Self as a concept

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Chapter 9 endnote 35, from How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett.
Some context is: my view, the self is a plain, ordinary concept just like “Tree,” “Things That Protect You from Stinging Insects,” and “Fear.” [...] The self is a concept, but not in the way that social psychologists mean it.

Psychologists usually assume that the self exists, and that it is something you can have a concept about. For example, for the past fifty years or so, social psychologists have debated: Is the self-concept a fixed, unchanging entity? Is it a theory, a set of ideas that people have about the nature of self, the world and the relation between the two? Is there one single self or are there multiple selves? Is the self changing or fixed? Does memory construct the self, or does the self construct memory? But these are all questions about the self concept (is the concept classical, with necessary and sufficient features, a prototype, a set of exemplars, etc.), usually with the underlying assumption the concept is separate from the thing itself (i.e., the category of things that make you who you are).

Most of these questions, I think, come from a misunderstanding of the nature of concepts and categories. I think the self is a concept in the same way that anger is a concept: a population of highly variable instances, each one tied to the immediate context or circumstance. The self concept, in a given moment, is the self. It is a goal-based concept that is constructed on the fly, as needed.

Think of it this way: Your brain creates an internal model of the world from the perspective of someone with your body. Every thought, emotion, perception, etc. that your brain creates with predictions contains information about body budgeting. So every concept your brain creates, every categorization it completes, contains some information about your body. This is because the prediction errors about the sensations from your body are part of every pattern of every single category that you have learned since birth.  Your brain creates experiences of the world and plans actions in the world in relation to your own body.  Statistical patterns of sensations don’t just represent something in the world -- they represent something in the world in relation to something else — your body. This is the rudimentary basis of a sense of self.  This captures the intuitions of many scientists and philosophers, most notably Antonio Damasio who calls this the protoself.[1] (I prefer not to use that term, because there is ample evidence that when we name a phenomenon, especially with a noun, we endow it with essences and special powers, leading us down the temping and ill-begotten path of essentialism. This leads us astray, away from the idea that the foundation of the self is in every categorization we every make.)

A more speculative idea is that integration of predictions in the interoceptive and sensorimotor systems creates a rudimentary representation of the self as someone who acts in the world (i.e., the self as an agent).  This idea comes from several scientists and philosophers who propose that for the brain to create a sense of self as an agent, it has to distinguish between sensations created by its body's own movements and those resulting from environmental events. Distinguishing these two types of sensations, scientists suggest, is the brain's implicit way of representing the self as a bodily agent.[2]  On the other hand, this dynamic could just be creating the illusion of agency.[3]

Affect (the properties of feeling that derive from interoception, chapter 4) provides a sense of phenomenological continuity — a sense of familiarity — that a perception belongs to you (that it is a first person, rather than a third person, event). For an experience to feel like it is “yours,” you must experience affect.  For example, a man named Michael May lost the ability to see when he was 3 years old, after an accident destroyed his left eye and damaged his right cornea. Some 40 years later, Mr. May received a corneal transplant that restored his brain’s ability to absorb normal visual input from the world.[4] With the hardware finally working, Mr May at first saw only simple movements, colors and shapes rather than, as most people do, a world of faces and objects and scenes. It was as if he lived in two different worlds: one where sound, touch, smell taste, and interoceptions were all integrated, in which he also felt affect, and a second world of vision that stood apart. His visual sensations seemed foreign, like they were not his own.[5]

Notes on the Notes

  1. Damasio, Antonio. 2010. Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain. Vintage.
  2. Christoff, Kalina, Diego Cosmelli, Dorothée Legrand, and Evan Thompson. 2011. "Specifying the self for cognitive neuroscience." Trends in Cognitive Sciences 15 (3): 104-112.
  3. Wegner, Daniel M. 2002. The Illusion of Conscious Will. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
  4. Fine, Ione, Alex R. Wade, Alyssa A. Brewer, Michael G. May, Daniel F. Goodman, Geoffrey M. Boynton, Brian A. Wandell, and Donald IA MacLeod. 2003. "Long-term deprivation affects visual perception and cortex." Nature Neuroscience 6 (9): 915-916.
  5. As described in Barrett, Lisa Feldman, and Moshe Bar. 2009. "See it with feeling: affective predictions during object perception." Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 364 (1521): 1325-1334.