Artwork by Pilar Zeta
This post was originally published on SamBrinson.com
“The central riddle I’ve set out to solve concerns the self’s continuity in change: how can we remain the same people over time, even as we change, sometimes considerably?”
― Julian Baggini, The Ego Trick
What makes you… YOU?
Silly question right? But think about it…
If you lost all of your memories, would you still be you?
What about your senses?
Most of us take the question of ‘Who Am I?’ for granted, but thanks to the questioning nature of philosophers and psychologists we are closer than ever to getting to grips with the elusive answer.
In this post you’ll discover 5 mind bending ideas that will make you question if there’s even a ‘you’ to be questioned.
So buckle up, your ego is in for a bumpy ride!
1. The Teleporter Paradox
There are a lot of opinions and explanations from the likes of Plato and Descartes to more modern philosophers and neuroscientists on this topic. One particularly fun thought-experiment is the teleporter paradox:
In 500 years time, a teleporter is invented that can scan your entire body, all the way down to the sub-atomic particle level. It breaks down your physical form here on earth and puts you back together in a far away galaxy in a fraction of a second. Is it ‘you’ that reappears?
Let’s go further. Let’s say it doesn’t put you back together with the original particles, it uses new ones, so you’re no longer made with any of the same physical atoms of the original you, but the new you contains exactly the same features. Is that you?
A little further. Let’s say that the original you remains on earth and a duplicate is created in another galaxy, that person (not you anymore?) is identical in every way with the exception of place in space. Surely, it’s not you anymore, right?
What makes you ‘you’?
Is it the physical makeup?
Is it a soul?
Is it a continuous consciousness?
You might have heard that as we go through life, all of our cells are replaced. This isn’t true. The neurons in your brain remain the same from age 2, and other cells in different areas have different life spans.
But for arguments sake (these are only thought-experiments), let’s say your brain replaces its cells. Other animals such as birds and fish seem to do it, let’s pretend we do too.
2. Ship of Theseus’ Paradox:
If I have a car, I can replace the tires, and it’s still the same car, correct? I’m sure the insurance agency would think so. What if I then replace the seats? Two weeks later, the windows. The breaks. The engine. The body. Until nothing is the same. In fact, I could take all the parts that I replaced, and put the original car back together. Which car is which?
If all your cells have been replaced, but we somehow take all those old ones and put them back together, to create the ‘you’ of 10 years ago, which is the real ‘you’?
Consciousness and the ‘self’ is an illusion. Your perceptions might seem continuous but they are not. You only exist in the flash of moment, constantly being replaced with each subtle variation, cell, and memory.
You’re dying and being recreated in every moment. The ‘I’ that will exist in 1/10th of a second isn’t me, he’ll be someone new and I’ll be dead.
When you wake up tomorrow you will be born anew.
Those are my own theories and I encourage you to share yours, but for now I’d like to move on to some science.
3. Out of Body Experience
I recently listened to a podcast from You Are Not So Smart‘s David McRaney, talking with Lara Maister, a psychologist at the University of London, about body ownership.
A fun study you can try at home — the rubber hand illusion.
With your hand out of sight, and a rubber glove in front of you, have someone rub both your hidden hand and the glove with a brush in the same way. After a few minutes you can start to feel as if the rubber glove is yours, it belongs to you and you can feel the brush slowly caressing its rubbery surface:
Your mind has to constantly update itself with who you are. We go through subtle little changes as we grow, so we need to be able to recognise ourselves and accommodate the new information. The glove becomes part of us.
Moreover, virtual reality has allowed us to borrow bodies that aren’t our own. And when people occupy, in avatar form, bodies of their out groups— different race, gender, etc — it can help change their social and racial biases, by increasing empathy with the other groups.
Another interesting topic of research is about phantom limbs, whereas when people lose a limb through an accident or amputation, sensations associated with that limb remain — most often in a painful form.
Then there’s out-of-body experiences, or the sensation of looking down on your physical self while floating in the air. This effect hast not well studied, but there is some recent research highlighting the brain areas involved — no, it’s probably not your ‘soul’ leaving your body, but it does help show the disjointed relationship we have with our body.
So far the research is suggests our minds and bodies are not as ‘one’ with each other as they seem.
4. The “As If” Effect
Embodied cognition is the idea that our minds are shaped by our bodies. Closely related to that is enactivism, which goes further to state that not only our body but our environment alter our cognition — both these views seem to oppose the dualism idea that mind and body are separate.
My grandmother used to preach to me as a child that smiling can make you feel happy, so you should always be smiling. Turns out she’s right, we don’t just smile because we’re happy, it can work in reverse.
A study showed that when people held a pencil in their mouth that forced them to use the muscles needed to smile, they perceived pleasant sentences quicker, whereas the opposite was found when they activated their frowning muscles.
George Lakoff is one of the main minds behind this idea, and his book ‘Metaphors We Live By’ was a groundbreaking look into the phenomena.
“[the mind] arises from the nature of our brains, bodies, and bodily experiences. This is not just the innocuous and obvious claim that we need a body to reason; rather, it is the striking claim that the very structure of reason itself comes from the details of our embodiment…”
Consider that when people think about the future they lean forward, then lean backwards when thinking of the past. Squeezing a soft ball caused participants to perceive neutral faces as female, a hard ball resulted in male. Holding a heavier clipboard makes people judge their currency as more valuable, and their opinions and leaders as more important. People who sit in hard chairs during a negotiation are less likely to compromise. People judge other people to be more generous and caring after they’ve briefly held a warm cup of coffee, rather than a cold drink.
These studies seem to throw a spanner in the works. Clearly our minds can seem disconnected from our bodies, but they’re also greatly influenced by our bodies.
The point? Well what percentage of who you consider “you” is really just the emotional manifestation of a physical form? If we can influence your opinions by the warmth of a coffee in your hand, are those opinions yours or do they belong to your body?
Professor Richard Wiseman, author of ’59: Seconds’, has a fantastic book on the “As If” effect called ‘Rip It Up’. Highly recommended.
5. The Ego Trick
So we are our minds, and we are our bodies, but we can still be classed as ourselves when we lack the function of either. People with a mental illness and people who are paralysed are still themselves, even if they don’t act like it.
Philosopher Julian Baggini in his book The Ego Trick set out to answer the question of what makes us… us. Is there really an ‘I’. As you can guess from the title, not quite.
The ego is like a watch, Baggini says. We can call a watch a watch but it’s really a combination of lots of small parts. If we remove the second hand of a watch, it’s still a watch. If we remove the glass panel and a few cogs, it’s still the watch.
Our egos are the same. Memories, experiences, genetics, and perceptions when bundled together create what we simply perceive as ‘I’. But sit for a moment and think about it. Try and feel what ‘I’ is. Try and get a sense of who you are just by feeling it. It’s impossible. There is no you, just the mental equivalent of a strap, glass, second hands, minute hands and a few cogs.
What would happen if I cloned you, would that new person be ‘you’? If I put you back together after you died, piece by piece, and revived you, would that be you?