Where does the human sense of self actually come from? An essay by philosopher Thomas Metzinger.

Can we possibly imagine that awareness and self-awareness come “from below”, from nature? In the beginning there was a need for animals to control their sensory perceptions and to transform these fluidly into movements. That means that the evolution of nervous systems and intellectual faculties had a lot to do with controlling a body as a whole, and moving intelligently within the world. My own current research is now focussed on the question: What is actually the simplest form of the sense of self? What are the minimal resources one needs in order for this experience – “I am somebody”, “I am a self” – to develop?

Together with Olaf Blanke and his team in Lausanne, we developed some interesting experiments in relation to this. With the help of corresponding techniques, the participants in the experiment were able to see a virtually generated image of their own body as a person standing before them. A specific experimental set-up meant that many of the participants perceiving themselves as present outside of their own bodies. They actually localised their feeling of self in the simulated body in front of them and some had the unmistakable feeling that this virtual body they saw before them was their own.

Something that is interesting in philosophical terms about the possibility of such experiences is the insight that one can make the very elemental sense of self, this feeling of “That’s me!”, i.e. the identification with the image of a body, and the “I am here now!” jump back and forth in an obviously controlled way in this body. It therefore seems to be that even relatively simple experiments show that our elemental sense of self can as it were adhere to something different.

What this very clearly shows is covered by a core statement in my book “The Ego Tunnel”: What we mistakenly label as “the self” is much less firmly established than we generally imagine to be the case. Actually, this self is nothing other than the contents of a model or image that is generated in the brain. And the special thing about this image is that we cannot experience it as an image.

We are probably creatures that form an image of our bodies and also our thoughts and feelings within us, and we use this image to move ourselves, to live our lives and to report our thoughts and feelings. But we don’t recognise this as an image. This transparency – we philosophers say: the “phenomenal transparency” – is what makes our sound sense of self possible in the first place. It permits us to experience our bodies with apparent directness, indeed to experience ourselves as a whole.

Admittedly it has not yet been possible to show that mental states can be traced back to physical states. But in the meantime one finding has been well established in empirical terms: there is a very strong determination from “bottom to top”. There are mental states that dictate how we experience ourselves, how we experience our arms, hands or our stomachs – and whether we experience them as ours. The direct cause of this experience is the clear processes in the brain and not processes in the hand or in the stomach or in the arm or wherever.

We also have to assume that every conscious bodily experience is in reality taking place in a strong sense locally, namely within the brain. There are of course corporeal experiences in a dream or during an out-of-body experience, while the physical body remains completely paralysed. A look at tradition soon points to this, where we find statements like those of Aristotle, who said that the soul is the form of the body. For him, the soul disintegrated upon death just like the body. But the soul is the inner formative principle, so to speak, that holds the parts together. And philosopher Spinoza tells us: The soul is the idea that the body develops of its self, i.e. the image that it creates – because the object of the soul is the physical body.

New theories – like my own theory, the self-model theory of subjectivity – now suggest that it is from the image of the body that all higher ego functions develop, that they are functionally anchored within it. That applies also for the mental functions and for social interactions. The basis of our model of self is the model of the body. And that is initially nothing less than a model of the global form of the body in the room. Part of this then is also the sense of balance, for example, and the inner perception from which emotions develop.

If you consider the many models that our brains have to generate in one single moment: the model of the table in front of me, that of the magazine in my hands that I’m reading, the house that surrounds me, the model of my body – how do I actually know that it is all really there? That my reference to the reality around me is really successful, coherent? Among all the models created by the brain it is first and foremost the model of the body that really anchors us in the world deeply and firmly.

In contrast to all the other models, the model of the body in the brain actually cannot go wrong in its point of reference. It is the only one that always actually grasps its object: It grasps it using a permanent causal connector, because it is, after all, a part of the body, an activation pattern in the brain. The relationship between the model of the body and the body itself is therefore very direct, the embedding of a part within the whole. It is an ongoing, multi-layered loop of information processing over the many years of our lives, in which the process of life becomes conscious of itself.

Pursuant to this, many philosophers have already written that the body is a very specific object of perception. The brain cannot run away from the body; it is always there through one’s entire life. If you look more precisely, however, in the subjective experience of our normal, day-to-day lives the body never actually exists as a whole in our conscious model of self. Rather, these are islands of attention that emerge in our corporeal landscape: Something’s squeezing here, we can feel something touch us briefly there, now we are hungry, now we feel embarrassed.

There are rare cases in which people become selectively “body-blind” as a result of a specific injury to the brain. They lose their feeling of physicality but only that. This proves that there actually is such a thing as a model of the body together with the inner feeling that goes with it. Some of these people learn to move their body using nothing but their sense of vision. From the outside they therefore look like a marionette and actually re-learn how to walk and to pick things up without breaking them, even though they can no longer feel them. For such people it therefore follows that if the light is turned out, then they will fall to the floor and their control over their bodies is immediately lost. They need the light in order to be able to see. Since they no longer have an internal image of their bodies, then they are unable to move them.

It is therefore possible to lose one’s feeling for one’s body, to find oneself without a body, so to speak, and we can perhaps also draw conclusions as to how such perceptions are conveyed in the brain. But what’s really interesting here is that although the sense of the body, self-perception can be lost for the rest of one’s life as the result of a brain injury, the sense of self is obviously not lost here. The affected patients do not exhibit any depersonalisation disorders like some schizophrenics. Neither do they have the feeling that a frightening dissolution of self is taking place. Rather, they try to keep on living with this disability.

This shows that the normal sense of self we have does not only consist of our image of the body. It is formed from the capacity to be able to control the attention – which seems to be very important – or to be able to think consciously. For example, there are also “disembodied dreams”, in which the sense of self is stable even though it is only connected to a point in the room without extension. If you now imagine somebody who is “body-blind” and who, at the same time, has no more control over his thoughts, as being a person who is in a state of delirium or completely in a dream, and who ultimately no longer has any more control over his own attention, like an infant or an old person with dementia, then one could even assume that such a person really no longer has any awareness of self. It is lost when the three components of body, attention and thought can no longer be controlled.

From this we can conclude that the sense of self apparently has a lot to do with control. And indeed with global control. One therefore has a sense of self when one controls the body as a whole. When one tries to arrange and structure the thought process and does not allow the thoughts to simply flit about, and when one attempts to control one’s attention, then the result is a very specific sense of self. The sense of self therefore apparently has a lot to do with control and exertion. And the dissolution of the sense of self has a lot to do with letting go, with the loss or surrender of control.

About the author:

Prof. Thomas Metzinger is a German philosopher and professor of theoretical philosophy at the University of Mainz. His main areas of work are the philosophy of the mind, the academic theory of neurosciences, and neuro-ethics.

Illustration: Jan Buchczik