Inventing the Self

On God Jr.

December 1st, 2013 · Comments Off on On God Jr.

What a wonderfully interesting take on death, grief and gaming. This book, while short, touches on so many subjects. On one level its about a man dealing with the death of his son and trying to find a connection to him. Its an amazing display of the fact that everyone grieves differently and, anyone whose ever dealt with that close of a loss knows, it can make a person do strange things.

There’s also something very significant in his being in a wheel chair, realizing he can walk again and then hiding it for most of the story. Psycho-somatic problems are a common but rarely addressed phenomenon. Its not really clear in the book if he wasn’t able to walk because of the accident or if, it seems to me more likely, that his guilt over believing he killed his son presented as the symptom of not being able to walk.

The biggest part of the book, though, is obviously the video game. The game his son played (and the one building, in the one level, that he was obsessed with) and that the father becomes obsessed with playing. So many people loose themselves in video games. Video games are a great escape from the real world but many people become obsessed with their virtual world and stop living their real lives. Its a real thing that happens more often then you think. The Youtube channel Extra Credits (who have clever and deep discussions about video games) did a very intense 2 part video on this Game Compulsion. If anyone is interested in seeing them the links are here:
Extra Credits: Game Compulsion Pt 1:
Extra Credits: Game Compulsion Pt 2:
The videos (esp. the second) are intense but are thought provoking and worth the watch.

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Math is something you do, not who you are…

November 12th, 2013 · 6 Comments

The idea of quantified-self has to be the least thorough theory we’ve explored. Saying that I am 5.5 feet tall, have an average bp of 110/70 and sleep approx. 6hrs a night is no more useful in defining my ‘self’ as it is to say that I’m of Italian heritage, born in Queens and like Vanilla ice-cream.

Sure all of these things are details that have some value but none of them are, nor do the sum of them equal, who I am. None of them give any clarity to the sort of thing we generally mean when we speak about self and self-hood. They don’t show what distinguishes my ‘self’ from another Italian-american self with 110/70 bp.

I can understand what the videos from this week are getting at, and can even agree that this kind of knowledge can be immeasurably valuable for things like managing ones health, coping with stress etc. But combining the quantifiables of life into a theory of self just seems absurd. At least in the case of neuroscience, which I also feel falls short as a theory of self, can explain, or attempt to explain, thoughts, emotions, individual frame of reference and many other things that simply can’t be quantified but, I think, are obviously important to a study and theory of self.

Its easy to see, esp. in today’s society, how many people can be caught up in this, for lack of a better word, fad of quantifing self. Numbers are easy to share and understand relationally. They make us feel better about managing our health in a hypochondriac society. They make goals easy to set and follow (whether its getting 100 on a test, losing 30lbs or making $50,000 a year). Maybe on a more subconscious level, it even gives us the sense that all problems can be solved (like a math problem) or that everything will balance out (like an equation). But just because its an easy answer doesn’t make it a good answer. Quantified self is as silly an idea, to me at least, as numerology (in fact I’m not sure there’s that much of a difference since both assign meaning to numbers that just isn’t real).

Is quantifying life a useful tool? Absolutely, in many ways and areas it can be helpful.
Is it anything more than a tool? Is it a theory of self? Absolutely Not!

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Rufus May – Living Mindfully with Voices

October 30th, 2013 · 1 Comment

I thought this was a great video. It had a lot of cuts and I might be cool to see his entire lecture. What he says makes sense and is consistent with most of the other things we’ve read about hearing voices. Treating these people through this unusual methods as opposed to drugs is a great thing. Medication can’t solve all the problems a mental illness causes and all medications have side-effects, which for some may be worse then their symptoms.

Its so important with any mental illness to treat the person suffering from it like any other person, to not make them feel like some sort of freak which is sadly often the case. Feelings of seclusion and being “abnormal” can only make such illness and the experiences of the individuals worse. What this guy does to help them is great. Helping them to live the way they want despite hearing voices is important.

He describes a lot of the same things we’ve read about. He describes patients doing better with mindfulness and by having a understanding with their voices that patients who do poorly don’t have. His lecture is just another piece of evidence for getting out of the chem lab and finding new ways of thinking about how we treat mental illness.

