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Self, selves and emerging self -II

Is it a duck or a rabbit? Both but you can perceive only one at a time. Image credit: Wikicommon

Mind’s I – Our cognitive self

We know more than the ownership of our body, that’s my hand, that’s where it is right now, that is where I want it to be next. We know that we are “we”. We can think about ourselves and we know that we are thinking (“I think, therefore I am” – je pense, donc je suis

– as Descartes affirmed in 1641). This understanding of the self as an immaterial being is very strong (religions leverage on this ubiquitous “feeling”) that is actually us can also be seen when we … clip a nail. It was our nail as long as it was part of our body, once it is detached

We analyse our environment, we think about what we want to do and then we convert our decision into a set of commands to our body parts (muscles that control those body parts) and that’s it.

Well, not quite.

Our sense of self is a useful misinterpretation of what is going on in our brain and most of what goes on is hidden from our perception, and if you equate what you perceive as yourself (thinking, feeling, doing) than you are sitting at a tip of an iceberg that is actually moving because the part hidden under the water is moved by the ocean (by the environment).

In the last twenty years the availability of technology to look inside the brain has revealed that reality is quite different from our perception.
Actually, even before being able to observe our brain in real time psychologists and neurologists discovered that reality was way more complex than what each of us feels. It was noticed that split-brain patients (who had their brain hemispheres separated to end severe full brain seizures) demonstrated unusual behaviour, like they had two different self, one for each hemisphere and these selves were not aware of the other. This demonstrated that there are at least two selves and that they find a way, in a fully functioning brain to integrated with one another so that we perceive a single self.

The reality is that there are several selves operating in our brain (arising from brain activities), as it has been shown by advanced brain monitoring. It was also noticed that when we are not conscious, like during sleep, brain activities change and it is no longer pervasive. What happens in an area tends to remain local whilst in a conscious brain any activity permeates the whole brain. According to recent hypotheses it is exactly this spread to the whole brain that gives rise to consciousness (and to our cognitive self).

The brain seems to be a cluster of systems that interfere with one another, each one voicing its voice and trying to get the upper hand. At perception level there is a unification (although we often consider different options. What is notable is that most of the time what we consider to be a decision taken by our “self” is actually the acknowledgment of a decision taken at unconscious level. There is quite a lot of experimental evidence that this is the case.

An interesting (partial) example of the existence of parallel processes that have to result in a single perception is the one of some optical illusions, like the one shown in the figure. Some people perceive at first glance a duck, others a rabbit. Give it a try. Most people, anyhow, when invited to look better at the image will “see” the other image, those who first saw a duck now can appreciate it is a rabbit and the other way round. Now the interesting part. Even when you have realised that that same image can be perceived as a duck or as a rabbit and with a little effort you can switch from one to the other you will not be able to see “both” the duck and the rabbit at the same time. Your underlying unconscious selves will detect them (one a rabbit the other the duck) but at perception level the brain has to make a choice: either or, not both.

The fact that there are several cognitive selves in our brain begs the question of which one should be chosen once we have the technology to “read the brain”. This is not a moot point, as I will discuss in the next post addressing the digital twin.

If we decide to get a copy of the perceived self, (the one I perceive and therefore the one I feel I am) we would actually get only a subset of us, and a subset that, as I pointed out, is not the one that takes decisions. Now aren’t we, in some way, characterised by the decisions we take? That for sure is how we are judged by our fellow humans!

The whole aspect of self (and now of selves) is complex, and it is going to get even more so.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.