Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Science of the Self

"As you wake up each morning, hazy and disoriented, you gradually become aware of the rustling of the sheets, sense their texture and squint at the light. One aspect of your self has reassembled: the first-person observer of reality, inhabiting a human body.

"As wakefulness grows, so does your sense of having a past, a personality and motivations. Your self is complete, as both witness of the world and bearer of your consciousness and identity. You.

"This intuitive sense of self is an effortless and fundamental human experience. But it is nothing more than an elaborate illusion. Under scrutiny, many common-sense beliefs about selfhood begin to unravel. Some thinkers even go as far as claiming that there is no such thing as the self."
The observations of some Zen teacher?   The ramblings of a new-age mystic?  No, none of the above.  These words were written by the editors of New Scientist in their introduction to a series of articles about scientific investigations of the so-called self.  The result of these studies shouldn't be surprising (but somehow still are), but neurologists, philosophers, and experimenters are increasingly coming to the Buddha's conclusion of some 2,500 years ago, that on close examination, one can find no evidence of a "self."

The New Scientist articles on the self include the following:
  • There are flaws in our intuitive beliefs about what makes us who we are. Who are we really, asks British philosopher Jan Westerhoff.
  • Westerhoff also notes that our brains create their own version of reality to help us make sense of things. But this means we're living outside time.
  • Your mind isn't as firmly anchored in your body as you think according to Anil Ananthaswamy
  • That seamless sense of who you are can be disturbed by many things, including illness, injury or drugs, as explained by Anil Ananthaswamy and Graham Lawton.
  • Our perception of our self might be an illusion, like free will, says Richard Fisher. But that doesn't mean we can't learn from it.
The problem with modern science, and the reason that it took it 2,500 years to catch up with the Buddha, is its insistence on relying only on impartial observation and experimentation, and its reluctance to tely on subjective, first-person experience.  But despite this obstacle, it seems to finally be coming around.
"Think back to your earliest memory. Now project forward to the day of your death. It is impossible to know when this will come, but it will. 
"What you have just surveyed might be called your 'self-span,' or the time when this entity you call your self exists. Either side of that, zilch. 
"Which is very mysterious, and a little unsettling. Modern humans have existed for perhaps 100,000 years, and more than 100 billion have already lived and died. We assume that they all experienced a sense of self similar to yours. None of these selves has made a comeback, and as far as we know, neither will you. 
"What is it about a mere arrangement of matter and energy that gives rise to a subjective sense of self? It must be a collective property of the neurons in your brain, which have mostly stayed with you throughout life, and which will cease to exist after you die. But why a given bundle of neurons can give rise to a given sense of selfhood, and whether that subjective sense can ever reside in a different bundle of neurons, may forever remain a mystery." - Graham Lawton

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