Tag Archives: Philosophy

Finite nature of human control and the Existential Givens

In one of the earlier posts we looked at the four existential givens and linked them to the ABCD model. I also related them to personality and emotions here.  To recap, the four existential givens,  are:

  1. Life (vs death): We all live, yet we also all know that one day we will die.
  2. Freedom (vs determinism): We are in charge of (some of) our actions, and yet we are also driven by outside forces.
  3. Community (vs isolation): Man is a social animal and yet one is alone in one’s personal private experiences.
  4. Meaning (vs absurdity): Life seems to be endowed with meaning (and worth living), yet the universe seems incomprehensible, apathetic and absurd.
Towel with the words "Don't Panic" o...

Towel with the words “Don’t Panic” on Towel day (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Not navigating the contradictions inherent in these existential givens successfully, leads to conflicts and gives rise to anxiety, depression, guilt and even rage. And yet we know that we can not transcend/overcome these ultimate concerns, but have to learn to live with them.

At root these problems are problems of control, especially the desire for control, while being limited by human capabilities and potentialities. At the one hand we are seriously limited and on the other hand we do have a great potential; and yet our control over these conditions of our life are not infinite, but very much finite and limited.

Let me explain. At core, these problems are respectively problems of control over our bodies, over self, over others and over our understanding of the world. To elaborate,

  1. Death/Life: We have finite control over our bodies and their lifespan. We can prolong life, but never get rid of the fact that one day we will die. We may try to symbolically live forever by making contributions to the world, but that too is ephemeral on the scale of historical time. We are confronted with the finite nature of our existence. And to resolve this, we have to come to terms with our non-being to fully appreciate and indulge in being! To live fully one must first confront death. Despite the fact of our eventual non-being we choose to be! and this is a non-trivial fact. As a matter of fact, Camus started ‘Myth of Sisyphus‘ with this quote: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”
  2. Determinism/Freedom: We have finite control over our own self and its actions. We can exercise free will to an extent, but never get rid of all the different form of conditioning, learning and genetic and other factors that drive our behavior. We are confronted with the finite nature of our agency. And to resolve this, we have to get in tune with our underlying genetics, upbringing etc, to become more self aware and thus more free/ effective. To exercise one’s will fully, one must first leverage and comprehend the outside influences. Can you choose your environment so that in future it elicits out your desired behavior? Despite the fact that all our actions are not under our conscious control, and are driven largely by unconscious (and possibly deterministic) processes, we persist in making our choices. As the famous interaction between Smith and Neo goes: “Smith: Why, Mr. Anderson? Why, why? Why do you do it? Why, why get up? Why keep fighting? …….Why, why do you persist Mr. Anderson?  Neo: because I choose to.”
  3. Isolation/Community: We have finite control over others and how deeply we can relate with them. We can feel connected to some people, at some times, but not to all people at all the times. We have a desire and a need to merge for the common good, expressed in the form of love, and yet an instinct to remain separate and alienated from others, especially when our love is not reciprocated. We are confronted with the finite nature of our vulnerability and ability to reach out. And to resolve this we have to come to terms with our separateness, by getting unhinged from the actions of others , but still putting our best foot forward, we can create positive relationships. To create truly powerful and positive relationships, one has to not think in terms of merging/ dependence/reciprocity,  but move to a space where one is a specific individual in intimate relation to another individual and caring about that individual. By discovering our individuality, we create stronger bonds! Despite the fact of our remaining separate individuals, we choose to love and work towards common /shared identities. Love and community and deep bonds is paradoxically about no bonds. As Richard Bach says: “If you love someone, set them free, if they come back, they’re yours, if they don’t, they never were
  4. Meaning/Absurdity: We have finite control over our knowledge of the world and of whether things make sense, and if so how? We can find correlations and causal relations between a few things in the world, but there are things that happen randomly, unpredictably or by pure luck/ chance. We have a burning need to make sense of things (after all this sense making makes us predict and thus survive), and yet our intellect also makes us acutely aware of the meaninglessness, randomness or absurdity of the things in the larger scheme of things. We feel special and unique and yet know that we are a mere speck in the universe. We are confronted with the finite nature of our ability to know and comprehend. And to resolve this, we have to come to terms with the absurdity of life/universe. Once we discover that life/ world around us may not have any inherent meaning, its left upon us to endow life with meaning and significance. Despite the fact that things don’t make sense, the fact that the world may be random/ insane, we still choose to be sane and consistent. As Douglas Adams mentions in ‘Hitchhikers guide to the galaxy‘ we need extreme amounts of sanity when confronted with absurdity of our position :” And so he built the Total Perspective Vortex — just to show her. And into one end he plugged the whole of reality as extrapolated from a piece of fairy cake, and into the other end he plugged his wife: so that when he turned it on she saw in one instant the whole infinity of creation and herself in relation to it. To Trin Tragula’s horror, the shock completely annihilated her brain; but to his satisfaction he realized that he had proved conclusively that if life is going to exist in a Universe of this size, then the one thing it cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion.”
English: 42, The Answer to the Ultimate Questi...

