The Grand Illusion of Self: You’re Not The Person You Think You Are
Johanne Markus, Prevent Disease
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.
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