Monday, June 11, 2012

Observations on The Ego Trick

I've been reading Julian Baggini's The Ego Trick over the past few days, since my flight over here. At first I thought maybe I was musing more philosophical due to being tired on the plane, but it has continued since I've been here, so maybe it's the continent. Anyway, I've been jotting some random thoughts as I read the book, and here are the first few.

The Ego Trick: In Search of the Self, Julian Baggini

Maybe it is my fatigue, but at the moment I do not feel as though I am a Self. I have perceptions and sensations, and there is some seeming continuity to the experiences I call my memories (although even these seem to belong to a collection of various Bills with only some common features to connect them, such as this body, my name, and some essential characteristics others may identify as Bill).

My sense is that there are multiple parts or adaptive strategies that have been created to navigate in the world, one of which is the central narrative thread that carries the name Bill as its marker. There are many others that may be identified as roles to be played, orienting principles by which this brain makes sense of the world (masculine, strong, caring, compassionate, and so on), many of which are socially embedded constructions, and identities that have been adopted and co-created through expectations, actions largely based on prior experience, and the conglomeration of "values" unique to this body-brain (these would include boyfriend, scholar, counselor, personal trainer, and once included others such as brother and son).

However, none of these feel (and of course we are dealing with subjectivities here) solid enough, if that is the correct word, to be thought of as a coherent and persistent sense of Self. For example, the sense of this body-brain embedded in temporal, physical, subjective, and interpersonal space is very different now than it was before I began school, and more so from when it came to Tucson 10 years ago, and so on, especially in relation to the alien creation that called himself Bill from the ages of 13 to 19.


Now I am wondering about Ken Wilber's model of the Self, composed of the proximate self (subjective I), the distal self (objective me), and the anterior self (witness or core self). The perceived unity of these selves comprises the Self stream or line of development. Perhaps each of these is the experiential result of all the other developmental lines (affective, cognitive, interpersonal, moral, spiritual, and so on) being organized by the brain - along with previous experience (both memory and un- or pre-conscious), genetic and epigenetic influences, plus biopsychosocial and temporal-environmental context - into some sense of a coherent whole, which we call a Self?

Then there is also the issue of conscious and unconscious selves - or as Daniel Kahneman describes it, Type 1 (fast, below the threshold of awareness) and Type 2 (slow, within our awareness field) thinking. How does this fit into the existing models of how we define a Self? Do we have an unconscious self and a conscious, but with the stipulation that the unconscious self is less a Self than it is a collection of neural processes and default patterns through which the brain takes shortcuts when confronted with situations that fit previously encountered data? For example, when the visual field detects a long, cylindrical object that seems to be moving through the desert, and which the auditory network then detects to be making a rattling noise, it shortcuts immediately to flight mode, back away, DANGER, this is a rattlesnake. No conscious thought is required, before my awareness registers "rattlesnake," my body is already in action.


Thinking about myself, or the person whose memories are encoded in my brain cells and who people knew as Bill, as a teenager, it (he) feels more like someone who was a friend, but not a reliable or particularly nice person, not someone with whom I now would be friends. Perhaps there is some continuity between that person and the one typing these words, but even our bodies Xerox different - this one looks similar, although leaner and more muscular, more gray hair and wrinkles, but there is not one shared cell between that 17-year-old body and this 45-year-old body. Every cell has been replaced during that time, and most many times over.


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