The elusive sense of self

We all move through life with a sense of self, a personal identity. We think we have a sense of there being an I behind it all but when was the last time you tried to figure out what it is? A problem which neuroscientists and philosophers are still trying to solve. Most of us will live our entire life without spending any time at all inspecting this phenomenon. In what way are you the same person you were 10 years ago? What makes you feel like you are the you that you used to be, and what makes you feel like you will continue to keep the same sense of personal identity in the future?

We use our memory to reinforce the idea of a consistent personal identity but take away memory and there is no more you. The feeling of being a self that continues from one moment to the next ceases to be that same self when it has no memories to anchor itself to. If I woke up tomorrow morning having forgotten the entirety of my past experiences, but with all my motor skills intact, in what way would I be me? We are constantly using memories, thoughts and feelings to fabricate our sense of self.

I propose that we already actually face this dilemma without the need to lose our memory. A sense of personal identity arises in our awareness. This is the same for memory, it is not constant, it arises in our minds. We notice a memory when it arises because, like all thoughts, they do not exist until we notice them and we can not be anything that we can notice in our mind. I can notice that I am thinking of my drive to work this morning but I am not my drive to work this morning. It is the same for the feeling of being a self, the feeling of I. We feel like a self that persists from moment to moment but the fact that we notice this means we can not be that thing. If the feeling of personal identity arises in our own awareness how can we actually be that? We cannot be anything that we can notice as apart from ourselves. It is a feeling just like anger or excitement. It is a thought just like the memory of the you at your first day of school but like memory it is nothing tangible.

Take a moment to think of an early childhood memory. What happens to that memory when you put all of your attention on it? Where does it go?
Now, pay attention to the feeling of I, the feeling of being a self. Where does that go? It arises and passes just like any thought.

What does this say for our personal identity? There is in fact only a temporary feeling of an I being carried from one moment to the next but no actual I. Like the constant search for the paranormal we may start to build a world view in which our personal identity must be real but the more we look the more we realise there is nothing to be found. What we might be worried about losing is already lost because it does not exist in the first place.

Whenever we are getting lost in a novel, movie, TV show or playing a video game we cease to have the experience of being a self temporarily. We are losing all the feeling of being a self whenever we engage in any activity that requires large amounts of attention.

It would be remiss of us to think that we are the same person we were when we were a child because we shared the same body. In what way is this possible? Our bodies are nothing like the ones we had when we were children. They have aches and pains we couldn’t have dreamed of when we were young and they are barely recognisable compared to old photos. A conversation with a younger “you” would show that you have more differences than similarities. Even the atoms that make up our very being are not the same atoms that made up the body of the child we used to be. You might think because you have the same scar on your arm that you got when you were a child that you must be the same self. This presupposes the ideas discussed earlier. You have used memory and thought to elicit an intangible sense of self in order to prove you are the you that you used to be.

We might think we need a healthy sense of personal identity to function normally in society but how free could we act without the biases and bad personality traits we attribute to ourselves purely because of memory and thought? We remember being a shy outcast at school so we act shy and rejected as an adult. Most of us are so skilled at using our memories to develop negative aspects of a personal identity that if we were to let these go we could act freely in response to whatever the moments presents, rather than having it tainted by our past. Memory should be used as a tool to develop relationships and prevent repeating past mistakes but memory can not be you.

Some think neuroscience will develop to a point where it can show us what consciousness and the sense of self actually is. But how can we find something that from first person experience is as elusive as the end of the rainbow?

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