Saturday, October 18, 2008

maybe humans just swap out their thinking selves?

In the previous entry I questioned how much humans actually apply thought to their behavior. "First Person Plural", over at the Atlantic, offers another paradigm: humans switch between multiple selves that think differently. This very concept is reminiscent of I am a Strange Loop, which stated that the brain's many networked nodes commonly can and do house more than a solitary strange loop, which is the book's definition of a consciousness.

As I wrote previously in my response to the book, in my opinion the unitary self is an abstraction. It's a construct or a narrative. However, unlike the article I'm disinclined to replace the individual-self with a crowd-self, which to me seems like yet another helpful but ultimately imprecise metaphor for the reality within the functioning brain.

Instead of imagining a pair of rational and irrational selves, or the article's mention of the iconic angel and devil selves on one's shoulders, I imagine ephemeral electric storms competing to light up the brain. The brain's state is in constant flux. Observing our own brain state through the slim (censored) window of consciousness or others' through interpretation of their behavior, we categorize those states as selves. One self might be grumpy. A second, bashful. A third, happy. So these selves are no more than frames of reference for sets of associated behaviors. If a person's impatient self taps fingers or feet, then is tapping a habitual action performed by the impatient self or is tapping part of what defines the person's impatient self? It should be kept in mind that all of these supposed selves are exhibited by the same person.

Moreover, it then makes little sense to argue that all these selves are dormant or continually fighting for control. The described inner conflicts and the swapping out of selves are analogies for when some previously idle brain regions start firing more energetically. For instance, the tendency to suddenly start concocting inventive excuses when the time comes to carry out a presently unpleasant long-term plan isn't truly the substitution of one self for another. Perhaps nor is it the person reverting to a natural state of nonthinking, as I wondered in the previous entry. It's a concrete and immediate experience of displeasure galvanizing reactionary thoughts more strongly than the intellectually pictured goal.

In short, differing circumstances activate differing portions of the brain. Someone who has associated inappropriate actions with anger, maybe for many years, will have those actions prompted by anger and therefore appear to have a momentary angry self who acts differently than is typical. Since we are humans who are aware of our awe-inspiring capacity to store and retrieve a range of attitudes and impulses and reflexes, we should accept responsibility for them and attempt to mold them. Dividing up oneself into simplistic good and bad sides, then identifying with the good and striving against the bad is a faulty approach. There is only you, more specifically your brain and the networks and strange loops residing inside it, to blame for what you do. The road to freedom is taking charge of, exerting control over, your own brain.