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Wray & McCarthy-Jones

October 16th, 2013 · 4 Comments

McCarthy-Jones writing on Hearing Voices is, in my opinion, the best scientific work we’ve read thus far. It was interesting and full of information. The variety of sources made it dense but convincing. I think the most important part was that he quoted patients through-out the work. The one thing that I have difficulty with in both of this weeks readings is that to me it seems to be impossible to understand and describe the mind of a schizophrenic unless you are yourself schizophrenic. McCarthy-Jones quoting the patients made his conclusions more reasonable, having the first hand information.

I don’t doubt that Wray did a great deal of research on the subject before or while writing Lowboy; that fact is clear in the details of the writing. It is a wonderful book and I particularly like that it switches points of view, from Lowboy to the Detective. But I still can’t help but question the accuracy of Wray’s descriptions of schizophrenia. I don’t believe that there is any amount of research one could do on the subject that could make them truly understand, or truly capable of making someone else understand, the experience of schizophrenia unless they themselves have lived with it. I don’t know what it is like personally so I don’t know if Wray’s description of the experience is a good one and in that way I feel detached from the subject and the book.

McCarthy-Jones’ Hearing Voices did help in the understanding of Lowboy. While I do know a little about abnormal psychology my base of reference is very small and reading McCarthy-Jones first gave be a better frame of reference with which to read Lowboy but it still seems that its not enough. With mental illnesses like schizophrenia the individual experience is so different from that of people without such a diagnosis that really getting a sense of what its like to be inside that persons mind is almost unfathomable. I can appreciate McCarthy-Jones’ collection of studies and thoughts on the subjects scientific research as well as Wray’s own research and literary exploration of the subject but I still feel it would be even more effective and more powerful if told by someone who truly understands that experience.

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Self as Personal Narrative

September 30th, 2013 · 2 Comments

Finally we are presented with a theory of self and identity that I can get behind. While this weeks articles don’t deal exactly with the same question as before, the theory of self as story holds a lot more credibility to me then self as brain chemistry. Granted, the neuroscientists and other authors we’ve previously read were all trying to answer WHERE is self and HOW is it created (in the brain, the whole body, the environment) this weeks reading looked more at the question WHAT is self. To me, this is the far more interesting and important question. I’m sure the other authors consider their work to answer ‘what’ as well as ‘where’ and ‘how’ but they all fall short. Brain chemistry can’t explain the phenomenon of self-hood and identity and everything that entails. Not even Noe’s poorly developed theory of body, brain, environment really encompasses all the intricacies of the self.

This description of self as a narrative on the other hand does the best job yet of explaining what self and identity are, why its such an important part of humanity and explaining how experiences translate into this identity. We are the stories we tell in a sense. We are our autobiographies, even in the parts where we omit, or embellish, or forget. We are the sum of our experiences, not as they occurred but rather, as we experienced them. No definition I’ve heard comes closer to fully describing that sense one gets when they ponder who they are. We are, as McAdams describes on page 28, a Narrating Mind, we are telling our own story as we live it. Our thoughts are constant, the mind always working, narrating daily life.

This idea doesn’t tell us where the self is stored or how it comes to be. The answer to this still might be in the brain, or something like the idea of a soul. How is it that human beings have this narrating mind that other animals seem to lack? What makes us into storytellers rather then mere experiencers? What is it that gives us this faculty to tell our own story, to describe ourselves and our lives, to narrate our experiences and even to ask these questions? All these questions remain after this weeks reading and I am inclined to agree with philosophers like Hume and Plato in asserting that such answers are simply beyond the realm of human comprehension. Trying to explain how the self comes to be is a lot like explaining what makes the sky blue to someone who is blind. You can get all the science exactly right but it won’t make them see blue. Well, you can describe the sense of self, you can describe what happens in the brain and the body but you won’t ever SEE the self. You’ll never be able to reach out and touch it, to pin point it and say “There it is!!!” Self is not a corporeal thing and as such can’t be ‘found’ in that way. I suppose that makes it more of a metaphysical thing, and the metaphysical is something, I believe, can only be speculated about but never truly understood by a human being.

The lack of an attempt to explain self in those kind of terms is actually part of what I most enjoyed about this reading. No pretentious sermonizing by people claiming to have the answer to an unanswerable question. Just a perfect analogy to describe a thing we can’t define with science.

Consciousness, self, identity are all things that are a bit difficult to define and describe in any meaningful way. This idea of that description being a story works so well I’m not sure a better analogy could be made. The self is strongly associated with the mind, the mind is a constant stream of thoughts (also known as a stream of consciousness) and those thoughts come together to describe our lives moment to moment. If we are more then simply bodies then we are our thoughts and what are our thoughts if not the constant narration of our experience?

