By February 26, 2013 12 Comments Read More →

The Grand Illusion of Self: You’re Not The Person You Think You Are

Johanne Markus, Prevent Disease
Waking Times

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 to 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.

There Are Flaws In Our Intuitive Beliefs About What Makes Us Who We Are

THERE appear to be few things more certain to us than the existence of our selves. We might be sceptical about the existence of the world around us, but how could we be in doubt about the existence of us? Isn’t doubt made impossible by the fact that there is somebody who is doubting something? Who, if not us, would this somebody be?

While it seems irrefutable that we must exist in some sense, things get a lot more puzzling once we try to get a better grip of what having a self actually amounts to.

Three beliefs about the self are absolutely fundamental for our belief of who we are. First, we regard ourselves as unchanging and continuous. This is not to say that we remain forever the same, but that among all this change there is something that remains constant and that makes the “me” today the same person I was five years ago and will be five years in the future.

Second, we see our self as the unifier that brings it all together. The world presents itself to us as a cacophony of sights, sounds, smells, mental images, recollections and so forth. In the self, these are all integrated and an image of a single, unified world emerges.

Finally, the self is an agent. It is the thinker of our thoughts and the doer of our deeds. It is where the representation of the world, unified into one coherent whole, is used so we can act on this world.

All of these beliefs appear to be blindingly obvious and as certain as can be. But as we look at them more closely, they become less and less self-evident.

It would seem obvious that we exist continuously from our first moments in our mother’s womb up to our death. Yet during the time that our self exists, it undergoes substantial changes in beliefs, abilities, desires and moods. The happy self of yesterday cannot be exactly the same as the grief-stricken self of today, for example. But we surely still have the same self today that we had yesterday.

There us core belief is that the self is the locus of control. Yet cognitive science has shown in numerous cases that our mind can conjure, post hoc, an intention for an action that was not brought about by us. Our DNA itself holds this programming yet scientists cannot quite figure out the exact mechanisms we operate under.

So, many of our core beliefs about ourselves do not withstand scrutiny. This presents a tremendous challenge for our everyday view of ourselves, as it suggests that in a very fundamental sense we are not real. Instead, our self is comparable to an illusion — but without anybody there that experiences the illusion.

Yet we may have no choice but to endorse these mistaken beliefs. Our whole way of living relies on the notion that we are pieces of DNA which make us unchanging, coherent and autonomous individuals. All we have is the present moment and although the self is an useful illusion, it may also be a necessary one so that we learn to learn more in the now.

Being Present And Ageless DNA 

Scientific studies have suggested that a mind that is present and in the moment indicates well-being, whereas shifting our energy to the past or future can lead to unhappiness. A recent UCSF study showed a link between being present and aging, by looking at a biological measure of longevity within our DNA.

In the study, telomere length, an emerging biomarker for cellular and general bodily aging, was assessed in association with the tendency to be present in the moment versus the tendency to mind wander, in research on 239 healthy, midlife women ranging in age from 50 to 65 years.

Being present in the moment was defined as an inclination to be focused on current tasks, while mind wandering was defined as the inclination to have thoughts about things other than the present or being elsewhere.

Many practitioners of spiritual health tell us not to deny the problems we are facing, but to also not get lost in them either. Psychological sciences have shown us that being present brings us greater alertness and inner security, allowing us to face challenges more objectively and with greater calm.

According to the findings, published online in the new Association for Psychological Science journal Clinical Psychological Science, those who reported more mind wandering had shorter telomeres, while those who reported more presence in the moment, or having a greater focus and engagement with their current activities, had longer telomeres, even after adjusting for current stress.

The human genome is packed with at least four million gene switches that reside in bits of DNA that once were dismissed as “junk” but it turns out that so-called junk DNA plays critical roles in controlling how cells, organs and other tissues behave. The discovery, considered a major medical and scientific breakthrough, has enormous implications for human health and consciousness because many complex diseases appear to be caused by tiny changes in hundreds of gene switches.