English: 42, The Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life according to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. ???????: 42, ????? ?? ??????? ?????? ????? ? ???????????? ?????????? ?? ?????????. Deutsch: 42, die Antwort auf die große Frage nach dem Leben, dem Universum und dem ganzen Rest, bezogen auf Per Anhalter durch die Galaxis von Douglas Adams. Italiano: 42, La risposta Fondamentale alla Domanda sulla Vita secondo la Guida galattica per gli autostoppisti. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the end I would like to end with two quotes: One from Camus: “It was previously a question of finding out whether or not life had to have a meaning to be lived. It now becomes clear on the contrary that it will be lived all the better if it has no meaning” and the other a popular anonymous quote: “Relax. nothing is under control.” 

It is only by coming to terms with our finite control, and the possible meaninglessness of it all, yet being driven by our potentialities, that we can hope to live a good life!

In brains we trust, or do we?

A fMRI scan showing regions of activation in o...

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Much has been written about the seductive allure of fMRI brain images accompanying research papers and giving them more credence than is deserved; similarly much has been written about the whole enterprise of fMRI based research that tries to find the neural correlates of X,Y,and Z, as if X/Y or Z being human/animal faculties could have a substrate other than neural.


In both of the above cases, while the neuro babble seemingly provides more authority to the underlying argument, it is not clear what value , if any , one gets by just identifying a brain area responsible for X/Y or Z.


Patricia Churchland‘s quest for roots of human/animal morality is similarly besieged by the allure of all things neural- it is to her credit that despite being a philosopher she gets the neuroscience part not just so-so right, but precise and accurate with all caveats included;  but what one is left at the end of reading ” Braintrust : what neuroscience tells us about morality” is the feeling that she could have spent more time bolstering her main point that morality arises from sociality rather than talking about oxytoctin or mirror neurons.


While she does treat mirror neuron hyped research with the contempt and dressing that it deserves by trying to explain more than is warranted; her own enthusiasm for Oxytocin as the magical trust molecule or the epitome of moral foundations, deserves similar treatment. Again it is to her credit that she does not shy away form discussing latest studies that have shown oxytocin in not so moral light as in when it is involved in out-group prejudice; but still the discussion of neurotransmitter or vasoprassin or mirror neurons detracts rather than amplifies her thesis that morality evolved from social living.

I am much sympathetic to her main argument that morality may have arrived as the care system became enlarged to cover self, kids, kith and kin, partners and finally strangers. That caring and sharing might be the roots of all goodness in the world was apparent even to miss universe like Sushmita Sen back in 1994, not an unremarkable achievement considering the latest miss America contestants views on evolution. But I digress. The thing is that Patricia should have spent more time on this and bridging the leap from social behavior to moral behavior by maybe using philosophical devices/arguments rather than just peppering her statements with neuroscientific jargon and assuming that that will settle the point.

Along the way she casually dismisses the important work that may support her position like that of Jonathon Haidt- she claims that morality is innate but seems reluctant to grant that it could also have a universal structure.

If you want to know the latest neuro research around sociality – go read this book; you will read all the proper studies with all caveats and without misrepresentations. However, if you were yearning for any philosophical insight into the nature of morality, how ‘is’ and ought’ are not necessarily the same and from where to derive the ‘oughts’ in life you might be in for a disappointment. At least I was.


ps: Disclosure of interest. : I received a free copy of Braintrust for review from Princeton university press.

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Six world hypotheses or how we explain eyerything and anything

I recently came across this blog post by Christopher Peterson and was immediately drawn into the work of Stephen Pepper and using Google books access tried to read as much as I could of his print-on-demand book ‘World Hypotheses‘.

