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[This is the first post in the series Why Everything You Know about Your “Self” Is Wrong. This 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.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Cool! (12+ / 0-)

    I am always curious about how things work.

    Reflection about our lives is always a good thing to find time for.  I get cranky if I don't do it.

    Thanks for an interesting diary!

    Join us at Bookflurries-Bookchat on Wednesday nights 8:00 PM EST

    by cfk on Thu May 09, 2013 at 06:05:29 PM PDT

    •  less reflection time, more cranky time (8+ / 0-)

      What an interesting observation! Notice that it's the witness speaking, disinterestedly, as is its wont. Now that you mention it, my witness has noticed the same thing: less reflection time, more cranky time.

      •  I have had all too much time for reflection: (6+ / 0-)

        Being "between jobs" for over a year has given me plenty of time to reflect on what I value and what I think about myself and observe how others observe me.

        One thing that I think I have discovered about myself is that, contrary to what I always said (and most people always "say" about themselves) I think I am less hard on myself than others are.

        The old saying - "you are your biggest critic" or "you are harder on yourself than those around you" all sound really good and b/c they "sound" so right, I think most people truly believe that they are - - - but, what I found myself doing is considering all the "extenuating circumstances" and other mitigating events, I tend to give myself a break or the benefit of the doubt probably more than a truly neutral other person would.

        On the other hand, maybe I am being too hard on myself?

        Blessed are the peacemakers, the poor, the meek and the sick. Message to Repug Fundies: "DO you really wonder "what would Jesus do?" I didn't think so.

        by 4CasandChlo on Thu May 09, 2013 at 07:03:48 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Witness vs. Internalized Critics (4+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          cfk, cotterperson, 4CasandChlo, koNko

          Your description of your process, doubts and all, is just what I mean by the witness. One's witness notices stuff, but does not praise or condemn, though I think it's capable of subtle irony and humor, which your comment demonstrates.

          •  I appreciate that - - and your diary very much: (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            koNko, cfk

            The little ironic take at the end actually didn't occur to me until the very end, after reading my initial view (which I am sincere about) and I honestly thought "perhaps I am just being too hard on myself" and then giggled at how appropo.

            I heartily look forward to future installments, it's a wonderful concept, thank you.

            Blessed are the peacemakers, the poor, the meek and the sick. Message to Repug Fundies: "DO you really wonder "what would Jesus do?" I didn't think so.

            by 4CasandChlo on Thu May 09, 2013 at 08:30:51 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

  •  I Am Not Sure I Agree (5+ / 0-)

    but love the analysis. I can recall when I was a kid, even if 43 now. I don't have kids but very close with my niece. She is 4. We have this bond that I am proud of. She can often be heard saying "where is Tommy."

    I think we have that bond cause I can recall as a kid being treated in a manner I didn't like. I treat her like I wanted to be treated. That seems to work out well for both of us.

  •  I've often thought about this concept you call (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Robert Fuller, blueoasis, offgrid, koNko

    "the witness."  Here's my take... On everything there is an "objective" truth (as discussed in Philosophy 101), or an "optimum" point.  Take any issue, any argument, any scientific fact/theory, and for each there is a "truth" that's independent from our human understanding of it.

    Now, when we get to the individual, there are many aspects or characteristics in each individual that gets in the way of "knowing" the "truth" about almost any subject.

    Our culture, our upbringing, language, genetics, intelligence, talent, social class, experiences, etc.

    For those who seek the "truth," the first step is to realize that, "we know nothing," as Socrates said, and that we can only hope to get as close as we can to the "truth" or "optimum" point of understanding about any subject, but only if we transcend our cultural limitations.

    For example, if there is a "truth" about something, any given human being should be able to get a glimpse of it, or get close to it, only she transcends being an American, or French, or English, or Mexican, or German, Native American, or poor, or rich, or ill or healthy.

    Only when one is able (or seeks to) transcend biases associated with our upbringing, culture, education, etc., one will be in the path to wisdom.

  •  As a Programmer I Always Presumed That the "Self" (7+ / 0-)

    we speak of refers to a supervisory routine that surveys the data inputs (which include memories) and basically does the top level assessing and organizing. Maybe your "witness" is that, or maybe the witness is only one portion of it.

    But it's obvious that all the rest of us, including the body, are essential elements of the total person. There are any number of parts of our mind and thinking that aren't wired up to speak, and may have limited ability to be swayed by our conscious ideas, yet they're part of our reasoning or emotion or intuition.

    We hadn't gotten very far along in using the analogy of the brain as a "computer" that it became obvious to me that it was at minimum a network of networks of computers.

    Such a fascinating subject.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Thu May 09, 2013 at 06:53:03 PM PDT

    •  brain computer parallels (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      I'll be developing these in subsequent posts in the 6-part series. In a realm like this, there's room for lots of different perspectives. Will probably take decades to zero in on a model of brain function upon which there's broad agreement. But it's coming, I think it's coming, bit by bit.

    •  The Tachikomas (3+ / 0-)

      In a world where more and more people have cyber brains and cyber bodies, they lose their humanity. Shooting someone with a cyberbrain is nothing because their "ghost" has been backed up.  But when some shlub with an unaugmented body and an organic brain gets shot, it's like "Oh well, he wasn't backed up, whose fault is that?"

      Meanwhile the tachikomas (which are like mini-tanks crossed with jumping spiders) have the personalities (and voices) of bright school girls, and they keep having endless group debates about whether they have souls.  The maintenance people are unable to explain why the robots start having singalongs.  As people are dehumanized by technology the robots seem to be developing souls.

      Many aspects of this were ripped off for The Matrix.

