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Being A Self- A Perfectly Ordinary, Utterly Extraordinary Experience, Chris Fields_2022-08-13_en (auto-generated)




today I want to talk about being a self
which is a perfectly ordinary experience
that we all have and you often hear that
being a self is the most familiar
experience that any of us have and I
want to argue today that it’s also
probably the most extraordinary
experience that any of us have it’s just
the experience of being a self just an
ordinary itself and we’re often advised
for example that the being of self is
sort of a problem and the self is
something to get beyond or maybe even we
should kill the ego in order to move on
and I’m going to suggest that we need to
give the ego a little bit of respect and
appreciation and kindness because the
ego really does a lot of things for us
so I’m not really going to talk about
ontology I’m not gonna try to give you
any kind of theory of the self I just
want to talk about what it’s like to be
yourself so we’re gonna focus on just
the experience of being a self and what
some of the components of that
experience are and and why they’re
important now what happens in particular
when they start to break down so let’s
think a little bit about what’s involved
in being a self and there’s really a
whole lot of stuff that’s involved in
being a self so we all have sensory
experience for example that we we know
it’s our experience you know I’m seeing
something you’re seeing something I’m
saying something you’re hearing
something we have emotional experiences
that’s a very important part of being a
self so I feel a certain way and I know
that it’s my feelings that I’m having
I’m not for example having your feelings
wow if I’m having them then
and then in some important sense they’re
mine they’re they’re the feelings of
myself oh we all experience I hope in
this room body ownership so this is my
arm I’m waving around it’s part of me I
get to determine what it does so I also
have this sense of myself as an actor
and an agent so I can decide I’m going
to do this or not
oh and that’s a very important part of
my self that I have these parts that I
can do things with so if I want to
advance a slide or something I know how
to do that it’s it’s it’s something that
I can do and I know I’ve done it once
I’ve done it so body ownership and this
sense of acting of owning one’s own
actions of knowing that that’s something
that I did is is a very very central
part of our experience of being a self
so similarly we have a bunch of kind of
more abstract things that going to
selfhood so for example we have feelings
of knowing I for example know my name
and I don’t have any doubt about knowing
my name you know GE Moore has his famous
repost to skeptics by saying this is my
hand I’m certain right I know this is my
hand now so we have this strong kind of
epistemic sense of knowing certain
things or believing certain things
I mean philosophers regard belief as
kind of a watered-down form of knowledge
or knowledge is sort of an amped-up form
of belief there’s not a lot of clarity
about what those words actually mean but
we can recognize the feeling that we
have when we claim to know something
similarly we have an existential feeling
so we are are quite certain that we
and there’s a certain feeling associated
with that and people can have
existential uncertainty and existential
angst and all of that in which they
become kind of worried about whether
they exist and that wouldn’t make any
sense if we didn’t have this feeling of
existence that’s tied to us that’s an
actual component of selfhood we have
memories and in particular we have
episodic memories and we are the main
actor we’re the main character in our
episodic memories so when you think back
to your college days or your childhood
or some other event in your life about
which you have episodic memories you
recognize yourself as a character in
those memories and moreover you
identified the memory as yours and
having those memories is a very
important part of defining yourself it
allows us to say oh I have this history
I’ve been going on for a while and I’ve
done certain things and and I have
access to that in some sense and that’s
part of what having a self is about and
finally for this list here which is by
no means exhaustive we have these
feelings of desire for example or
intention where we say well you know I
want to do X or 1x to happen or I intend
to do X or I will to do X or something
like that and those are very powerful
feelings that are part of our sense of
so having itself involves all this stuff
and we can ask why are these experienced
as part of our sense of self how and why
these experiences in particular why are
why is our self constructed in this way
how do these experiences
fit together what is it that makes for
example my emotions tie up with my
visual perceptions how do I know that
it’s the same entity that’s seeing you
