Who do you think you are?

phrenology head

There’s a compelling article in Atlantic on the theory that the self is not unitary but a composite of multiple selves. The article should be of interest to all Buddhists or meditators, and is a modern equivalent of the teaching of anatta (lack of unitary, unchanging, enduring selfhood).

The article, “First Person Plural,” is written by Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology at Yale University and the author of Descartes’ Baby: How the Science of Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human. He’s writing a book on the theme of pleasure, and I imagine it’ll be well-worth reading.

His article shows that the self is not a single entity but a multiplicity:

Many researchers now believe, to varying degrees, that each of us is a community of competing selves, with the happiness of one often causing the misery of another. This theory might explain certain puzzles of everyday life, such as why addictions and compulsions are so hard to shake off, and why we insist on spending so much of our lives in worlds­—like TV shows and novels and virtual-reality experiences—that don’t actually exist. And it provides a useful framework for thinking about the increasingly popular position that people would be better off if governments and businesses helped them inhibit certain gut feelings and emotional reactions.

He explores each of these areas in turn. He outlines competing views of the self and presents his own view, which

is conservative in that it accepts that brains give rise to selves that last over time, plan for the future, and so on. But it is radical in that it gives up the idea that there is just one self per head. The idea is that instead, within each brain, different selves are continually popping in and out of existence. They have different desires, and they fight for control—bargaining with, deceiving, and plotting against one another.

He explains how competing inner selves result in the kind of conflict where, for example, one self wants to lose weight and the other wants to enjoy pizza, comparing this to research on what used to be called multiple-personality disorder (now dissociative-identity disorder).

There’s some though-provoking hilarity here:

One woman got a settlement of more than $2 million after alleging that her psychotherapist had used suggestive memory “recovery” techniques to convince her that she had more than 120 personalities, including children, angels, and a duck.

And further humor where he talks about imaginary friends (we all have them — who doesn’t have “conversations” in their own head?):

The writer Adam Gopnik wrote about his young daughter’s imaginary companion, Charlie Ravioli, a hip New Yorker whose defining quality was that he was always too busy to play with her.

The practical implications of this theory are worked out in terms of “binding,” which is where one self, anticipating the arrival of another, limits that others’ actions — for example the self that wants to give up smoking may tell friends not to give them a cigarette, no matter how much they may plead. And he discusses the role of binding in politics and society:

The natural extension of this type of self-binding is what the economist Richard Thaler and the legal scholar Cass Sunstein describe as “libertarian paternalism“—a movement to engineer situations so that people retain their choices (the libertarian part), but in such a way that these choices are biased to favor people’s better selves (the paternalism part). For instance, many people fail to save enough money for the future; they find it too confusing or onerous to choose a retirement plan. Thaler and Sunstein suggest that the default be switched so that employees would automatically be enrolled in a savings plan, and would have to take action to opt out.

Lastly he discusses the fact that it’s simplistic to think that the long-term self is always right. Here’s an extreme example:

Many cruel acts are perpetrated by people who can’t or don’t control their short-term impulses or who act in certain ways—such as getting drunk—that lead to a dampening of the contemplative self. But evil acts are also committed by smart people who adopt carefully thought-out belief systems that allow them to ignore their more morally astute gut feelings. Many slave owners were rational men who used their intelligence to defend slavery, arguing that the institution was in the best interests of those who were enslaved, and that it was grounded in scripture: Africans were the descendants of Ham, condemned by God to be “servants unto servants.”

There are two elements that I think could be added to his overall discussion.

First is that one method of self-binding is to adopt an ethical perspective and an ethical code. An ethical perspective is the notion that ethics makes sense and is beneficial to one’s long-term happiness — that neither short-term whim (one of those many selves) nor the uneducated “long-term self” (although he never quite defines what that is) is able to act in one’s best interests. It’s recognizing that the whole self exists in a larger reality and that it must function appropriately in that context in order to be happy. From a Buddhist point of view (as seen in the Mahacattarisaka Sutta) this corresponds to the Right View that there are ethical consequences to our actions.

An ethical code is a working out of that perspective in terms of guidelines for behavior: for example the five or ten precepts that provide an “objective” reference point to turn to when competing selves may drive us to act in a say that’s against our long-term happiness. When we find ourselves about to blurt out something hurtful, say, we can note that this goes against our ethical code, pause, and find a more skillful way to express ourselves — one that takes into account other needs, such as the need to be in harmony with others. We end up with more of our needs met when we act this way — both the need to express our reservations about something and the need to have harmonious relationships.

The slave owners he points to of course had a “carefully thought-out belief system” which amounted to a moral code — but it wasn’t cohesive or self-consistent. A belief system that includes “do unto others as you would have them do unto yourself” and “love your neighbor as yourself” doesn’t sit easily with the notion of treating other humans as chattels, and the definition of Africans as “not human” isn’t sustainable. So not any moral code would do — we have to have a moral code that’s based on reality and that’s self-consistent. We have to have one that’s capable of producing a unitary self.

The second thing that I think is missing is a discussion of meditation, and how it can help us develop a unitary self. [In a separate interview, Bloom comments: "The story of meditative exercises and what they do to your multiplicity of Self is really fascinating. There’s been a lot of interesting research on the subject, although it’s not something I know anything about."]

In the practice I was doing this morning, the Mindfulness of Breathing, the aim is simply to keep coming back to the breath. Basically, I’m working on developing and strengthening the “self” that observes, long-term, what’s going on in my awareness. Other selves make themselves known by creating thoughts, emotions, and fantasies that project into awareness, and demand attention. The self I’m working on strengthening notices those experiences arising but lets them quietly settle down. It’s kind and observant. Sometimes a particular thought or feeling will be recurrent, and the meditating self may decide to pay attention to what’s going on. For example, a pleasurable fantasy might keep arising. The meditating self realizes that this is expressive of a need for pleasure that’s not currently being met, and takes action to bring more pleasure into awareness, for example by relaxing, by paying more attention to pleasurable sensations in the body, and by developing a more kindly attitude.

Over time the “distractions” — the other selves — simply manifest in awareness less and less. We become more concentrated and happy, The meditating self becomes more complete and sufficient, able to take care of the underlying needs of the multiple selves for prolonged periods of time without needing to suppress those selves. This is what we call samatha or “calm abiding” meditation.

In vipassana meditation — which is complementary to, rather than opposed to samatha meditation — we observe different “selves” arising and passing away, in the form of stray thoughts, fantasies, and emotions. We can develop equanimity as we watch these arise and pass, and realize that none of them is ultimately “us.” If they’re just passing through “us” — as clouds pass through a clear sky — how can they be part of “us”? Which leaves the question of what, ultimately, we are.

From a Theravadin perspective we are nothing more than this collection of selves, but from certain Mahayana perspectives “we” are awareness itself — the space that contains these multiple selves. I suspect that philosophically the Theravadin perspective is correct, but I prefer the Mahayana approach as a working model. I think it’s going to be a long time before that model becomes any kind of real spiritual hindrance.


One Response to “Who do you think you are?”

  1. [...] I’ve written about this before, and suggested that ethics can help us develop more of a unitary self: For example the five or ten precepts … provide an “objective” reference point to turn to when competing selves may drive us to act in a way that’s against our long-term happiness. When we find ourselves about to blurt out something hurtful, say, we can note that this goes against our ethical code, pause, and find a more skillful way to express ourselves — one that takes into account other needs, such as the need to be in harmony with others. We end up with more of our needs met when we act this way — both the need to express our reservations about something and the need to have harmonious relationships. [...]


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Published: Nov 13 2008