“I” - Take 2
"Oh, hell." - said with the same intonation as Peter Sellers in his role as Group Captain Mandrake in Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. I seem to have started an unintended debate with my "filler thought of the moment," entered to pad out the free screen cleaner and Internet certificate jokes. That doesn't mean I don't believe my view to be true, or at least possible, but it does mean that I didn't explain my thoughts in enough detail to answer all possible questions. Just the fact that the APA has whole Divisions devoted to Cognitive and Self psychological approaches would indicate I might possibly not have gotten it all stated in two paragraphs and a haiku.
Try this little experiment. Simply sit quietly, close your eyes, and think about something that is personally related to your self. (e.g. “I am feeling well;” or “I think I wrote that last haiku badly;” or even “I am lonely.” The thought should not be solving a quadratic equation or concentrating on making up your grocery shopping list.) When you think about “I",” where does the thought seem to originate, be, reside, come from, etc.? Under such circumstances, for me, it feels as though “I” am located inside my skull, centered somewhere in the frontal or prefrontal cortex of my brain. Under other circumstances, I might not even be aware of being an “I.”
As I wrote in the last post, “I” varies. I become much less aware of being an “I” if I am concentrating my attention elsewhere. In a previous post I wrote of slipping and falling while carrying old magazines to be recycled. While I now write of this, I remain partially aware of being an “I.” When the incident was occurring, however, I was much more aware of my abrupt change in physical orientation and my attention was concentrated on the pain from my back and buttocks. “I” can fade into the background when more urgent circumstances require. Skilled tasks require concentration. So do emergencies, non-habitual tasks, reading a book, watching a movie, and so on. “I” still exist, but I am not concentrating my attention upon myself. I may be much more aware of “I” if I am doing specific types of meditation, or I may temporarily lose “I” entirely if I develop orthostatic hypotension (very low blood pressure) from standing up quickly after sitting or lying in the same position for an extended period. An insufficient blood supply reaches the brain and “I” go away to somewhere in la-la land because I just fainted. That also implies the answer to another question that was raised. All the other necessary brain and body systems and functions must be working properly for “I” to exist. Note that I said “necessary” back there. An amputated left great toe is unlikely to prevent an “I” from existing and functioning quite nicely, but a condition such as a dementia, severe organic brain damage, or a diabetic coma surely could. Self, consciousness, and sentience are really miracles as they all depend upon so many other extremely complex, but smaller and lower level systems to be working properly. For that matter, if one studies the anatomy, physiology, innervation, and functional processes involved, it is nothing short of amazing that we can pee when we need to.
Can there be more than one “I” in a single person? The literature on, and my experience with, Multiple Personality Disorder and other related syndromes certainly seem to bear that out. I’ve seen no studies specifically on this question, but I would have to ask where the ascendant personality perceives itself to be? My guess would be that it would view itself in the same manner as any individual, though it “shares the same brain” with the person’s other personalities. Another example might be that of dreaming. I often experience the REM phenomenon as if “I” am truly engaged and participating in the perceived activities, while retaining the ability to differentiate between the two states of consciousness when I wake. Along that same line of thought, can the “I” be in, or move to, different places? That’s a much tougher question for me to answer. Out-of-body or near death experiences may give us a clue, as may astral projection or the equivalent. To answer any of them affirmatively presupposes that an “I” can exist without the support system of an accompanying physical body. That, in turn, raises questions in higher levels of explanation such as philosophy, metaphysics, theology, spirituality, and others. (Is the soul or spirit separate from the physical body?) I don’t know. I have hopes, but not knowledge. The only example that comes to mind of his sort of projection from a personal experience is from a time when I was very good (really) at flying RC sailplanes. I could occasionally “be” (or be at one with) the flying model, unaware of self and somehow perceiving my self as if I were feeling and reacting to air currents, changes in altitude, turbulence, and the like. My own explanation of this phenomenon runs more toward shutting out all competing stimuli and a near total concentration on the model, to the point that I was unaware of even the Radio Control transmitter in my hands. So “I” stayed in me, but I was unaware of “self” and able to reach a Zen-like (Jedi? Matrix?) state of concentration on the model.
The awareness of self waxes and wanes. This would likely be a relatively linear function of the degree of necessity to concentrate or focus upon a task requiring active thought or an event so compelling that it demands our complete attention. Think of examples such as defending one’s Ph.D. dissertation to the examining committee, or suffering a panic attack (not that the two are at all incompatible.)
Some animals, I believe, must possess an sense of “I.” The level on the spectrum of evolution at which the animal is classified quite likely corresponds with the amount of “I” that is present. The more evolved the animal, the more wrinkles (OK, sulci) in the neocortex and the larger the frontal and prefrontal areas of their brain. They most certainly have differing abilities, brain mechanisms, physical development, and behavioral possibilities, but I believe many of the higher level, sentient beings are self-aware. I doubt that Bittle or Stinky are aware of the state of the economy or of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, but from outward appearances, they possess a sense of self equal to, or greater than, my own.
Sigh. Now “I” am thinkin’ my brain hurts. I hope that this somewhat addressed the questions and ideas posed.
Copyright © 2008, Thomas A. Blood, Ph.D.
“Madness is rare in individuals - but in groups, political parties, nations, and eras it's the rule.” - Friedrich Nietzsche