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Neil deGrasse Tyson – Identity in Brain

September 20th, 2013 · 1 Comment

I realize that the following is only 2 sentences and not an entire scientific or philosophical argument, however, it was interesting to read and related to what we’ve been discussing.

World renowned Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson posted the following comment on twitter:
“Our identity is located in our brain. So the executioner’s command “Off with his head!” should really be “Off with his body!””

Mr. Tyson is a brilliant man and the director of the Hayden Planetarium here in NYC. It also seems that he agrees with some of the authors we’ve discussed so far in the belief that self is connected to the brain.

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Susan Blackmore’s The Self Illusion

September 16th, 2013 · 4 Comments

In 20 minutes Susan Blackmore runs through her theory of the self as illusion, uses some basic neuroscience to back it up and concludes that we’re not the same person from one minute to the next. I can’t be the only person to hear this and think that its absurd. While we can all admit that we all change, I am by no means the same person today that I was when I was five, but to say that today I’m not the same person I was yesterday is a bit more than can easily be swallowed.

Her analysis of the relevant neuroscience is accurate and does make her thesis a bit more plausible. As she states, there is no one place in the brain where our experience is put all together as one whole. One part of the brain translates light in our eyes into images. Another part converts sound waves into sounds we hear. There is no point in the brain that we can point to with certainty and say that is where the “self” is formed; that’s where our experiences come together, that’s where our actions are decided; that is the part of the brain responsible for self. It doesn’t exist and strongly supports Blackmore’s argument that Self is an illusion.

She takes a step too far though when she insists that self is illusion because the self changes moment to moment. While brain chemistry may change moment to moment we can not conclude that the self does as well. In fact, this assertion discredits her previous argument that the self was an illusion because it didn’t exist in the brain. If our illusion of self were changing moment to moment then it wouldn’t sound like such a strange idea to us when she first states it. In fact, she wouldn’t need to defend that stance if it were actually the human experience for the self to change so frequently.

She comes around to the idea of the ever changing self by beginning with the question, “are you conscious?” and asking people to ask themselves this question on a regular basis. She describes a sensation of becoming conscious and eventually decided that the self that became conscious today is not the one that became conscious yesterday. She states that our idea of the self as a unified, continuous experiencer is false, but I would have to disagree. One has to already, in some sense of the word, be conscious in order to ask the question, am I conscious. The sense of becoming conscious that she describes is not simply becoming conscious in general but rather becoming conscious, or you might say aware, that you are conscious. At this point in her lecture she begins to speak about mindfulness but I can’t help but think that she hasn’t read much work on the subject since I have and what I have just stated is much more along that line of thought then her theory which she claims is in line with it.

This idea of the ever changing self is not truly one of mindfulness. I have studied and practiced mindfulness and meditation for a while now and have never come across this idea in any of the works on the topic that I have reviewed. To make a conscious effort to be self-aware does not translate into being aware of a different self every time one becomes aware. In fact, the goal is to hold this sense of awareness for as long as possible which would be an impossible task if the self were not a continuous thing.

As a student of philosophy also I feel the need to point out one over-arching flaw in Blackmore’s argument. Her biggest piece of evidence for her theory is neuroscience. In her description of the science she is using as evidence she clearly states that there is no place in the brain responsible for self and given the scientific facts that is indisputable. However, she then assumes that the self cannot be a unified or continuous thing because our experiences aren’t unified in the brain. If self is not in the brain then we cannot base our ideas about self on how the brain works.

Since we all have a sense of self we can assume it is a real thing, even if we concede Blackmore’s point that it is an illusion, it is still real to each individual. If we say this thing we all have is not in the brain then it follows that it must be located somewhere else. We can guess that this “somewhere else” is also where other things we all perceive but can’t find in the brain are such as a sense of morality, sense of faith, etc. It would also be easy to argue that this “somewhere else” is where we get the things that make us human and separate us from other animals. All animals have a brain but as far as we know only humans have a sense of self, an overwhelmingly strong sense of justice, faith, and the ability to think critically and reason about abstract ideas. All these things are shared experiences of humans and not all brain possessing animals. They are also the things that remain relatively the same in us even though we change overall as we age. I would argue that this “Somewhere else” is the “Self” Blackmore has disregarded as illusion and ever changing. It’s what some might call the soul and others the mind. What is clear is that it does exist and is not part of the brain.

Perhaps Blackmore should not have been so quick to completely discard Cartesian dualism…

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