It is a philosophical work of how people reason about their world and ‘carve nature at the joints’ but despite being a philosophical work and thus being dense and obtuse to a degree, it is surprisingly lucidly written and in my opinion is an important work that needs to be highlighted.

As per Pepper, we have four valid and mature world hypothesis that are adequate in scope (explain everything) and precision (explain uniquely and not vaguely) and two immature world hypothesis that fail the test of scope/precision in their adequacy. I do not make that distinction and will be treating all six world hypothesis on equal footing. For the record, the inadequate world hypothesis are animism and spiritualism.

A world hypothesis is a way to explain everything in the world and relies on root metaphors to explain thus. Each hypothesis has a pet root metaphor which is sued to illustrate and explain phenomenon or categories, and their relationships.

To met the six world hypothesis follow a stage pattern and it would be my contention that as one matures one may discard one world hypothesis lower down the ladder in favor of the other more developed and mature.

With that let us introduce the world hypothesis. Also taking the lead from Peterson, I’ll be taking an example of my neighbor playing loud music at 2:00 in the night to illustrate different ways of explaining the same event according to the different hypothesis and different root metaphors (and will be lifting from the Peterson article the examples he gave there).

The first hypothesis is that of Formism (realism/ platonic Idealism) i.e. everything is explainable because they belong to a particular category/ form and have characteristic qualities. The root metaphor is that of analogy or similarity. Formism explains in terms of placing whatever we are trying to explain into a category (form). Why did my neighbor play his music loudly at 2:00 AM? Because he is an a**hole!
This theory belongs to the first stage where one is more concerned with Describing things and concerned with traits.

The second hypothesis is that of Animism i.e. everything (even inanimate things like weather) has an underlying spirit that explains the way it behaves. The root metaphor is that of spirit and agency. Animism explains by associating everything we are trying to explain with an underlying spirit that has agency . Why did my neighbor play his music loudly at 2:00 AM? Because he was suddenly possessed by the Michael Jackson spirit!
This theory belongs to the second stage trying to Explain the phenomenon and concerned with impulses and agency.

The third hypothesis is that of Mechanism (most common amongst reductionist scientists) i.e. everything is a machine following laws of cause and effect. If something happens, it happens because of a well defined and unavoidable cause. The root metaphor is that of machine. Mechanism explains in terms of causes: events that regularly precede whatever we are trying to explain. Why did my neighbor play his music loudly at 2:00 AM? Because he passed all of his final exams and that is what people do when they pass exams!

This theory belongs to the third stage that tries to predict and is centered around observable behavior and causal chains.

The fourth hypothesis is that of Contextualism (pragmatism) i.e. everything can be explained in terms of the context or surround in which the figure/event takes place. this is most popular with historians who are used to see events as uniquely determined by the historical and cultural milieu. The root metaphor is that of a historic event. Contextualism explains in terms of the interplay between whatever we are trying to explain and its larger context. Why did my neighbor play his music loudly at 2:00 AM? Because it was Saturday night, and this is a college town!
This theory is properly of the fourth stage focused on how society / larger context can influence and control the phenomenon and is most concerned with social influences.

The fifth hypothesis is that of Organicism (absolute Idealism)i.e. everything is an organic complex whole. The theory is still determinate but as compared to Mechanism is ‘life’ oriented. The root metaphor is that of coherence. Facts are sparse at present and as they emerge and become more complex one reaches in the limits the absolute truth. Organicism explains in terms of the unfolding of the inherent nature of whatever we are trying to explain. Why did my neighbor play his music loudly at 2:00 AM? Because he is a young man who just moved into his own apartment!
the fifth theory is at the fifth stage concerned with integration/ individuation etc and is concerned with emergent properties.

The sixth hypothesis is that if Spiritualism i.e everything is not what it seems and can only be really grasped through the spiritual experience. The root metaphor is that of the spritual experience. All said and done, there is no substitute for experience. the metaphor is also that of Love and can be only felt inter-personally. Only Love is Real. Why did my neighbor play his music loudly at 2:00 AM? Because he loves music and felt at oneness with the world and forgot about time as he got absorbed in the music.
This is clearly a jump from previous stages and belongs to stage 6 dealing with transecdence and interpersonal concerns.

Of course there are bound to be higher (7 & 8) stage theories equally and perhaps better explain the world, and I woudl be glad if readers can point me to those world hypothesis, no matter how inadequate/mystic they may appear at first appearance.

