Western views of the self

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Chapter 9 endnote 32, from How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett.
Some context is:

A common core runs through all these views: the self is your sense of who you are, and it’s continuous through time, as if it were the essence of you.

What does Western psychology have to say about the self? A tremendous amount, actually. If you think the question “what is an emotion?” is complicated, you ain’t seen nothing until you’ve looked at the science of "the self." Thousands of journal articles and books on the topic make the question ever more complex and confusing. There’s a “public self” that reflects your actions, a “private self” relating to thoughts and feelings, not to mention self-awareness, self-consciousness, self-reference, self-enhancement, self-perception, and self-esteem.[1] William James discussed many different selves, including the self as knower vs. the self as someone to be known by others.[2] There is also Antonio Damasio's distinction between the protoself, the core self, and the autobiographical self.[3] And that’s just a self-selected sample!

A few intuitions that run through all these ideas about the self:

  • People are said to have a representation of a physical self that is related to the body, and a mental self related to thoughts and feelings.  
  • The self is experienced subjectively and can be viewed objectively.
  • A sense of self is intimately connected to memories of past experiences.
  • The self is continuous through time — it has some essence.

Many psychologists consider the self to have a special status in the brain, first within a dedicated region, and then a dedicated network.[4][5] But then there are others who have always maintained that the self is not special in mental or neural terms.[6][7] As is the case with emotion, the proposed neural essence for "the self" doesn’t exist (or has not been found), even if common sense says that it does. The evidence instead points toward construction.

Just remember, when you reify the self, you lead a fragile and fictional existence that’s one step away from tragedy. Every time you fail to feed the needs and desires of your fictional self (which comes from the standards created by you, your loved ones, or your reputation), you suffer.

The self and emotion

Similarities between the concept of the self and the concept of emotion:

  1. There is no agreed upon definition of the self or for emotion.  People build taxonomies for both to try and get some clarity; the distinctions continue to proliferate in an unhelpful way.
  2. The self has been a topic of study since the beginning of psychology as a science; so too with emotion.  Some scientists believe that a self has an essence, whereas others who believe that the self is a momentary representation derived from a population of possible representations (i.e., population thinking); so too with emotion.
  3. The same struggle exists between those scientists whose work is guided by the hypothesis that there is a specialized self system in the mind or brain vs. those whose work is guided by the hypothesis that the self is constructed from domain general systems.
  4. Imaging research reveals the same networks are important both for the self and for emotion.

There is a "self paradox" that looks a lot like the emotion paradox:  colloquially, a “self” refers to a coherent, unified whole — most people, barring illness, have no difficulty identifying their self — but scientists can’t agree on its definition, nor find a set of objective (perceiver-dependent criteria) to measure it.


Notes on the Notes

  1. For example, see Baumeister, Roy F. 1998. "The self." In The Handbook of Social Psychology, 4th edition,  edited by Susan. T. Fiske, Daniel T. Gilbert, and Gardner Lindzey, 680-740. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.
  2. The self is one of the oldest topics in psychology.  So, of course, William James wrote about it.  ref James. He made many distinctions, two of which we can easily recognize as important: the “me” vs. the “I.” James wrote about three types of "me”s" (or objective selves) — material (the body), social and spiritual. In his book, Self Comes to Mind, Damasio explicitly equates the protoself and the core self with the material me, and the autobiographical self with the social and spiritual me.  Others define "me" as the self-concept (i.e., the enduring self that continues through time, in the sense that you are the same person today as you were last week and that you will be next year). Confused yet?
  3. Damasio, Antonio. 2010. Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain. Vintage.
  4. James [full reference to be provided]
  5. Northoff, Georg, Alexander Heinzel, Moritz De Greck, Felix Bermpohl, Henrik Dobrowolny, and Jaak Panksepp. 2006. "Self-referential processing in our brain—a meta-analysis of imaging studies on the self." Neuroimage 31 (1): 440-457.
  6. Greenwald, Anthony G., and Mahzarin R. Banaji. 1989. "The self as a memory system: Powerful, but ordinary." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 57 (1): 41-54.
  7. For a discussion, see Gillihan, Seth J., and Martha J. Farah. 2005. "Is self special? A critical review of evidence from experimental psychology and cognitive neuroscience." Psychological Bulletin 131 (1): 76-97.