and feeling a certain way it’s not
obvious that those should be connected
at all when I have an episodic memory
what allows me to identify myself this
current thing with some image or
character that’s in that episodic memory
why should it be the case that those are
connected at all um and finally we can
ask ourselves is this an all-or-nothing
package you know is this self kind of a
predefined thing that we all have and we
all have in exactly the same way and we
all have the same bits that are part of
it and they all work in more or less the
same way in all of us and you might
expect that they would on kind of
biological grounds or something like
that but it’s a question is this is
being a self a package deal or is being
a self something that we kind of cobbled
together in some way and it kind of
works and kind of doesn’t and it’s
there’s a lot of variability between you
and me and your neighbor and the next C
and these are these are questions that
aren’t asked very often but they are
asked sometimes primarily in
neuroscience and in more importantly in
psychiatry those are the two areas that
really address questions like this about
just the ordinary sense of self and some
ideas have been put forward you see a
lot of ideas like this that
consciousness and self foot along with
it comes in this gradation of types and
usually thought of as kind of really
simple not very complex rudimentary
basic proto senses of consciousness or
self somehow expanding into or
developing into or evolving into a much
more complex richer autobiographical
sense of self and I put down here terms
used by various theorists so for example
Stuart Hameroff uses the word Bing to
mean just any elementary experience that
he expresses consciousness and and he
you know thinks of these little
elementary experiences as happening all
over space time all the time Oh Antonio
Damasio has put together many of the
concepts that are here but they’re
shared by lots of different theorists
and the question that I want to ask is
how should we think about this this kind
of developmental or evolutionary sort of
picture I mean one way to think of it is
to think about mapping it onto phylogeny
and a lot of people in kind of the Penn
psychist kind of tradition do this so
they might imagine that the e.coli which
is the kind of purple bug down there at
the lower left has a very rudimentary
sense of consciousness and maybe an
extremely rudimentary sense of self and
Paramecium which is the next one there
which is a much more complicated cell
has a much more robust sense of self and
consciousness and maybe trees are
somewhere in the middle and and rats or
other mammals are in this kind of
momentary occasional sense of self
category that Damacio defines and you
don’t really have a robust sense of self
till you have humans and of course the
architect : in this regard has Rene de
cartes oh there he is
who realized that that thinking and
autobiography was what really
constituted being a self and I think we
need to ask does that make any sense to
to think of evolution in this kind of
hierarchical way with respect to
experience and is there any reason to
really believe that eco lies experiences
for example or less robust than ours and
one has theorists and I’ll just throw
out who John Piaget was one of them who
thought of consciousness in a very
developmental way so one can imagine
that that neonates for example are kind
of in the position that I put ecoli here
of having only a very rudimentary and
proto sense of self and that as you know
children grow up they’re kind of in the
position of the tree by preschool and
maybe teenagers roughly correspond to
rats and it’s not all you become a
professor or something that you you get
to take Hart’s position and I think also
with respect to this kind of
developmental framework we want to say
it really you know do you really believe
that for example in neonate has this
only very rudimentary consciousness not
only rudimentary sense of self but I
think over overarching those two
questions is is this question Wow what
makes us the paradigm attic case and
we’ll we’re familiar with our own sense
of self or familiar with our own
consciousness but then when we step into
the role of theorist we we say okay we
must be the best right the top oh and
that reflects the old kind of great
chain of being thinking from back in the
1800s where evolutionary was thought of
as evolution was thought of this
progressive process that ended in man
but I think we maybe should call that a
little bit into question so enough for
just taught now about experience and how
it fits together so here’s a visual
experience for you if I can find the
right button no that one well this is a
picture that Alison took in a cloud
forest in Costa Rica and you can imagine
embedding yourself in the environment
that’s pictured here visually it’s warm
it’s wet it’s foggy it’s a little bit
slippery there’s a lot of sound going on
