Sunday, 6 March 2011

Continuity of Self

What constitutes you.  Every day some of your cells die and others are created to replace them, some memories are lost (perhaps only temporarily) and new memories are formed, and over time our neuroplasticity shapes the very physiology of our brains.  Where is the you that you identify as a constant through all this change?

When I wake up I often have a few seconds of coherent intelligent thought before I remember what my life is like, where, and who I am.  During these few seconds I sometimes wonder about whether I am young or old, rich or poor, and I can revel in the simple state of being where I am unaware of pretty much everything.  A state where all my thoughts are occurring for the first time, devoid of context.  
A similar situation is invoked as  a plot device in Dark City, which is a shit film (much worse than its IMDB rating suggests)  but it does leave a lasting impression.  Each night, the memories and lives of all the inhabitants are swapped around and they all live the next day with a new husband/wife, a new job, new hobbies etc. and they are unaware of their previous/original lives.

The classic example of a thought experiment about continuity of self involves a star-trek transporter.  This device maps out all the atoms in your body and then simultaneously destroys the original and creates a duplicate elsewhere.  Is the transported you you?  What if the original weren't destroyed - which one would be you, or would both be?

The most common real life application of this concept is in drugs, especially ones that change personality.  If I took a pill that gave me empathy and turned me into a sensitive metrosexual man then I would not be me.  Whoever that person was may fit in better with society, and they may be happier than I am, but they would not be me.
I think we are more accepting of gradual changes in our self - if we go to therapy or just decide to work on an aspect of ourselves then we are changing our thought patterns; that can lead, slowly, to physical changes in the brain.  If it happens overnight then we are much more wary of it, but where is the logical difference?

You may find this interesting.


HavenNyx said...

Thinking of you as a sensitive metrosexual man made me giggle. Real thoughts to come...

HavenNyx said...

In the long term there really is no logical difference. The problem with just taking a pill to alter your physical brain chemistry is that it may not work for you. Something that is a wonder drug for one person does not work at all for another. This is why psychiatrists prescribe gradual increases in dosage for their patients.

A one jolt personality switch pill could royally fuck someone up and give disastrous results. There's no control and outcomes are unpredictable.

But I think that's off what you were going for. Ideally if the pill were to work, there's no logical difference. You're still making the change you set out to make.

Anonymous said...

I don't have a steady self image, therefore, a sudden shift is not something I am unaccustomed to. Through a pill, probably that would weird me out, but Me, all that person is would be a collection of processed sensory.

How I use that processed sensory is dependent on several factors related to my brain, but it's not the difference between someone metro, and someone rough and tumble. It's not who I am, but what I know, and how I act accordingly to the environment I'm in.

Stagnation is an easy drinking, yet shit for quality lager.

ResCogitans said...

haven, there are a few people who have seen me wear the metrosexual mask :p

sense of self and consciousness is seen by many philosophers as a narrative your unconscious cooks up, and that free will itself is an illusion. this is actually borne out by experiment - by attaching electrodes to someone's head you can tell what decision they will make before they are consciously aware of it.
i guess in reality everyday we are a different person, but so long as it is similar enough to the person we were yesterday then we don't mind (and wanting to change for the better is seen as a virtue).

Anonymous said...

'and wanting to change for the better is seen as a virtue).'
i see this as an illusion/delusion.
The only true change is about adapting better to our environment. Not for any truer cause. That's the only cause and reason that matters.

Goodness is not rewarded, only adaptability. That's the whole truth.

Anonymous said...

maybe i was a bit black and white there. can't think. i'm seething about something else right now...fuck. don't worry.

ResCogitans said...

lol sounds like you went out of your way for someone who didn't appreciate it :p

Anonymous said...

not really, though i was seething when i wrote that.