As you rise every morning, one aspect of your self reassembles: the first-person observer of reality, inhabiting a human body. As you move on throughout your day, 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 and how you perceive reality is very unique to you and defines every moment of who you are.
Our concept of ourselves as individuals in control of our destinies underpins much of our existence, from how we live our lives to the laws of the land. The way we treat others, too, hinges largely on the assumption that they have a sense of self similar to our own.
So it is a shock to discover that our deeply felt truths are in fact smoke and mirrors of the highest order. What are we — whatever it is we are — to do?
First of all, keep it in perspective. Much of what we take for granted about our inner lives, from visual perception to memories, is little more than an elaborate construct of the mind. The self is just another part of this illusion.
And it seems to serve us well. In that respect, the self is similar to free will, another fundamental feature of the human experience.
The of illusion of self is so entrenched, and so useful, that it is impossible to shake off. But knowing a different aspect of truth far from your own will help you understand yourself — and those around you — better.
Identity is often understood to be a product of memory as we try to build a narrative from the many experiences of our lives. Yet there is now a growing recognition that our sense of self may be a consequence of our relationships with others. “We have this deep-seated drive to interact with each other that helps us discover who we are,” says developmental psychologist Bruce Hood at the University of Bristol, UK, author of The Self Illusion (Constable, 2012). And that process starts not with the formation of a child’s first memories, but from the moment they first learn to mimic their parents’ smile and to respond empathically to others.
The idea that the sense of self drives, and is driven by, our relationships with others makes intuitive sense. “I can’t have a relationship without having a self,” says Michael Lewis, who studies child development at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick, New Jersey. “For me to interact with you, I have to know certain things about you, and the only way I can get at those is by knowing things about me.”
Our Brains Create Our Own Version of Reality
Sensory information reaches us at different speeds, yet appears unified as one moment. Nerve signals need time to be transmitted and time to be processed by the brain. And there are events — such as a light flashing, or someone snapping their fingers — that take less time to occur than our system needs t
o process them. By the time we become aware of the flash or the finger-snap, it is already history.
Our experience of the world resembles a television broadcast with a time lag; conscious perception is not “live”. This on its own might not be too much cause for concern, but in the same way the TV time lag makes last-minute censorship possible, our brain, rather than showing us what happened a moment ago, sometimes constructs a present that has never actually happened.
Rather than extrapolating into the future, our brain is interpolating events in the past, assembling a story of what happened retrospectively (Science, vol 287, p 2036). The perception of what is happening at the moment of the flash is determined by what happens to the disc after it. This seems paradoxical, but other tests have confirmed that what is perceived to have occurred at a certain time can be influenced by what happens later.
All of this is slightly worrying if we hold on to the common-sense view that our selves are placed in the present. If the moment in time we are supposed to be inhabiting turns out to be a mere construction, the same is likely to be true of the self existing in that present.