there are all sorts of interesting
aromas permeating the air it feels very
wild oh it’s a little bit apprehensive
to be in this environment you never know
what’s gonna happen next
Costa Rica is full of snakes and things
like that they are not good for you so
when we have an experience like this a
lot of stuff is in play right where
we’re perceiving we’re feeling we’re
we’re locating ourself in this
we’re recalling memories of similar
environments and we can tell you from
neuroscience a lot about what’s going on
in the brain here and I’m not going to
show any more brain slides than this one
but the the – – sent version is that
when we’re perceiving things lots of
areas in our brain are sending
information down to the kind of medial
temporal cortex roughly where the
hippocampus is the system that encodes
episodic memories and it’s assembling
all that stuff oh and we’re having it an
experience of that assembled stuff and
when we remember something exactly the
opposite happens the the memories
processed in that medial temporal area
and the parts of the brain that would
have been excited by sensations or
emotions are really memorize this
two-way flow of information
and both of those flows are happening
all the time who we’re experiencing
something like a cloud forest so we can
think of it kind of like this and I’m
putting this in a bit of a
representation that recalls Don
Hoffman’s interphase theory of
perception many of you have probably
heard his talks and have heard about the
interface theory but the basic idea is
that your conscious awareness is an
interface on which there are a bunch of
icons that correspond to different sorts
of things so there’s an icon for the
stuff in the scene you’re seeing and
that somehow labeled vision and you’re
also experiencing emotions for example
or memories or feelings of embodiment
and all that’s there on your interface
but this picture is is incomplete in an
extremely important way in fact all of
that is labeled with a little label that
says that’s me right that’s my visual
that’s my episodic memory that’s my
concerns about where I put my feet
because they’re my feet and I’m moving
them and I need to put them in the right
place so somehow all of these
experiences are tied together by this
self experience that we all have so we
know however that it doesn’t always work
out quite right and we know that when it
doesn’t work out quite right things can
get really weird and unusual so for
example you’ve probably heard of the
rubber hand illusion how many of you
have heard of the rubber hand illusion
so about half it’s very easy in the
laboratory to convince subjects that a
toy rubber hand is actually their hand
and to make them flinch when you
threaten the rubber hand or feel things
when you stroke the rubber hand with a
piece of cloth or tickle it with a
feather or something like that
and you know they’re real hand they’ve
kind of lost touch with and they’ve
completely identified with the rubber
hand so this notion of body ownership
you can mess with and it’s really easy
but you’re also all familiar with the
experience of for example driving a car
and most of you probably haven’t driven
backhoes that’s my computer trying to
tell me but it works the same way
they’re how if you’re operating almost
any tool you can extend your pair of
personal space to encompass that tool
and uux you can extend your sense of
your body to incorporate that tool so
you actually think to yourself when
you’re driving your car oh I can get in
that space between those cars you don’t
mean your body you mean your car so
you’ve you’ve identified your car with
you and when someone crashes into your
door it sort of hurts and you view that
as an insult so so our sense of body
ownership is extremely malleable and we
we mess around with it all the time and
virtual reality is of course just a sort
of extreme form of that here’s another
example you may remember the book the
breakdown the origin of consciousness
and the breakdown of the bicameral mind
by Julian Jaynes which came out 30 35 40
years ago a long time ago
when I was in school and he had this
theory that at the time of the Iliad so
homers time you know thousand BC or so
people did not yet have self reflective
consciousness and when they heard a
voice inside their head they thought it
was God so they didn’t have this idea
that you can think to yourself without
talking out loud so God here is telling
Achilles kill Hector and Achilles of
course was thinking I’m going to go out
and kill Hector
oh but that’s not the way he experiences
it he’s he he disconnects in this
picture the voice in his head he no
longer identifies as his voice now at
someone else’s it’s God’s voice right
and the world is full as we know of
people who still de-identify in exactly
that way they don’t realize how what
they’re thinking encounter distinction
from what they’re being told by some
deity or some phantom that they’ve
imagined so here’s another example dr.