I’m hooked to Pepper, what about you?

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Perry’s stages of intellectual and ethical devlopement

Personification of knowledge (Greek ????????, ...
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In one of the recent posts we saw that Averill believed that ethics or moral domain in psychology can be derived from focusing on emotions, will, motivation , ethics and virtue; while the mental domain in psychology and philosophy evolved by studies of epistemology. Today I wish to focus on one way of how we come to know i.e. a theory of epistemology and how a staged theory for the same has been proposed by Perry in a student education domain.

To quote from wikipedia:

The Perry scheme is a model for understanding how college students “come to know, the theories and beliefs they hold about knowing, and the manner in which such epistemological premises are a part of and an influence on the cognitive processes of thinking and reasoning”.

Perry has split his analysis of how college students “come to know” into nine position further grouped into 4 stages, but I will treat all of them as stages only and try to fit them in my eight stage model by trying to draw parallels with Selman’s role-taking or perspective taking stages. I’ll be using material extensively from Wikipedia and this page about Perry’s scheme.

  1. Stage 1: Dualism/Received Knowledge:There are right/wrong answers, engraved on Golden Tablets in the sky, known to Authorities.Basic Duality:All problems are solvable; Therefore, the student’s task is to learn the Right Solutions.The authorities know: e.g. “the tutor knows what is right and wrong”. Contrast this with the undifferentiated perspective of Selman, the first stage. In it “one attributes one’s or protagonist perspective to everyone else’s. One may have a concept of perspective or Theory-of-mind but may suffer from an inability to attribute any other perspective to anyone else distinct from one’s own”. The underlying theme in both the cases is that there is only one reality- one perspective-mine; one knowledge or right answer- my authority’s.
  2. stage 2: Full Dualism: Some Authorities (literature, philosophy) disagree; others (science, math) agree. Therefore, there are Right Solutions, but some teachers’ views of the Tablets are obscured. Therefore, student’s task is to learn the Right Solutions and ignore the others! The true authorities are right, the others are frauds “e.g my tutor knows what is right and wrong but others don’t”. Contrast this with second stage of Selman that of social-informational perspective taking: It is a stage “whereby one comes to realize that not only there exits a perspective, but that it can be different for different persons. Nevertheless, despite the realization that the perspectives can differ ( based on say the different information that each may have) the preponderant tendency is to consider one’s perspective as valid and by exchanging information attempts to make others perspective inline with one’s own.”. the underlying theme in both cases is that there is one reality, but there can be two views of it; my view or my authority’s view is , of course, the correct one.
  3. Satge 3: Multiplicity/Subjective Knowledge: There are conflicting answers;therefore, students must trust their “inner voices”, not external Authority.Early Multiplicity:There are 2 kinds of problems:those whose solutions we know and those whose solutions we don’t know yet (thus, a kind of dualism). Student’s task is to learn how to find the Right Solutions.There are some uncertainties and the authorities are working on them to find the truth “e.g my tutors don’t know, but somebody out there is trying to find out”. Contrast this with Selman;’s third stage that of self-reflective perspective taking. It “marks the first empathetic perspective taking whereby one sees, thinks and feels from other person’s perspectives using first person. This is literally stepping in someone else’s shoes and truly seeing as if the situation concerned oneself. This not just a logical realization that someone can have a different perspective but also realizing that that perspective can be equally valid given the other person’s unique situation. Thus one thinks and feels like the other person and can both suffer and enjoy the outcomes of situations as they unfold from the other person’s perspective. The emphasis is on understanding. And empathy.” The underlying theme here I believe is understanding that instead of just right and wrong answers / solutions, there are different approaches to solve the problems which are indeed solvable. Also the theme is to feel from inside the authority, to understand how authority is gained- and know how to find the answer rather than just what is the right answer. While the first two stages focused on what is the right answer, after realizing that there may not be a right answer, the focus changes to how to find the right answer. this is akin to finding that there is no one valkid perspective and thus changing focus to how one feels in other persons shoes and having his/her different perspective.
  4. stage 4: Late Multiplicity: Most problems are of the second kind(we don’t know solution yet); therefore, everyone has a right to their own opinion; or some problems are unsolvable; therefore, it doesn’t matter which (if any) solution you choose. Student’s task is to shoot the bull.