Who and what am I? What is my self?
Some of us find this question and similar questions compelling. For us, self-awareness is not only a valuable tool for relationships or to achieve greater success in life, it’s also deeply intriguing and fun to explore. Even for those of us who are not inclined to philosophise about the nature of self, we are nonetheless (all of us) continually enthralled by and engaged in the story of our lives as represented by our inner dialogue and sense of self.
If you are a fellow inhabitant of this “self-exploring camp”, please indulge me a few minutes of your time to present an analogy of what you are from a modern, secular, neuroscientific perspective- presented in an analogy designed for geeks and gamers.
The Game Character Analogy
I recently played a game I thoroughly enjoyed- Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order. A typical scene from this game would look like this:
Note several things appearing. You are Cal Kestis- the protagonist of the game, and around you is appearing an environment with which you are interacting as you play.
In order to successfully play the game and achieve its goals, you need to have a clear fundamental understanding of the difference between you (the protagonist), the environment (which you navigate and interact with) and the other characters (with whom you interact, sometimes they’re bad guys and you fight them, sometimes they’re good guys who help you, etc.)
Now, the distinction between your self and environment that you’re participating in is so fundamental and intuitive that it never requires explicit mention. Imagine you were new to the game and I were showing it to you and I began my explanation with “so this character in the middle of the screen- the person that you see- that’s you, and around you is the environment, it’s really important to know the difference- you and the environment are not the same thing”. Anyone who’s over one year’s old would find that explanation redundant. They’d be flabbergasted by the obviousness of pointing that out.
It would seem even more silly and redundant therefore to be explicit and draw a line around the character to clearly show their separation from the environment, like so:
What’s within the red lines is you. Everything else is the environment with which you’re interacting.
It’s super intuitive and obvious. There’s really no need to even mention it.
But things get interesting when we…
Consider the perspective of the GPU
Anyone who knows their stuff in computing will know that from the perspective of the GPU, the distinction between self and environment is a lot more arbitrary. The entire scene, including the image of Cal, is being generated within the GPU somewhere. Sure, there’s probably some process thread (or something) that separates the generation of the character from the generation of the environment, perhaps processing the image of the player in a ‘different section’ of the GPU’s inner workings, but nonetheless, if something appears on the screen, the GPU is rendering it, regardless of whether it’s self, environment, or other characters.
Thus from the GPU’s perspective, self is just another rendering.
Consider the perspective of the screen
Furthermore, the screen makes little distinction between Cal, the environment, and other characters either. From the screen’s perspective, there are just thousands of pixels which allow for colours to be presented with a high degree of precision and nuance. When pixel number 785X265 goes a ginger shade to represent Cal’s hair, then a moment later shifts to a grey as the hair passes by and the environment is now being presented in that exact pixel, it isn’t really bothered at all by the gamer’s distinction of “that was Cal’s hair, now it’s the environment”.
Thus we see that the distinction between self, environment, and others is clear on one level (a conceptual level, where is incredibly useful), and from another perspective, the distinction between those things doesn’t even exist at all- (instead there are just processes and appearances).
Unpacking the analogy
In this analogy, the computer’s hardware and GPU represent the brain, while the screen symbolises consciousness (or the mind). Because we’re adopting a secular standpoint, invoking no supernatural entities or spirits to explain consciousness or our sense of self, we’ll assert that we have no good reason to believe that what we refer to as our self is anything other than something being generated by our brain.
From our firsthand perspective, the distinction between self, environment, and other people is crucial to navigate the world. However, as appearances in consciousness, all of those things are being generated by the same brain, just in different parts.
Which parts, you might ask? Well- that’s a question for neuroscientists, a question which they’ve worked on quite a lot already. So, with a reference or two to lend some credibility, I’ll now proceed to abandon all credibility and simply quote from my conversation with ChatGPT:
“Me: neuroanatomically, which sections of the brain are responsible for generating a sense of self?”
“ChatGPT: The sense of “self” is a multifaceted construct that involves numerous brain structures and networks. Although our understanding of the neuroanatomical bases for the sense of self is still evolving, several key regions and networks have been identified as being particularly important. These include:
- Medial Prefrontal Cortex (mPFC): The mPFC is consistently implicated in self-referential processing. It’s particularly active when individuals think about themselves, their traits, and their preferences. The mPFC is a part of the default mode network (DMN), which is more active when an individual is at rest and not engaged in external tasks…
(The answer goes on and lists 7 other regions of the brain involved in self processing… read this link to get them all)
… It’s crucial to understand that the sense of self is a product of complex and interconnected processes in the brain. No single region is solely responsible; instead, various networks and structures work in tandem. Additionally, the exact mechanisms and processes are still subjects of ongoing research. The brain regions mentioned are just a few of the critical areas implicated in generating our sense of self.”
The brain is generating consciousness, and the screen is where things are appearing. Just as the screen displays every rendered image, our consciousness illuminates everything generated by the brain (but notably, it doesn’t illuminate everything going on in the brain).
Returning to our sense of self: just as you play the game with an intuitive understanding that you are the character, we play the game of our lives with a deeply intuitive sense that “I” am playing this game. This sense of “I” is highly persistent, so much so that it becomes difficult to imagine that it might be possible for that sense to drop away.
But things get really interesting when you take on a different perspective (or, rather, look more closely at a more fundamental perspective which is really the only one that can be taken on)- what are you if not a persistent sense that there is a you somewhere here? What is the self if not an idea that appears to be more or less constantly kept in mind and referred to 100 times a day?
It might be challenging to grasp the idea that consciousness can exist without self-awareness, but consider the initial moments after waking up in the morning. In the beginning, there’s just a sound, perhaps the song of a bird or the vague sense that something is happening, then within a very short period of time, the gears and engine of consciousness roar into action, and a sense of self boots up rather quickly. Discursive thought is quick to follow:
“Uhhh, what day is it today? Oh. Tuesday. Yeah I’ve got to get up and start making breakfast for the kids… Hmmm I feel relatively well rested. That’s good”
This perspective gives more meaning to states of consciousness where the sense of self is loosened for a while. Consider for example the phrase “to lose yourself in your work”. What’s the significance of this phrase? Is it not that for a period of time that one’s attention was used in such a way as to not be focusing on the idea of being a self, and as such this idea temporarily faded away?
And isn’t there something profoundly liberating and enjoyable about being in those kinds of flow states?
Non-dual meditation is a direct pathway to this territory. The explicit approach is to attend closely to your sense of self and ask the question “What am I in my own firsthand experience?”
And in particular states of consciousness, you might just discover that “these aren’t the droids you’re looking for.” 🤣