teller or actually Strangelove
he’s his hand of course is always trying
to grab him and do things so he’s he’s
lost that idea of himself as actor and
now his body is taking on this life of
its own and acting without his control
and we know that there are very
unfortunate people to whom this happens
all the time in psychiatric hospitals
for example here’s another example oh
this is a technique now being used in
therapy actually Don Hoffman alerted me
to this about a year ago Wow
but it it works on the principle that
when episodic memories are remembered
they actually react cite all the parts
of the brain that were excited when the
memory was encoded and when that happens
that excitation of course mixes with all
the other excitation that’s there
there’s not a clear button on your brain
that suddenly empties it out before an
episodic memory comes into consciousness
so when you then remember again your
memory has actually changed so your
episodic memories are never the same
from one moment to the next or from one
memory of them to the next and the
therapeutic application for things like
PTSD is to actually block the
reconsolidation of the memory
and you can get people who lose their
fear of spiders and hopefully you know
lose their fear of loud noises in the
night but it points out that our
memories in a sense can be de-identified
we can lose the sense that that’s my
memory and even lose the sense that I’m
in it and a very unfortunate symptoms
sometimes seen in schizophrenics who’ve
had damage of here in Broadman area of
10 is that they can no longer
distinguish their memories from the
memories of other people and will tell
you as much so here’s some other
examples of people reporting very
significant epistemic feelings
associated with experiences and the ones
I copied just happened to be kind of
religious and spiritual kinds of
experiences but in this same paper were
reported many other interviews with with
people who had reported very strong
experiences of some kind experiences of
creativity for example oh and all of
these experiences actually correlate
with insular cortex seizures and it’s
very common in insular cortex seizures
for people have very strong epistemic
experiences and the insular cortex is a
little bit of the brain that’s right
between the two lobes down at the bottom
so it’s sort of sitting on top of the
limbic system and it’s very connected to
the limbic system and it’s thought to be
involved in the construction of this
sense of self
so here again a person can be
disconnected from the ownership of their
experiences when they’re Steve Kerr
stops oh so one of the authors of this
paper Fabien Picard has a lovely paper
where she talks about a mathematician
who during his seizures had an
absolutely unshakable belief in the
existence of God
of course when he wasn’t having his
seizures he was an atheist and had none
of that belief at all so this again is
very malleable and finally here’s a last
example this you may recognize from
talks by Rudy tanzir or others is the
very first patient of dr. Alzheimer and
her her famous statement is doctor I
have lost myself and I watched this
happen in the case of my own mother many
of you have probably watched it happen
in the case of people that you’ve known
or family members or will sometime in
the future but there’s a gradual process
of loss of self the memories go control
of the body goes thinking goes etc so we
know that this self experience is
actually extremely fragile and that many
many many different kinds of things from
organic insult brain injury etc etc can
distort it or disturb it uncouple it
dissociate it in various ways so we have
to ask what is it that holds this
experience of self together and if it’s
so fragile what’s it doing now most of
our mind seems pretty robust but this
sense of self seems extremely fragile
and extremely labile so what does it do
and and what is it for what’s it doing
in our psychology and finally why do we
even have this experience oh why do we
experience having a self at all
and I’ll give you the consensus of the
scientific community on this question we
don’t have the foggiest idea you know I
I have sort of my own vague hypotheses
one of which is that the self is sort of
a really cheap way to keep our
experiences organized and so our brain
implements one well and it may be fairly
recent and it’s not very powerful it’s
just sort of a cheap hack Wow
but basically we don’t know we have no
clue what really keeps this experience
of a self going but it sure is nice to
have one so next time someone tells you
your ego is a problem kind of appreciate
the fact that you’ve got one because not
having one can leave you in a really
really bad condition
so thank you



(Ahamkāra) Sanskrit for self-consciousness, the sense of I, literally “I-making,” suggesting that it is a continuing process, not a static entity. As part of human consciousness, it is the source of egotism, rooted in the illusion of one’s separateness from the universal self.

In Sankhya philosophy, it is one of the 23 evolutes of matter (prakriti), the first of which is mahat (“the great”) or buddhi and the second of which is ahamkara. From the latter are evolved manas(mind), the five sensory functions (jñanendriyas), the five motor functions (karmendriyas), and the essences (tanmatras) of the five elements. From the essences of the elements are evolved the five gross elements (akasa or ether, air, fire, water, and earth in that order). The Bhagavad-Gita also adopts these categories in a general way, preferring the term buddhi to mahat.

As universal self-consciousness, H. P. Blavatsky states that Ahamkara has three aspects, identified in Sankhya philosophy and the Bhagavad-Gita as the three gunas: sattva (harmony or purity), rajas (energy, activity, excitability), and tamas (inertia, stagnation, dullness) (cf. SD I:335). As such ahamkara is said to be capable of qualitative transformation depending on which of the three gunas is active in any specific incarnation. And since it is an evolute of buddhi, it can also promote a modification of the senses when conditions for such are suitable.

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