There are many continuities in our lives: Our height doesn’t change noticeably from day to day; weight is more variable, but we don’t gain or lose 30 pounds overnight; we usually have a stable occupation and place to live, and our friends and family usually recognize us. These continuities, and more, lead us to think of our selves as stable entities, so that we tend to overlook the variability in our moment-to-moment experience, but if we learn to pay attention to what is going on in our heads throughout the day, we may find that instability is the rule. We contain multitudes of selves, to paraphrase Walt Whitman.
This multiplicity of personas is due to one simple and unassailable fact about the human condition: there is a limit to the number of thoughts we can entertain simultaneously. We can’t think about what we’re going to have for breakfast, what we’re going to do when we get to work, where we’re going on vacation, and how we’re going to comfort a distressed friend, all at once. We may run through such topics in rapid sequence, but thinking multiple thoughts at the same time is not among our capabilities.
Each topic that occupies consciousness is an outgrowth of the sequence of prior topics, nudged from one to the other by associations within our brains and inputs from our surroundings. Sometimes, if we stop and think about it, we can see how one thing led to another, and how each topic is accompanied by its own set of beliefs, values, memories, preferences, etc.—each topic emerges in the context of an appropriate self. For the most part, we are caught up in the onslaught of this cascade of selves, taking for granted that the moment’s self is “who we are,” even though various selves in the sequence may contradict each other.
With the appropriate input—which I am at this moment trying to provide—we can step out of this parade of selves and watch it from the sidelines. A new self can emerge—the observing self—which is triggered by each shift of topic. Instead of sliding unaware from self-to-self, the observing self, aka “the transition monitor,” takes note that a change from one self to another is in progress, and can evaluate the change and make comments: “It seems we’re slipping into the vacation-planning-self; shouldn’t we stay with the writer-self and pay more attention to the job at hand?”
There’s nothing problematic about the emergence of a new self in our repertoire. Every new set of circumstances triggers a new configuration of active neural networks, and recurring circumstances reinforce and modify those networks that were active when they occurred previously.
If something you read here meshes with prior insights you’ve had into how your brain operates, a transition-monitoring-self may emerge in your brain. The more success this TMS has at noting transitions and short-circuiting undesirable ones, the more consistent it may become, but like any other self, it may fade with disuse until some further input brings it back to the fore.
With luck, you may come to see your self less as a stable entity, and more as a collection of sometimes contradictory selves. This broader perspective may lead to a more harmonious orchestration of selves, and facilitate the resolution of contradictions when they become problematic.
Of course, not all contradictions are problematic—some just contribute to your being a more interesting person. You may casually say, with Whitman,
“Do I contradict myself?
Very well, then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.”)
(For a more detailed treatment of this subject, click here.)