Welcome to the Council of Selves


A council of selves. Saul landell/Mex/Moment/Getty

If you're a long-time Stuff to Blow Your Mind listener, then you've probably noticed a recurring theme on our journey: the damnably elusive self. Humans have a knack for spinning their own stories around the swelling mass of their own egos. It makes up the chorus of our brain's default mode network and we've crafted countless religious world views to solidify and immortalize the "self" we supposedly are.

Within the Brain

Yes, as we frequently explore, the congruent you is hard to come by. In our upcoming episode on brain-to-brain communication, Joe and I discuss the speculative possibility of two minds converging to operate as one via neural connection.

(Eric Anthony Johnson/Photolibrary/Getty)

Just who would this new mind state be? Would they have a right to personhood, legal responsibility, etc? As far-fetched as that sounds, we don't need to join brains and jump forward through time to consider such a possibility.

As Peter Watts points out in his Aeon piece "Hive Consciousness," the person you think you are is already a convergence of halves: two cerebral hemispheres connected by the corpus callosum. Cleave these hemispheres apart and they swiftly take on their own personalities -- a divergence observed in the case of hemisphere-splitting surgeries to address severe epilepsy, as well as deliberate hemisphere anesthetization (put one half to sleep, and the other half rules the skull). Neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran even gave an account of a split-brain patient with a Christian hemisphere and an atheist hemisphere in a presentation at the 2006 Beyond Belief Conference.

Who is the left-hemisphere you? Who is the right? And how to we incorporate these selves into our self-image?

Within the Mind

Naturally, we must also consider the changing nature of an individual over time. Each of us is a daisy chain of selves spanning the decades -- a vast millipede in which each segment is a different incarnation of the self, emerging from the last and transcending into the next. But even in the now, we're a cat's cradle of beliefs.

Shri Krishna
Tarun Chopra/Getty

You might see yourself as a liberal quasi-Buddhist with a taste for alternative hip-hop, but what happens when you feel threatened? Chances are, you fall back on more conservative views -- perhaps your conservative Baptist upbringing and love for Bob Seger [source: Weinstein].

It's not just a matter of waffling back and forth, either. As Alice K. Turner points out in "The History of Hell," the average person may hold several conflicting ideas about the afterlife at the same time. We're talking such divergent models as physical resurrection, annihilation of the soul, haunting spirits and picture-book entry into a cloud-choked Heaven. It's all bundled together in a single, illogical knot.

I try to think about all these factors -- all these selves -- when taking inventory of my own mind state. I should probably work harder to do the same in contemplating other people too. There is no congruent me or you. There is only a council of selves: a mob of differing world views, values and personality traits that slumber, rage and merge to form who we are at any given moment.


About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.