4. Self analysis
We have already considered that I do not come “readymade,” a mind injected into a body, which also fits the observation that the mind-body connection is not absolute and can in fact be broken, gradually as with Alzheimer’s or senility, or more immediately as with cases of traumatic amnesia. This latter possibility points to yet another interesting aspect of identity, because not only can it be lost, but it can return, intact. Since it is not built up again, it must have been there even when it seemed absent. The dynamic is that of forgetting and remembering, but in this case what is forgotten and remembered is not a simple fact. Rather, it is the most complicated assemblage we know — our self. Might the analogy be even more exact? Might memory and identity be related in a fundamental way?
Let’s return to the idea that our very concept of individuation, of existing as a self apart from the world around us, develops as a result of accumulated experiences. By repeated observation we come to realize that some things seem connected to us and others seem disconnected. I start to become me when I realize that some things move or change when I want them to move or change, while others do not. A hand becomes my hand when I realize it moves when I want it to move, time and time again. Mother becomes mother, not me, when I go hungry or without contact despite my best attempt to cry what I need. Why not simply try again and again without coming to any particular conclusion? Because these various experiences are stored as memories in the brain inside my body. And from the point where I start to develop a sense of individuality, the ever-increasing number of experiences stored as memories pile one atop another and gradually solidify into me.
Our earliest memories produce the sense of each of us being an entity distinct from our surroundings. What happens as time goes on?
My body becomes very well established as mine, and in the ordinary course of events, I learn how to use it. I learn to laugh, and once I do, I stick with it and laugh with my laugh. I learn to talk, with the particular interaction of my muscles and brain producing what others learn to recognize as my voice. And on and on it goes.
Nonetheless, I don’t know “how” I do any of it. Some of the most basic actions come pre-programmed, such as sucking and crying; the rest I learn. I don’t know how I make my arm move, but I learn to move it over time, gradually. I do not suddenly learn how to reach and grab an object. I spend hours, days, weeks slowly but unknowingly zeroing in on the correct way to control the movements of my arms and legs. I practice. Later I may spend years fine-tuning my movements to become good at music or sports. Through it all, my brain faithfully records the failures and repeats the successes, though not always with the precision I hope for.
Meanwhile, mentally I learn many more things. I learn that I have a name, because I hear it over and over when others talk to me. I learn that I am a boy or a girl, and sooner or later I confirm this through observation and comparison. I find that I like some things, which I try to get more and more of, and that I dislike other things, which I try to avoid. I learn that I can do some things easily or well, and I tend to favor these activities over things I find difficult or have little success at. Of course, I might determinedly stay at something until I succeed, despite many failures, but in the absence of strong external motivation or support, this is unlikely to become a habit without a string of successes.
All of this information, all of these stored behaviors, essentially programs, have a singular point of reference — the ways of moving this body that I and no one else control, the emotions this body and brain experience, the ever-growing set of information that applies to this body-brain. My brain records my experiences as my memories.
From the first intimations that I am different from my environment, I begin accumulating me. Bit by bit I put me together. The question is: how close am I to me?
That might sound like less-clever-than-I-think word play, but it might be the most important question we can ask ourselves, because our answer shapes our view of reality. It is easy to assume a fundamental unity between I and me. After all, we just said it, didn’t we? I move my body; I speak with my voice. But there lies the assumption. I also wear my clothes and live in my house, but we easily see that these are external to us, objects that we accumulate but that are not part of us, even if we can develop strong psychological attachments to certain objects. What if the process of accumulating me is exactly that, another collection of temporary possessions rather than a mystical coming into being that establishes an individual existence (especially one that I might think is somehow separate from my physical existence and will continue beyond it)?
It’s worth going very slowly here, to be as clear as possible about what we are saying and not saying. We acknowledge that we exist. There is nothing unreal about our bodies and brains. And certainly these exist in individual combinations. It is also clear that our biological makeup includes consciousness. We think, but beyond that we also have self-consciousness, a mind rather than just a neuro-computer, and this is what we are exploring. We notice that our mind has the interesting characteristic that it appears rather late in our early development. The body and brain, though they of course also develop, have been hard at work for quite some time before I start to divide the world into inside and outside. And this is precisely where we have to pay close attention.
The neurological activity in my brain is localized, and this includes the sense memories and experiences stored there. Almost from birth we learn that crying produces milk, removes discomfort and meets just about every other want, but then we start to realize that the success record is spotty. We learn to cry harder before eventually coming to the conclusion that crying does not exactly do what we first thought it did. We might even begin to learn patience, since sometimes we get what we want after a little wait. The point to be noted here is that we learn by trial and error, a rather high-level mental function, before we differentiate between me and not-me. Consciousness precedes self-consciousness.