- Research and scholarship on the nature of the self have yielded conflicting messages, but a new model helps frame the self in a coherent way.
- The model suggests that the self emerges as animals model themselves over time in different contexts and relationships.
- The human self consists of a nonverbal experiential self, a narrating ego, and a persona that manages impressions.
The post was co-authored by John Vervaeke and Christopher Mastropietro.
What is the self? Is it the core essence that defines what and who we truly are? Or is it an egoic illusion that we fallaciously cling to and, to be healthy and mature, we must learn to become detached from? Many voices in psychology and education teach us to be our true selves or be true to our core self. And yet other traditions, such as Buddhism, seem to argue that there is no such thing as the self. Research and scholarship on the nature of the self have yielded similar confusions and conflicting messages. Consider the tensions between the following quotes from two well-known psychologists:
"Properly speaking, a man has as many social selves as there are individuals who recognize him and carry an image of him in their head." — William James
"But the concept of the self loses its meaning if a person has multiple selves … the essence of self involves integration of diverse experiences into a unity … In short, unity is one of the defining features of selfhood and identity." — Roy Baumeister
The self, alongside concepts like behavior, mind, cognition, and consciousness, represents one of the most central but also most elusive concepts in psychology and cognitive science. However, recent work on developing metatheoretical synergies optimistically point to the possibility of a coherent articulation of what the self is in a way that is consistent with the best current research, the focus and concerns of therapists, and the deep existential reflections given by philosophical perspectives that reflect on how we relate to ourselves and our place in the cosmos.
A New Model for Framing the Self
Earlier this year, John Vervaeke produced an educational video series, "The Elusive “I”: On the Nature and Function of the Self," that tackled these questions and generated a new model for framing the self. The series built from an earlier exploration into the tangled knot of consciousness that blended some of the best metatheories in psychology (i.e., Henriques’ Unified Theory) and cognitive science (i.e., Vervaeke’s Recursive Relevance Realization) to generate a clear, holistic picture of how subjective conscious experience emerges in the animal-mental plane of existence.
That series identified two broad steps in the evolution of animal consciousness. First, perhaps as early as the Cambrian Explosion some 520 million years ago, there was an integration in the brain of sensory inputs with inner drives that functioned to generate “valence qualia,” which are bodily feeling states like pleasure and pain that guide animals toward and away from valued stimuli. Then, as animals advanced in their capacity to model the environment and their anticipated outcomes, and deliberate based on possible action sequences, a more extended form of subjective consciousness emerged, something we might call “an inner mind’s eye” that arises in a global neuronal workspace. As was described in the series, this inner mind’s eye can be effectively divided into a witness function that frames and indexes specific aspects of attention with a hereness-nowness-togetherness binding that can be called “adverbial qualia,” and the contents of that frame, such as the redness of an apple, which can be called “adjectival qualia.”
A Need to Model the Self Across Time
It turns out that this model of animal consciousness has crucial implications for the emergence of a sense of self. Work in robotics over the past several decades has demonstrated that any complex adaptive system that can move with efficiency must simultaneously model not just the exterior environment but also account for the interior movements and positions of the robot. Put simply, coordinating agent-arena actions require models of both the agent and arena and their dynamic relation. This is true of both robots and animals.
If this fact is coupled to the idea that higher forms of cognition and consciousness allow animals to extend themselves across time and situations, we move from modeling the immediate agent-arena relationship to modeling the agent across many separate arenas that are extended in time. For example, a rat at a choice point in a maze will project itself down the right arm of the maze, and then down the left arm. Crucially, although the rat’s simulation of the two paths will be different, the deliberation requires a consistent model of the self (i.e., the rat is the same, whereas the paths are what differ). This insight gives rise to the claim that as animals engage in deliberation across time, a model of the self that is distinct from the many possible environments is required. The point here is that the jump in cognition and consciousness that allows animals to extend themselves across time also points to the need for a more elaborate model of the self.
Modeling the Self in Relation to Others
The series argued that a second crucial jump would occur as animals became increasingly intertwined in relationships with others. Consider, for example, parental care and the attachments formed with offspring. In such relationships, the caregiver must not only model their own actions and place across time but also model the needs of the other. Moreover, they are in dynamic participatory relation with each other across time. Attachment theory shows how this dance between caregiver and young is enacted and can lead to either a secure relational holding environment or not.
This process of modeling self-in-relation-to-other is framed by Vervaeke by adding “relational” to recursive relevance realization. That is, it is the self-other feedback loop that should be tracked for relevant information. This formulation is directly aligned with Henriques’ Influence Matrix, which maps the process dimensions of the human primate relationship system. Specifically, it suggests that humans intuitively track processes of exchange for indications of having social influence or being valued by others, as well as implications for power/competition, love/affiliation, and levels of dependency or independence.
Consistent with work from Tomasello, humans have particularly strong capacities among the great apes to track others' perspectives and feelings, and develop a shared attention and intention. Tomasello calls this the intersubjective “we” space that can form as humans sync up with others. Following the logic above, this suggests massive mapping of self across time in relationship to many others and in many contexts. The result is a dynamic picture of the human primate, pre-verbal self that is very consistent with both James’ assertion that the self is a function of the other and Baumeister’s claim that there is a felt sense of unity.
The Justifying Ego
Of course, as humans evolved over the past 200,000 years, we have moved from implicit intersubjective coordination to explicit intersubjectivity, via the emergence of symbolic language and the development of justification systems that function to generate a shared propositional field of what is and ought to be. Henriques’ work on the Unified Theory shows how the problems and processes of justification set the stage for the evolution of the human ego as the mental organ of justification and help explain the relationship between the ego, the primate experiential self, and the persona, which is the public image or face or mask that people project to manage status and maintain favorable impressions.
The diagram below provides a map of the insights generated by the series. It depicts how layers of cognitive modeling emerge that function to generate models of both the world and the “Generalized Me” that models the self across time. It also places that in relationship to human consciousness via the inner mind’s eye that functions as the adverbial qualia framing of the adjectivally experienced properties. On top of that primate self in humans is the justifying ego that manages the “legitimacy of the self” on the culture-person plane of existence.
After elaborating on the cognitive science that grounds the model, the series shifted into the world of clinical psychology and explored how many neurotic conditions can be understood as arising from the conflicts between a core, emotionally charged experiential self, a justifying ego, and a persona on the social stage. Consistent with this frame, both humanistic and psychodynamic approaches are structured to identify these conflicts and bring insight and acceptance in a way that affords a more coherent, integrated identity. The last part of the series shifted to existential concerns, drawing on insights from Kierkegaard and other philosophers to show how the above model of the self is consistent with and can ground and inform intrapersonal and interpersonal dialogical reflections on how we relate to ourselves and our place in the cosmos.