In answering that question, will you tell me your profession?
Your greatest passion?
Your biggest fear?
Your age, your gender, your marital status?
Your country of citizenship, your personality traits, your personal beliefs?
How will you answer that question? How can you?
You are a multidimensional being
There are multiple aspects of who you are. Which is why you can answer the question in so many different ways.
The science behind the multidimensionality of self
Cognitive science — the study of the mind and other intelligent systems — has a lot to learn about consciousness. But the consensus so far concludes that:
The mind is what the brain does.
This claim represents the materialist perspective in science, where all mental-emotional phenomena can be reducible to matter. We won’t go into the debate about this perspective, but it is important to understand it before we move forward, because to study the concept of selfhood, we must study the brain, which is the seat of the conscious self.
What this materialist claim means is that the mental experiences we all take for granted, such as thinking and feeling, can be explained as a function of the brain. Or they can simply be described as “what the brain does.”
So according to this perspective, we can only experience what our brains allow for us to experience, since the brain implements consciousness.
Following this logic, the concept of selfhood, where you are a single, unified self, is also something that the brain does — or rather, something that the brain creates.
You are multi-dimensions
We have a vast array of psychology case studies and scientific findings that shed light onto this notion of multidimensionality. Here are some examples of the multidimensionality of selfhood:
Language metaphors reveal how we view and even talk about these different aspects of self on a daily basis: “I’m tired,” “He’s very amicable,” “She’s determined,” “I’m not sure.” Each of these statements references one of the many aspects of a person: the physical self, the social self, the inner self, and the mental self, which each can be described independently of the others.
Human brain evolution shows that we developed the ancient reptilian brain stem before the more recent cognitive capacities (e.g. rule following, working memory, emotion regulation, various sensory maps, etc.) afforded by the neocortex. It’s as if the neocortical layer of the brain was added onto previously developed layers — again demonstrating multidimensionality. Furthermore, different brain areas or neural circuits represent different parts (e.g. proprioception, memory, emotion) of the self.
- One example of this is the case of a patient known as R.B., who has both antero- and retrograde amnesia — meaning he cannot recall events that happened before his accident, or form new memories after the accident. As a result of his brain damage, he does not have any autobiographical memories, which many view as an integral part of selfhood. However, he is still able to retain a concept of himself as an individual separate from others, as can be seen in his ability to function as an individual and his use of language metaphors, by saying something like: “I’m going to make myself a cup of tea now because I am thirsty.”
- As another example, a person diagnosed with schizophrenia may retain and form new autobiographical memories without being able to draw distinct and accurate boundaries between themselves and other people, places, things, or hallucinations.
- In a similar example, while under the influence of a hallucinogenic drug, a person may be able to retain autobiographical memories, but be unable to discern the boundaries between their self, and say other objects in their surroundings like a wall or a chair.
- In the more extreme case of limb denial, a person remains cognitively unimpaired except for one thing: they do not recognize a limb as being their own and instead believe it belongs to someone else. They continue to believe this no matter how much you try to reason with them that their limb is in fact attached to their body.
In each of these examples we see how the concept of self is not uniform across all people, but an eclectic mix of self-representational capacities that are unique to each person. Each person understands who they are based on the experiences their brain creates for them.
Thus it’s easy to see the self as a construct, unique to each person’s experience and dependent upon the self-representations that their brains can create.
Is who you are then just a user-illusion of your brain?
Most scientists who adhere to the dogmatism of materialism would agree with UC San Diego Professor P. S. Churchland, who writes in her book Brain Wise: Studies in Neurophilosophy, that selfhood is then just a user illusion of the brain.
From their perspective, since aspects of self are created by the brain, then the concept of selfhood is not something that can be in tact without the brain because it is constantly generated by the brain.
But again, the materialist paradigm has yet to explain or understand what consciousness really is. This stands alone even if we set aside new insights about the energetic nature of the physical world gleaned from quantum science and epigenetics, which challenge materialism. And, by the way, not all neuroscientists, or even neurosurgeons are materialists — some do believe that the mind does exist.
