Thursday, January 24, 2013

The "Self"?

I've been thinking a lot about the "self" lately. Not myself in particular, but about what the concept means.

At Christmas, the lovely Carol gave me a copy of Hood's The Self Illusion, which doesn't quite prove what the blurb says it does.

But what I want to write about today is something I heard on NPR, maybe on Talk of the Nation: it was an interview with Daniel Levitin, who wrote this fascinating article about what remains when memories of the past are gone.

In response to something I've already forgotten, Levitin said that what we call the "self" has four, um, aspects. Or something (I don't think he said "components"). Parts, maybe? Anyway, here they are, to the extent that I remembered them:

  1. Self-awareness.
    For example, you can recognize yourself in the mirror
  2. Agency
    You recognize that you're mostly in control of your body and can decide to do things with it.
  3. Tastes, preferences
  4. Our stories.
    Our history, the struggles we endured, the obstacles overcome, this sort of thing. This is what's lost when long-term memory is lost.
If we lose our stories, Levitin said, we lose a big part of ourselves. Indeed we do! But that's not the whole story. Levitin concludes his article with this observation about "Tom" and his brain tumor:
When I saw Tom, something fundamentally Tom was still there. Some of us call it personality, or essence. Some call it the "soul." Whatever it is, the tumor that took Tom's memory had not touched it.
Amnesia and the Self That Remains When Memory Is Lost
from, December 2012
Isn't it interesting that Levitin, a neuroscientist, talks about personality or essence or soul (as does Thompson in Anatomy of the Soul)—whereas people like Hood and Pinker say the self or the soul (what Pinker disparagingly calls the ghost in the machine) is an illusion?

Though some people say there's no such thing as a "self," nobody can actually live as though they're just an illusion.

I'm not sure where I was going with all that, but I wanted to share Levitin's list of four aspects of the "self" with you. And I also wanted to note that God tells his people over and over to remember—something important in many relationships. More on that in a future post.

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