      There’s always free cheddar in a mousetrap, baby

      by bernardpliers on Thu May 09, 2013 at 07:36:04 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Where Is My Mind? (5+ / 0-)

    This should be a music diary

    There’s always free cheddar in a mousetrap, baby

    by bernardpliers on Thu May 09, 2013 at 07:03:42 PM PDT

  •  Nice summary, but I'm not sure the "witness" is (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Robert Fuller, cotterperson, koNko

    always so neutral as you portray it.  I'd say that it's fairly similar to what therapists call the "observing ego," and one function of a healthy "observing ego" is evaluating one's behavior in relation to one's own goals and values.  If you believe that such goals and values are totally determined by the impositions of others, then I could see that the function I'm talking about is totally subsumed by what Freud called the superego.  But that's not my experience of intelligent adults.  And I'd suggest that the research of Antonio D'Amasio  with patients with certain frontal lobe lesions (e.g., "Descartes Error" has some early stuff) suggests that it's difficult to dissociate a fully functioning "witness" from the "observing ego."

    "If you don't read the newspapers, you're uninformed. If you do read the newspapers, you're misinformed." -- M. Twain

    by Oliver St John Gogarty on Thu May 09, 2013 at 07:09:14 PM PDT

  •  The witness is a log and an organizing principle (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Robert Fuller, blueoasis, offgrid, koNko

    It seems that certain higher order cognitive processes have this peculiar property that whenever they occur, a kind of log entry gets filed. This seems to serve internal bookkeeping. Part of why this happens may have to do with these functions not being localized in the brain, but rather being computed all over the place. But this log, as messy and unreliable as it is, makes us what we are. That's our self awareness, our memory, our personality. And when we experience it as a kind of internal person, an internal observer - the witness - we model it on the people we interact with out there in society. We realize we are one of them. And it is tempting to think that without this log, it would be difficult to organize our mind into a coherent "voice", a personality through which we can interact with others. So in a sense, one reason why our cognitive processes get organized so that our cognitive faculties seem to follow a single conductors may actually be that we are social beings.

  •  Interesting thoughts, thanks. (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    zett, Robert Fuller, offgrid, Wee Mama, koNko
    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.
    A more interior self-definition is found by some of us -- introverts, I suspect -- outside the game and position. My personal preference is to work toward being a person of peace, not someone in a game seeking position.

    Before I retired, I had to have an outward persona. Frankly, it's good to be rid of it, as it was defined socially and in the workplace. To be who I want to be -- or at least to move in that direction -- is a great relief.

    All the best to you, Robert.

    "Let each unique song be sung and the spell of differentiation be broken" - Winter Rabbit

    by cotterperson on Thu May 09, 2013 at 08:04:55 PM PDT

  •  Thank you for this. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Robert Fuller, koNko

    It's really refreshing to see someone of your stature engaging in the comments too!

    There are moments when the body is as numinous as words, days that are the good flesh continuing. -- Robert Hass

    by srkp23 on Thu May 09, 2013 at 09:43:59 PM PDT

  •  I recognize some exceptions to your plan, (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Robert Fuller, offgrid, Wee Mama, koNko

    most of which involve trauma to the brain or nervous system. I suffered a brain contusion when 16 years old. One of those life changing events, to be sure. Memory loss, had to relearn a lot of mathematics, physical and occupational therapy, and long lasting emotional damage that was no doubt exacerbated by many, many years of self-medicating behaviors. But I'm much better, now :) My son, on the other hand, is on the high functioning end of the autism spectrum. He was born that way, his brain is just wired differently than most people. He only missed one answer on the math portion of his SAT exam. But I'm not sure he will ever be able to leave home and be on his own without significant support services. Then there are those unfortunate people who suffer from dementia and Alzheimer's, and gradually lose all sense of self as their brain atrophies from the disease. I'm not sure what to make of the true sociopaths, they seem to be able to function extremely well in a capitalistic, winner take all, society. I guess their inner observer only sees things in the light of what makes them more powerful and enriched. The witness being a function of the mind is a fascinating concept. I would suggest that language itself is a function of our minds, but then I'm a proponent of the ordinary language school of philosophy.

  •  interesting diary. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Wee Mama, koNko, Robert Fuller

    One part I see a bit  differently is that the self-accusation by the inner critic may be based on a filtered and processed version of others judgments, not the judgments themselves. Positive judgments may be minimized or reinterpreted in a negative easy, so that the basis of the  self criticism becomes a distortion. This may not be true for  everyone, but it seems  closer to the   way my mind operates.

    The neutral "witness" seems a bit like what I've accessed when doing mindfulness mediation as part of a therapy program.

    Gondwana has always been at war with Laurasia.

    by AaronInSanDiego on Thu May 09, 2013 at 10:38:56 PM PDT

  •  A thoroughly fascinating subject (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    koNko, Robert Fuller

    and one that I've been exploring for most of my life, at least since the first time that I dropped acid.

    There is nothing in the universe more complex than a human being, except of course, the universe itself.

    I look forward to your future posts, and further discussion.

  •  I am my community (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Robert Fuller

    I couldn't live or be me without it.

    {Not a sigline. You are hallucinating.}

    by koNko on Fri May 10, 2013 at 05:44:42 AM PDT

  •  Very Buddhist. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Robert Fuller

    I am not the Body.
    I am not the Mind.
    I am not I.

    I am Not.

    •  the "Buddhist" refrain posted by cynndara (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      While I don't disagree with it -- in fact, I think it's brilliant -- the final line kind of leaves one hanging. I interpret it to mean that what we've taken as the "self" (that is what we mean when we say "i," is Not, it does not exist, in the sense that it is illusory. But there is still a sentient being there, suffering and causing suffering to others. The series of 6 posts that are forthcoming attempts to go on from the Buddhist conclusion above -- I am Not -- to apply this new awareness to our interpersonal and political lives.

      Your take on it is most welcome.

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