However, this is not to say that viewing the construct of self as a set of mental representations is inaccurate altogether, just because the materialist paradigm may be inaccurate. We do have much to gain from taking the materialist approach to studying the brain. In science, we sometimes need to extract parts of the greater whole to better understand how that whole operates (assuming that consciousness is a “whole”).
Our consciousness may not be the single, unified, continuous stream of stimuli and events that we perceive it to be. But our brains make it appear as if our consciousness is a single, unified, continuous stream of stimuli and events. Our brains give us the experience of having an independent and single identity, even though we are clearly multidimensional. And this is for good reason.
The concept of selfhood is like a movie
We know that movies do not show actors moving, but rather still shots of actors in various stages of movement.
When you watch a movie, your brain interprets movement that is not really there (without a normally functioning brain to perceive it), yet you don’t say the movie is an illusion. You simply accept that still shots have such an effect on human perception, which makes movies look realistic.
The same thing happens when we acknowledge that our biological constraints allow us to see in stereoscopic vision. Or that they prevent us from seeing certain colors that other animals can see.
Our color spectrum and depth perception are not illusions, but our biological interface with the physical world, much in the same way that our notion of selfhood allows us to interact with our physical environment as if we are a single agent.
The concept of selfhood helps us function
The coherent sense of personhood that we take for granted day to day so importantly gives us the ability to coordinate internal mental-motivational states with motor control, or our ability to interact with our environment.
If our brains did not create a cohesive representation of selfhood then it would be very difficult for us to integrate each of our many sets of self-representational capacities. It would be very difficult for us to make decisions based on our best interests, because it would be a challenge to even establish what our best interests are when there are so many different parts of us competing for our attention.
Subconscious dimensions of selfhood
Furthermore, it would be extremely difficult to make sense of our unconscious and subconscious processes, which are prevalent aspects of selfhood.
Unconscious processes are typically things that we cannot perceive, such as the commands that keep our heart beating at all times. Subconscious processes are typically things that we do not normally perceive, but can perceive if we delve deep enough, such as a cultural belief that when you take your mother’s freshly baked cookies without asking, you should feel guilty. As you will gather from other articles, I refer to both processes under the category of subconscious.
Our brains allow us to function with a concept of self regardless of what our subconscious is doing in the background. If we were conscious of everything our brain was processing at all times, life would be too chaotic. Fortunately, the brain keeps many processes subconscious, so we can carry out normal lives. Unfortunately, these very subconscious processes can also prevent us from carrying out normal or healthy lives, if they are maladaptive.
So sometimes we need to follow the brain’s lead and integrate our subconscious dimensions into our conscious self as much as we can. If we do not, then our multidimensionality may get the worst of us, where certain aspects of who we are (e.g. the ego) act on our behalf, outside of our control.
The most obvious subconscious dimension: the ego
It’s hard to come by someone who does not have a rough idea of what ego means. The ego stands for almost all that is nasty in human experience.
Your pride, your selfishness, your fears, your vanity, your obsessions — all of them are part of your ego. Your pursuit of physical pleasure is part of your ego. Your individuality is your ego.
So, who are you?
How will you take into account your ego when answering?
Is it something you are proud of? Is it something you want to destroy? It is a part of you? Or is it an impostor?
Your ego is a big part of you. Whether that comes as a relief or makes you squirm is significant — how you view and relate to your ego, or any other aspect of yourself for that matter, is very important.
It determines your emotional health. It determines your emotional intelligence, or ability to use your all of your emotions intelligently, because many of your emotional responses are entwined with subconscious beliefs, many of which are under the ego’s domain.
You are multidimensional. The sooner you realize this, the sooner you will be able to make the best out of your multidimensionality, by integrating your ego and other aspects of you who are in order to enhance your intelligence, health, and well-being. Integration is a gradual process, lifelong even, and it can be painful. But it is possible, and pain doesn’t have to be bad for you.