? In a series of fascinating virtual reality experiments, Metzinger and his colleagues have attempted to create so-called “out-of-body experiences” in the lab, in order to explore these questions. As a philosopher, he offers a discussion of many of the latest results in robotics, neuroscience, dream and meditation research, and argues that the brain is much more powerful than we have ever imagined. He shows us, for example, that we now have the first machines that have developed an inner image of their own body — and actually use this model to create intelligent behavior.
In addition, studies exploring the connections between phantom limbs and the brain have shown us that even people born without arms or legs sometimes experience a sensation that they do in fact have limbs that are not there. Experiments like the “rubber-hand illusion” demonstrate how we can experience a fake hand as part of our self and even feel a sensation of touch on the phantom hand form the basis and testing ground for the idea that what we have called the “self” in the past is just the content of a transparent self-model in our brains.
Now, as new ways of manipulating the conscious mind-brain appear on the scene, it will soon become possible to alter our subjective reality in an unprecedented manner. The cultural consequences of this, Metzinger claims, may be immense: we will need a new approach to ethics, and we will be forced to think about ourselves in a fundamentally new way.”