You Are Not You: The Conundrum of the "Me."
Where is the self? Nowhere we look.
Posted Aug 26, 2010
Turns out this question is significantly harder to answer than one might assume. For example, a great many of us could argue that the "me" is the stuff inside one's skin, but the microbiologists of the world would disagree.
Inside your body, there are 10 times more bacteria than human cells. Collectively, they take up as much space as your forearm, wrist and hand. The technical term for this legion is the "microbiome" and what we know about it is, honestly, not much at all.
One thing we do know is that most of us, if really pushed, would claim that even if we are not entirely our bodies, we are most certainly our thoughts and feelings. But candida albicans, a yeast infection in the stomach, is the counter-argument.
Under normal conditions, there is a balance between bacteria and yeast in your gut. Candida occurs when the balance tips, and yeast runs rampant. The condition has a number of nasty attributes, but foremost among them is a feeling of extreme anxiety. This happens because, when the body is anxious it craves the fuel needed to react quickly to negative situations. Sugar breaks down fast, so sugar is what's craved. But the reason the body is really craving sugar is because candida feeds on it. This means, at least under these circumstances, that your emotions are really just another's hunger.
Now does this happen under normal circumstances? No one knows for sure, but I was recently talking to Andrew Hessel, the co-chair of Bioinfomatics and Biotech at Singularity University, who is sure "there's plenty of communication between bacterial cells and our cells, even if we're not able to measure all of it yet."
On a similar note, we also know that eight percent of the DNA in the human genome consists of viruses that have inserted themselves into our genetic code. In fact, in a paper published in "Nature" last January, Cedric Feschotte, a professor of biology at the University of Texas, argues that this foreign DNA may contain the genes for schizophrenia and other mood disorders.
So if we are, at both a microbial and a genetic level, not actually wholly ourselves-can we actually answer this question by diving inside?
But coming the other way round doesn't really help either.
As neuroscientist Jill Taylor Bolte brilliantly describes in "My Stroke of Insight" (or check out her great TED talk on the subject), the parietal lobe is the portion of the brain that controls "me", specifically it demarcates where our body ends and the rest of the world begins.
But, as Taylor points out, this line is completely flexible.
For example, people who suffer brain damage to their parietal lobe have trouble sitting down because they don't know where their leg ends and the couch begins. Or, as happened to Taylor, when you have a massive stroke and completely shut down parietal lobe function, you cannot separate self from other. Instead, you feel one with everything (Taylor also argues-and very convincingly-that a sensation of oneness with everything is the experience the right side of the brain has all the time).
And this is not just her experience. In the late 1990s, University of Pennsylvania neuroscientist Andrew Newberg used SPECT scans to peer into the brains of Franciscan nuns and Tibetan Buddhists during moments of "ecstatic meditation." Now ecstatic meditation may sound like a slippery term, but it has a very concrete meaning. For the nuns it's "unio mystico"-a state of being one with all of God's love (or creation depending on how you translate out of Aramaic). For the Buddhists, it's "absolute unitary being," or the state of being one with everything.
What the SPECT scans showed was that during moment of ecstatic mediation there is a complete shutdown in parietal lobe function-thus the body's border dissolves and the meditator feels "one with everything."
While these might all seem like extreme cases, it doesn't take a stroke or long years of meditative training to move the boundary of self. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi uses the term "group flow" to describe the potent co-joining of consciousness and extremely heightened awareness that results from a bunch of individuals finding themselves in a flow state together. Basketball great Bill Russell, in his 1979 autobiography "Second Wind" described it this way: "During those spells I could almost sense how the next play would develop and where the next shot would be taken...My premonitions would be consistently correct, and I always felt that I not only knew all the Celtics by heart, but also all the opposing players, and that they all knew me."
But even flow states are not required. When blind people claim they can feel the world through the tip of their cane (or tennis players feel the racket as an extension of their hand or race car drivers claim they can feel the track through the tires) this is actually the parietal lobe extending the boundary (and sensory function) of self.
In my forthcoming book, "A Small Furry Prayer," I explore how the mirror neuron system may work in tandem with the parietal lobe in drawing this same border (empathy, technically, is another version of extending the border of self), but this book is actually about the relationship between humans and dogs-so what the hell does this have to do with where the "me" ends?
In my experience-plenty.
Alongside my wife, I co-run the Rancho de Chihuahua dog sanctuary-which is a fancy way of saying I routinely share my house with a pack of 25 dogs.
For reasons that have to do with our healing methodology (we run a special needs dog sanctuary so our dogs need lots of healing), we don't have many rules. The dogs roam free. Which means there are usually a dozen or so with us in the bed at night.
Now, I am a late convert to dog rescue, so sleeping with a pack did not come naturally. For my first two years running this sanctuary, every time a dog bumped into me during the night, I woke up. Since dogs were always bumping into me at night, well, I didn't get too much sleep for a very long time.
But something strange happened during my second year: I stopped feeling those dogs. I could go to sleep alone in the bed and wake up draped in dogs without noticing their arrival.
This is called habituation-but it's really a parietal lobe function. And this too happens all the time. Mothers get so used to the feeling of their infant in their arms, they often forget they're holding their child.
But what's different about my dog experience is that we have an ever rotating crew of animals. So it's not just one baby I'm habituating too, it's an entire schematic category called "dogs."
By my third year running this rescue, I could be wide awake-say buried in a book-and ten dogs could come lay down atop me and it would only be when I tried to move (and discovered I was pinned down) that I would notice their presence.
But things didn't stop there. A few weeks back, I was trying to take an afternoon nap. As I was just about to fall asleep, a fly landed on my leg. It stayed on my leg too-driving me nuts. I really didn't want to move to shoo it away because I knew that if I moved I would pull myself out of sleep, but I knew that if I didn't shoo it away I would never fall asleep.
Then I realized something-it wasn't a fly, it was actually my dog Dagmar. She had laid down next to me and what I thought was a fly was actually her tail brushing against me.
And the moment I realized this-the sensation vanished. It was like a switch got flipped. One moment Dagmar's tail was a foreign object annoying me, the next—after realizing it belonged in that schematic category marked "dog"-—it was gone, completely incorporated into my sense of self.
What makes this interesting is that it happened when all of my attention was directed at the sensation. This was not an unconscious shift of "me" borders (like was happening when I was sleeping or reading) this was completely conscious, with my full focus trained on the sensation.
So where is the "me?
Well, it's a little hard to say, but if the "me" is supposed to represent a solitary and singular experience then clearly not in our genes or cells or thoughts or feelings or sensations.
In fact, the longer we look at it, the one thing that comes clear is that the "me" is actually the "we."