Is The Self an Illusion?

Do you sometimes feel you contradict yourself? Are there others in your brain competing or collaborating to create the illusion of a singular self?

It seems quite clear that the more the experts understand the brain (which might be very little right now) the more they are coming to the conclusion the self is an illusion, or to be more precise, there may be many selves within one brain. This very unintuitive realisation is as profound as it is fascinating.

Now for some hardcore science, that baffles the mind, or shall I say minds. After reading many books and articles on the subject from well-respected experts in the field such as Michael Gazzaniga, V.S Ramachandran, Oliver Sacks and many others. It seems the aspect that there could be more than one self is being proved empirically, and this I believe may explain how someone can hold contradictory ideas and beliefs without crashing the system.

Rigid experiments made on split-brain patients over the last few decades have proven that at least two different personalities with different views, different tastes, different abilities, different wants exist within one brain. These experiments are made on people who have had their corpus callosum (the part connecting the two hemispheres) totally and completely severed, so essentially one side of the brain does not have physical nerve connection to the other.

Since these experiments in many cases did not give the two hemisphere’s enough time to disassociate from each other after the procedure, we can only assume the two personalities had already existed prior to the separation, and would explain such weird phenomena as alien hand syndrome, body integrity identity disorder and probably many other weird things like me talking to my self when I’m alone.

Although only two personalities have been discovered in an empirical fashion thanks to the split brain patients, It would not be far-fetched to speculate you can have more than two personalities. In fact in the field of psychiatry Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), previously known as Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD), is not something new, but has been debated, and only very apparent when an individual has gone through some traumatic event, but this disorder also has degree’s of dissociation, where its hard to pinpoint its validity.

Just observing my self carefully, I can detect parts of my thinking brain struggling to reconcile and agree on actions, and can sometimes create a depressive state, where different wants are pulling in opposite directions. I sometimes find contradictions in my ideas and philosophies, which are hard to cope with internally never mind trying to explain them away to others without sounding like a flip-flopper.

I enjoy having internal dialogue. Am I going crazy, or is this normal? This is a question I would like to pose.

5 responses to “Is The Self an Illusion?

  1. Descartes himself located the self, or mind, within the pineal gland. This idea was attacked from all angles by philosophers who didn’t like Descartes presentation of the phenomology of the world, basing the world as real because God would not want to deceive us. Nevertheless Descartes opened a can of worms, and now western analytical philosophy is stuck in this rut of cartesian doubt.

    But the indian philosophy duality is different to the one you speak of. Here, the self is consciousness itself. A witness or awareness. Even the mind lies on the material side of this duality. So far, nobody has proven or disproven the existence of it. It hasn’t be mechanically replicated either. But there seems to be something that separates us from a corpse or stone that we have not yet grasped

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  2. Thanks for you insight khalkinised. I have no issue with duality, consciousness being separate from the material brain. In fact I frequently entertain the possibility.

    I like your awareness definition, but again it does not detract from the concept that awareness may be defined by many selves within the mind, as with the movement of a school of fish, a flock of birds, or a swarm of bees, the collective being perceived as independent, but actually is defined by each member (agent) within the whole without a leader, the collective being analogous to the perception of a single self-aware consciousness.

    To give an example using my current thoughts. I started this blog a few months ago and it has taken away from hours of reading, which I used to do. Although it has opened a new avenue of interaction and a medium to acquiring knowledge, a part of me which I’m fully aware of, does not like the idea, and another which I’m also fully aware of, very much likes it. There is definitely a tug-of war between them.

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  3. I absolutely have different “selves,” but I wouldn’t describe them as such.
    Even where I flip-flop on some issue or decision, I don’t associate that with distinct divisions of my mind battling for control.
    I think my mind just identifies with sundry personalities, opinions, issues, etc. and so develops different faces that interact more smoothly with each of those realms.

    Picture an object that’s like a 3D asterisk – a bunch of points branching out from the center. Suppose each point had a different shape that would fit a corresponding hole. Kind of like a multi-pronged key. Each point has its application, but it’s part of a whole. It’s different from the other points, but still connected.

    So I have different temperaments and modes of thinking, but I definitely feel like they’re all contained within one “self,” even when they disagree. I think disagreement within yourself is just a checks-and-balances kind of system that keeps each face of the self honest.

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  4. I have to agree with you chiefmcfrank, I’m convinced I’m the only one in my head and I’m just going through the process of thinking to identify the best decision, thus “the illusion”. It is why experiments carried out on split brain patients, are so profound and counter-intuitive. From there I have taken several leaps, firstly the multiple disorders diagnosed by psychiatrist to further show possibility of more than two personalities, and finally divisions within my own thinking which are not always reconciled.

    Let us use an analogy of a bucket of water as the brain. If water is considered brain substance, and you fill several different types of containers of water, which in turn are all poured into a bucket of water. From the perspective of the bucket he is the Mind and one Self made up of the different combination containers poured in to him, however what if these containers of water are poured in to more than one bucket.

    Your comments made me think more, and wonder if our brains are connected in the near or far future so that communication is made directly and instantaneously, would we consider ourselves apart. I might have to write on this (thanks for the insight)


  5. We all live in a simulation of the world. That is, our consciousness exists within a simulation of the world and it contains all the rules that we need to interact with the world. DID patients appear to exhibit the condition where they have (nearly) completely separate sets of rules for the simulation and thus seem to have multiple conscious entities within one brain.
    With the corpus collosum severed the brain has two places capable of running the simulation. Because they no longer talk, both assume they need to run the simulation. The rules available to each half are not shared so the internal discussions about the rules for the simulator need to happen outside the brain in a conscious entity to conscious entity fashion, just as you and I talking might be. That is unlikely to happen exactly because of the split.

    Internal dialogue is natural and I believe healthy. It is how we change the rules for the simulator. This is necessary to learn, to create, to explore. It is how we question and test the rules of the simulation running in our heads.

    Imagine a dark field and as you stand there a shadowy shape is moving from left to right. How do you decide what that shape is and whether it is dangerous or not or perhaps in need of assistance? Imagine that conversation going on in your head. Now, imagine the same conversation between you and another person standing there with you. Are the two conversations really that different?

    Both conversations are about affixing labels, attributes, and assessing possible future actions of the shadowy shape. Why would your brain use only one part or focus for this?

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