After dipping my toe into the waters of the blogosphere a couple of years ago, I have decided to give it another, more focussed go.
The broad topic I will be considering is the self – the “I” that we carry around with us from one day to the next.
A fair few articles and books have been written recently on how the conscious self is only the tip of a neural iceberg, with computations going on behind the scenes that “we” have very little input into. For example, where the salad is placed in the canteen influences our decision to pick it up for lunch, without us being aware of this influence. Experimental results such as these are striking, and contribute to a view that the self is weak, and perhaps inconsequential to the real work being done on the shop floor.
But there is a paradox here. Humans (and perhaps other animal species) have the ability to self-reflect. Did I make the right decision? Am I really feeling sad, or is it just the weather? How am I doing in terms of being a good person?
So why do we engage in self-reflection at all? What if we were just highly complex automatons? Would it make any difference if there were no “tip” to the iceberg? Our society currently says that yes, it would make a big difference. Insight into our behaviour is taken as a signature of rational choice (think of a time when you excused your behaviour with “I just wasn’t thinking”). And the boundaries of self-reflection are therefore becoming central to how society ascribes blame and punishment, how we approach psychiatric disorders, and how we view human nature.
There has been recent scientific progress in understanding the brain mechanisms underlying subjective experience and self-reflection. For example, we now have greater understanding of why certain sensory stimuli burst into awareness; how reported pain can be influenced by expectations; and why we are aware of making some errors but not others. In other words, modern cognitive neuroscience aims to understand not only the low-level machinery that underlies perception and action, but also our beliefs and sense of self that accompany it.
These are exciting times for a science of the self. However, the science is also challenging our concepts of responsibility, insight and self-control. The earlier we debate these discoveries as a society, the better prepared we will be to decide whether, and how, they should affect our legal and healthcare institutions that rely on these concepts when making decisions.
In the coming weeks and months I plan to use this space to explore questions such as these. I’ll aim for a new post every week, or perhaps every other week, my research and the distractions of New York permitting. If anyone has any suggestions for topics, I’d love to hear about them at firstname.lastname@example.org.