(Most freshman are at this position, which is a kind of relativism)At this point, some students become alienated, and either retreat to an earlier (“safer”) position (“I think I’ll study math, not literature, because there are clear answers and not as much uncertainty”) or else escape (drop out) (“I can’t stand college; all they want is right answers” or else “I can’t stand college; no one gives you the right answers”.) (a)Everyone has right to their own opinion “e.g different tutors think different things” (b) The authorities don’t want the right answers. They want us to think in certain way “e.g there is an answer that the tutors want and we have to find it”. Contrast this with the fourth ‘third-party or bystander stage‘ . In it “one has decentred in the emotional/cognitive personal sense and can see a situation not only from first and second person perspectives of interacting parties, but also from that of a neutral bystander. This includes the ability to keep multiple perspectives in mind at the same time. One does not see from this perspective and then from the other – one looks at the entire big picture or view and understands that different people are having different perspectives.” The underlying theme is that of relativism and that there are as many solutions/perspectives and right answers as there are people involved. My tutor/authority doesn’t want the absolute right answer (as there are none) but a certain type of answer that he considers is right and neutral and thinks that the answer doesn’t necessarily stem and is embedded in his own perspective. Thus, the right answer, if any, is taken by consensus, and can be different form my own or my tutors own perspectives/ beliefs about the right solution.
  5. stage 5: Relativism/Procedural Knowledge: There are disciplinary reasoning methods: Connected knowledge: empathetic (why do you believe X?; what does this poem say to me?) vs. Separated knowledge: “objective analysis” (what techniques can I use to analyze this poem?) Contextual Relativism: All proposed solutions are supported by reasons; i.e., must be viewed in context & relative to support. Some solutions are better than others, depending on context. Student’s task is to learn to evaluate solutions. Everything is relative but not equally valid “e.g there are no right and wrong answers, it depends on the situation, but some answers might be better than others”. contrast this with Selman’s fifth stage that of societal perspective. In it “one realizes that the neutral third party perspective is not really neutral but influenced by the societal and cultural context in which the bystander lives and is reflective of those values. One realizes that one can have different neutral perspectives on a situation, each of which would be colored by the values that are dear to the social and cultural context in which the situation occurs and which dictate what a neutral perspective is. One may realize that some values are desirable and others are not and that the perspective that is informed by desirable values is more preferable.” the underlying theme in both cases is to move away from decontextualized value-free equality of all perspectives/ solutions to a contextual and value-laden evaluation of relatively better/ more valid perspectives/ answers given a particular context.
  6. The sixth stage: “Pre-Commitment“: Student sees the necessity of: making choices and committing to a solution. You have to make your own decisions “e.g what is important is not what the tutor thinks but what I think”. I had not delineated any stages of Selman beyond the fifth stage for the perspective taking, but if I have to venture it may be akin to choosing a particular value-laden way of looking at things irrespective of the given context. It would be akin to choosing your attitude to life no matter what you have been served. To paraphrase Victor Frankl , your own unique attitude/ perspective is one thing no one can take away from you. you can always choose how to see things , not objectively as per a some gold standard, but subjectively , but a subjectivity that is informed and grounded in a prior commitment. For eg., you can choose to be positive (have a positive attitude) and focus on the silver linings in the clouds. The underlying theme would be existential theme- that of creating your own meaning- your own perspective, your own right solution/ answer. Nothing is given. You are . The problems are. You have to construct and create your own answers and meaning. You are free and can exercise choice as to commit to a way of life, a perspective, a solution, an answer- something that leads to coherence for you and your life.
  7. Satge 7 : Commitment/Constructed Knowledge: Integration of knowledge learned from others with personal experience and reflection. Commitment: Student makes a commitment. Challenges to Commitment: Student experiences implications of commitment. Student explores issues of responsibility. First commitment “e.g for this particular topic I think that….”; Several Commitments “e.g for these topics I think that….”. I have collapsed stages 7 and 8 of Perry into one stage . The corresponding Selman’s stage would be measuring, aligning and integrating one’s chosen perspective with those of ones con-specifics and bringing things in harmony. The underlying theme I believe is on communicating with others regarding ones committed answers and either modifying ones perspective or trying to modify others perspectives/ solutions/answers as per one’s committed solution/ perspective/answer. On not only is and has chosen a right answer/perspective, one is also forced to convince others of the rightness of ones perspective and ones solution/answer. With great commitment, comes great responsibility.
  8. stage 8: “Post-Commitment”: Student realizes commitment is an ongoing, unfolding, evolving activity. Believe own values, respect others, be ready to learn “e.g I know what I believe in and what I think is valid, others may think differently and I’m prepared to reconsider my views”. stage 8 of Selman may have been a step away from proselytizing tone of seventh stage and more of (in)tolerance of equally strongly committed views by others. The ingroup/outgroup dynamic is at play and while some groups of people may adhere to our shared committed solutions/ beliefs/ perspectives; other groups may have other solutions/ beliefs/ perspectives and we can perhaps mutually agree to disagree at worst, if not to learn from the different committed views and enhance and deepen our view of reality, at best. The underlying theme being that of tolerance for others who ware equally committed to their view/ solution and may be correct in a way in their own right.

