Know thyselves: The self as a relationship of parts and wholes

| You, your selves, and all |

We tend to think of the self as a thing, not unlike the way we think of concrete objects in the physical world – as stable, individuated wholes. But the truth, science tells us, is that even what seems to be a solid, unitary whole may really be the collective interactions of many, smaller parts.

In this presentation from 2012, neuroscientist David Eagleman argued against the idea that we have a singular, definitive self. Instead, it is more accurate to imagine that the self is made up of many parts (and connections). These parts and connections are essentially sub-systems or networks in the brain. They constantly engage with or “fight” each other to express their particular perspectives and priorities. Ultimately, the self as we experience it is a kind of whole representing the self-organizing themes among its individual parts.

This shift in our concept of the self has major implications for society. Yet even as we begin exploring these implications, there are also new ways for us to think about the part-whole relationships which inform this new concept. In Eagleman’s example, the conscious self is like the CEO of an organization, with the different (subconscious) networks reporting up to it. But in another context, the self can be described as a higher level / larger scale property of the interactions among the various neural networks in the brain. While the overall effect is similar, the difference between hierarchical and emergent part-whole relationships also has implications for how we understand the nature of cognitive processes.

49:30: We think about the brain and the self as being a single thing. But that’s actually not the right way to think about it. The right way to think about the brain is it’s made up of lots of competing sub-populations of neural networks. You have lots of different parts in there that are always battling it out to control your behavior.

So the right way to think about the brain is not like a monarchy but more like a parliament, with different political parties in it, and just like the parties in our Congress, they all love their country but they just have very different ways of thinking about going about things, and these are always in conflict with one another…

It’s all you, but the thing is that you’re made up of lots of different parts of your self…

59:55: Sometimes people find it a little bit uncomfortable that we’re not really the ones at the center of things anymore. When you study the massive computations happening under the hood, you start feeling like wow the conscious brain is like the passenger on a transatlantic steamship that’s taking credit for the whole journey without acknowledging the massive engineering that’s underfoot…

But fortunately we have a historical analogy here which is that in 1610 when Galileo clinched the proof he needed that the earth is not at the center of all the orbits, religious critics decried this as a dethronement of man from his position at the center. But what’s happened in the intervening 400 years is that we’ve discovered that the cosmos is so much more subtle and grand and wondrous than we could have ever imagined back when we thought that we were just at the center of some concentric rings. And I think exactly that is going on in brain science right now[.]



The brain and being human | David Eagleman