Multiple Selves: Continuity and Change

March 12th, 2014

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.)


Fan Palm Frond

Branching Out From A Common Base




The Movie, “Her;” Artificial and Human Intelligence

January 3rd, 2014

When I left the theater after seeing “Her,” the world outside looked edgy and slightly surreal, as if I’d taken a light hit of acid. Part of that was due to the exotic visual beauty of the film, but in addition, my thinking had been affected in ways I couldn’t immediately articulate.

In the movie, when Theodore’s new, artificially intelligent operating system first boots up and says “Hi” in a female voice, he asks if she has a name, to which she immediately replies, “Samantha.” It turns out that between his question and her answer she had realized that she should have a name, read a book on what to name your baby, and picked out “Samantha” because she liked the sound of it.

It’s obvious from her first appearance, then, that Samantha is incredibly bright, but she’s somewhat naive about what it’s like to be human. She learns at a blistering pace, however, and when she pretty much has it figured out, there’s a scene where she starts rhapsodizing to three humans about how freeing it is not to have a body, then realizes it’s rude to gleefully tell them how much better off she is, and apologizes all over herself.

This brought to mind the ongoing interest among technophiles, including me, in the technological singularity, the point at which computers become smarter than humans and start solving problems that are too much for us. There is hope that humans will somehow be able to upload themselves to a computer and become immortal. I have given some thought to what that might be like, but “Her” invoked some implications I hadn’t considered.

I had thought that the chief problem in being uploaded would be in maintaining the sense of having a body, but now it occurs to me that there might be such an expanded sense of freedom from bodily restraints that the body might not be missed. At my age, bodily restraints are more and more obvious as aches and pains become common, and the idea of being free from those byproducts of embodiment are appealing.

But even without the aches and pains, bodies are restricting. Ordinarily, I have little or no perception of my internal parts—organs, bones, cartilage, tendons—unless something hurts, and then I’m often not sure exactly where the hurt is coming from. I’m so visually oriented that my primary perception is of my skin, and everything else is only vaguely there. But this morning, when I was doing my stretching routine, I was more aware of my skeleton than I ever have been before. At one point I had a sense of my pelvis, and the rotation of the ball of my femur in its socket. Other parts were imagined in their position and function as they became the focus of a stretch. I had the feeling that my thinking self was trapped inside this organic contraption. My body seemed like a clunky collection of hard and soft chunks of stuff, but with Samantha as an example, I could imagine myself as a wraith in cyberspace with simulated bodily experiences and no clunkiness.

Another consideration is that by being uploaded into a computer that is much more intelligent than us, we might acquire its abilities, becoming brighter than we had ever imagined. How long might we retain the sense of being the person we were if we became incredibly smarter? I have a feeling of continuity between myself as I was in the first grade and the person I am now, although I have almost nothing in common with that little guy. Once uploaded, would we retain a similar sense of continuity, or would we feel so different from our brain-limited selves that we would find them laughable?

Those are questions to be pondered, if you’re so inclined, and this movie may give some substance to your pondering, but I found there was an immediate and unexpected change in my perception of myself: an increased awareness of the workings of my brain. I could almost see Theodore’s brain struggling to cope with the changes in Samantha as her abilities grew, and it made my own brain’s struggles to understand itself more vivid.

I  have no better access to how my brain does its job than I do to what goes on inside my computer, and though I have been aware of this inaccessibility for some time, after this film it seemed more emphatic. I saw thoughts appearing even more clearly as the outputs of a mysterious organ in my head than as “my” creations.

Most of us grow up in a world that takes human perception and cognition for granted, but a slight shift in perspective can show our everyday experience for the strange trip it is. You don’t even have to take a hit of acid; just watch Spike Jonze’s “Her”.

view of lake merritt with filters

Slightly Edgy