Phew! This post was a handful. Hope you like it and like my theorizing and dogged attempt to fit everything in a eight fold developmental model.

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Splitting the self : “me” and “I”:

The influential psychologist William James was...
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I came across this study article today by Farb et al, that talks about two distinct neural networks in the brain that are involved in self-reference. To be fair, the networks are somewhat blurred and overlap in naive people, while in people who practice mindfulness meditation, the networks are more distinct and non-overlapping. My interest was piqued as I am a keen follower of default-brain network , which has been implicated in self-referential thinking and this article seems to at one point argue that the narrative self viz ‘me’ is grounded in default brain network, while the experiencer ‘I” has some other nearby related areas as the neural substrates.

But first let us clarify what we mean by ‘me’ and ‘I’. For this I would like to quote form a Gallagher article:

Ever since William James (1890) provided a catalogue of different senses of the self, philosophers and psychologists have been hard at work refining and expanding the possible variations of this concept. Supplementing James’ inventory of physical self, mental self, spiritual self, and the ego, Neisser (1988), for example, suggested important distinctions between ecological, interpersonal, extended, private, and conceptual aspects of self. More recently, reviewing a contentious collection of essays from various disciplines, Strawson (1999) found an overabundance of delineations between cognitive, embodied, fictional, and narrative selves, among others. It would be impossible to review all of these diverse notions of self in this short paper, so I have focused on several recently developed approaches that promise the best exchange between philosophy of mind and the other cognitive sciences. Because these approaches move in divergent theoretical directions they should help to convey the breadth of philosophical analysis on this topic. They can be divided into two groups that are focused, respectively, on two important aspects of self.

A first approach involves various attempts to account for a ‘minimal’ sense of self. If we strip away all of the unessential features of self, the intuition is that there is a basic, immediate, or primitive something that we are still willing to call a self. This approach leaves aside questions about the degree to which the self is extended beyond the short-term or ‘specious’ present to include past thoughts and actions. Although identity over time is a major issue in the philosophical definition of personal identity, the concept of the minimal self is limited to that which is accessible to immediate and present self-consciousness. Non-philosophers have found that certain aspects of the minimal self are relevant to current research in robotics. Furthermore, aspects of the minimal self that involve senses of ownership and agency in the context of both motor action and cognition can be clarified by neurocognitive models (developed to explain pathologies such as schizophrenia) that suggest the involvement of specific brain systems (including prefrontal cortex, SMA, and cerebellum).

A second approach involves conceiving of the self in terms of narrative, a concept imported into the cognitive-science context by Dennett (1991) , but one which may have a more complex significance than indicated in Dennett’s account. The narrative self is extended in time to include memories of the past and intentions toward the future. It is what Neisser refers to as the extended self, and what Dennett calls a ‘nonminimal selfy’ self. Neuropsychological accounts of episodic memory or loss of memory can help to circumscribe the neurological underpinnings of the narrative self.

If you haven’t guessed by now, the minimal self is ‘I’: the doer , experiencer experiencing the immediate present; the narrative self is ‘me’ -an entity stretched in time and living as much in past and future as in the present. The study authors delineate the same as follows (note that they too start with William James reference):(* references removed)

Since William James’ early conceptualization, the ‘self ’ has been characterised as a source of permanence beneath the constantly shifting set of experiences that constitute conscious life. This permanence is often related to the construction of narratives that weave together the threads of temporally disparate experiences into a cohesive fabric. To account for this continuity, William James posited an explanatory ‘me’ to make sense of the ‘I’ acting in the present moment . Recently, progress has been made in characterizing the neural bases of the processes supporting William James’ ‘me’ in the form of ‘narrative’ self-reference , highlighting the role of the medial prefrontal cortices (mPFC) in supporting self awareness by linking subjective experiences across time . The mPFC has been shown to support an array of self-related capacities, including memory for self-traits , traits of similar others , reflected self-knowledge , and aspirations for the future . As such, cortical midline processes may be characterised as supporting narrative self-reference that maintains continuity of identity across time .