Mindful meditation interventions, which promote attention on the present with a compassionate attitude of acceptance, lead to increases in some aspects of health. Being present and observant in purity without judgment also means that we have no emotionality surrounding our observations. Our emotional well being is not placed in the outcomes of our life’s circumstances, but rather our wellbeing is placed inwardly and determined by a choice we make to remain calm, focused and expansive surrounding the multiple possibilities of the occurrences we are a witness to.

“We now have evidence for a new type of healing in which DNA can be influenced and reprogrammed by the way we think without physically modifying a single gene,” said Professor and geneticist Karina Mika.

“Over many millennia our minds and physical being have become time machines programmed to grow old and expire, but it doesn’t have to be that way,” said Mika. “Being ageless could be as simple as changing our emotional state and thinking differently,” she concluded.

About the Author

Johanne Markus is a constant pursuer of all that we are through consciousness and our life journeys. Only through completely embracing our spiritual selves can we ever know who we truly are and why we are here.

Sources: 
newscientist.com
ucsf.edu
iamnotthebody.com

This article is offered under Creative Commons license. It’s okay to republish it anywhere as long as attribution bio is included and all links remain intact.

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12 Comments on "The Grand Illusion of Self: You’re Not The Person You Think You Are"

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  1. Hamid says:

    The author should try to at least appear impartial by prefacing all his statements of belief with ‘it appears that…’, ‘ In my opinion , …’ etc etc instead of trying to pass of his current theories as unquestionable facts.

    • JCisJD says:

      I get what your saying but personally I filter that automatically otherwise I would not have got this far (as in reading this article). It also doesn’t stop me questioning the opinions that are being “promoted”. I suggest that its when that questioning is ridiculed or dismissed as heresy and the like or when people are indifferent (opposite of love) which now seems common place that’s when there is a real problem.

  2. Mark says:

    What is a fact? we dont know were the first life came from, from nothing? so just what is a fact?

  3. dimitri says:

    Good stuff providing all the more reason for conscious human beings to meditate. Ken Wilbur’s Integral Operating System suggests that indeed meditation is THE vehicle through which mankind will continue to “evolve” to an understanding of self and the universe.

  4. Victor Gagnon says:

    Superb article. Those that do question are coming from a place of the unknown and so many do. Our world lives by I know better than you. You cannot question what you don’t know, you can only question what you know. So if someone’s comment is not true to you then the door is closed and learning will cease. I believe we should pay attention to everyone for no matter who they are or what they know, they still might teach us something that we don’t know but we first have to listen and then choose but not make them wrong. Making someone wrong starts wars. If we judge then we are lost. I believe we are mirrors for each other and for that reason we get to learn about our selves for we can never know another person. Just one person’s opinion.

    • Jose K says:

      If they come from a place of unknown, should they more susceptible and open-minded? A person who comes from the unknown does not immediately dismiss readings as bs as soon as they finish reading it. They consider the implications, the thoughts behind it and put their own critical thinking to work. Only a cup full has no room for anything.

  5. Martin Burger says:

    I follow pretty follow what Terrance McKenna left us with. Terrance was a committed mushroom / dmt drugey in his explorations and did not live long enough to appreciate that those wonderful chemical were available in our own brain nor how to secret them. Secretions from the pituitary and pineal glands give us access to much broadened states of consciousness. The spinal column is a fluid filled sac and this can put pressure on the pituitary gland and create brain flood chemicals to hang out in the other dimensions like DMT.

  6. Lisa Pruitt says:

    Thought provoking!!!

  7. 2012is2013 says:

    Great article ..very precise ~ reminds me of the dialogue that is the book “Quantum & the Lotus”…espcially when touching on ‘delayed’ memory as a necessary function of the existent self. Buddhist theology on the ego has always found the precept of “I think therefore I am” as very sloppy, whereas the Christian locus of the Christ consciousness as expressed in the “I Am” requires a sublimity of meditational logic as a point of reference in peoples searching for meaning.

  8. Bill Huey says:

    I enjoyed the article – it got me to think.

    I don’t believe the statement made by the author: “Yet we may have no choice but to endorse these mistaken beliefs…} if we are aware we always have choice:
    Bill

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