Narrative self-reference stands in stark contrast to the immediate, agentic ‘I’ supporting the notion of momentary experience as an expression of selfhood. Most examinations of self-reference ignore mechanisms of momentary consciousness, which may represent core aspects of self-experience achieved earlier in development and may have evolved in earlier animal species. Indeed, little is known about whether the neural substrates underlying momentary self-reference are one and the same, or distinct from, cortical midline structures supporting narrative experience. One hypothesis suggests that awareness of momentary self-reference is neurally distinct from narrative self-reference and is derived from neural markers of transient body states, in particular, right lateralised exteroceptive somatic and interoceptive insular cortices. In the present study, we examined this thesis.

In short using fMRI, they tried to find the different hypothesized neural networks underlying the two senses of self and did find evidence for clear segregation in those practicing mindfulness meditation. Their methodology however, is not fool proof and this they themselves note in their conclusions. Here are their findings:

Consistent with a theory of self-reference as mentalising, linguistically mediated and of higher order executive origin , participants engaged midline prefrontal cortices and a left lateralised linguistic-semantic network (inferior lateral PFC, middle temporal and angular gyri) during NF (narrative focus: ‘me’ condition). Demonstrating a default bias towards NF as previously revealed in ‘resting’ mind wandering states , relatively restricted reductions in the cortical midline network were found when attention was explicitly directed towards a moment-to-moment EF (experiential focus: ‘I’ condition) in novice participants with little training in this form of self-reflection. These individuals revealed increased left lateralised prefrontal-parietal activations during EF likely reflecting greater task-related linguistic processing that has been shown to be associated with decreased medial prefrontal recruitment .


So what they found was that a part of default network was engaged in ‘me’ condition; while task-related areas were recruited in “I” condition and appropriate task-related suppression of some part of default network observed. This effect was with naive subjects, but with those trained in mindfulness meditation, they observed a sort of double dissociation:

Following an intensive 8 week course in mindfulness meditation, during which individuals learn to develop the capacity to monitor moment-to-moment experience, EF resulted in a pronounced shift away from midline cortices towards a right lateralised network comprised of the ventral and dorsolateral PFC, as well as right insula, SII and inferior parietal lobule. Consistent with a dual-mode hypothesis of self-awareness, these results suggest a fundamental neural dissociation in modes of self-representation that support distinct, but habitually integrated, aspects of self-reference: (i) higher order self-reference characterised by neural processes supporting awareness of a self that extends across time and (ii) more basic momentary self-reference characterised by neural changes supporting awareness of the psychological present. The latter, represented by evolutionary older neural regions, may represent a return to the neural origins of identity, in which self-awareness in each moment arises from the integration of basic interoceptive and exteroceptive bodily sensory processes. In contrast, the narrative mode of self-reference may represent an overlearned mode of information processing that has become automatic through practice, consistent with established findings on training-induced automaticity.

To me this sounds interesting: If I had to stretch my neck and relate this to autism and schizophrenia , I would say that based on earlier coverage on this blog: Schizophrenics have a higher default brain activity and perhaps try to spin too much of a narrative. Perhaps they are the ones that would best benefit with mindfulness meditation trainings to calm their default ‘me’ and activate the ‘I’ also at relevant times. On the opposite side, one is all too aware of the here-and-now feeling of self that many autistics have- a direct and immediate perceptual relation with world. Perhaps, they too can benefit from some for of mindfulness meditation by learning to use the default brain network too at times – letting teh mind wander and spinning a tale (however fictional) about themselves.

Farb, N., Segal, Z., Mayberg, H., Bean, J., McKeon, D., Fatima, Z., & Anderson, A. (2007). Attending to the present: mindfulness meditation reveals distinct neural modes of self-reference Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2 (4), 313-322 DOI: 10.1093/scan/nsm030
Gallagher, S. (2000). Philosophical conceptions of the self: implications for cognitive science Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 4 (1), 14-21 DOI: 10.1016/S1364-6613(99)01417-5

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