Myself – My Self – Who?

All my life, I’ve been fascinated by the mystery we call “self”. Who is that person within my body who sits now in front of this computer and formulates this text? And why does this “me” feel so helpless in my own life? Why do I often feel that my life is in control of me instead of the other way around?

Of course, I’m not the first person to ask these questions. Psychologists and, in the recent years, neuro-scientists did the same and on a much more professional level. Freud explained this paradox with the Ego, super-ego and the id. Today, we can watch ourselves think and Benjamin Libet did. In very compact form, he found that the decision to do something is already made the time we (our “self”) makes the decision (If you strongly object to this because it feels obscene, please read up on this elsewhere. It’s true and it makes sense, however disturbing this may sound when you hear this for the first time).

So there is no free will? I can go around and kill anyone and say: “Oh, that wasn’t me, that was my unconscious!”? Not at all! All I’m saying is that there is no free will right now. Let me give you some examples. Yesterday, I played with my cat. He was on the carpet and I was dangling the toy on the fringe of the carpet. He desperately wanted the toy and wriggled his muscles into the perfect position for the pounce but there was a threat: Beyond the carpet is a slippery floor on which he can’t maintain his grip.

What happened was that he pounced and then immediately braked with all four paws to stop on the fringe of the carpet even if that reduced his chances to catch the toy. Obviously, he had noticed the danger and made a decision how to avoid it.


On a more complex scale, there is an experiment with monkeys and an upside-down u-shape. In the middle of the upper horizontal part of that u-shape is an apple and the monkey wants it. There is a cut in the u-shape, so it can prod the apple with a stick and move it in either direction. Unfortunately for the ape, one of the openings of the u-shape is closed with a mesh.

When conducting the experiment, the scientists found three types of apes. One type would move the apple into the “right” direction, it would fall out on the ground and they would eat it. The second type would move the apple into the “wrong” direction where it would fall onto the mesh. After a lot of effort, they would bring it up again and out of the other end.

The really interesting type is the third. They would move the apple into the wrong direction at first and, just before it would fall down the tube onto the mesh, they would stop. Next, they would start to move the apple into the other direction. Why?

The explanation is that these monkeys probably have created an internal representation of what will happen if they move the apple further, decided that this might not be so cool and changed their strategy. Just like the cat, they thought ahead. My theory is that my “self” is this “thinking ahead” thingy. Obviously, this is a very important part. Is it safe to cross the street, now, or will that car hit me? Maybe it will stop in time? Or is it too fast? Has the driver seen me? How about the car behind it?

If that part is so important, why is the decision made elsewhere?

Because it takes too much time. Making a decision takes time. If your life is at risk (and even today, it is at risk all the time), you don’t want to waste time pondering all the possibilities. So, from a safety standpoint, it makes sense to cut some corners to be able to move those physical muscles while Mr. Brain still wonders what might be going on.

Of course, Mr. Brain would be genuinely unhappy if it felt that someone else is making all the important decisions while it, obviously so much more smart and important, still is working to assess the situation. Therefore, the decision making part of ourselves cleverly pulls some strings to create the illusion “Oh, you and you alone made that decision. Don’t worry, everything is alright. Oh, look at that … is that dangerous?”

From an evolutionary point of view, it makes less and less sense to allow a big and complicated brain to make decisions at short notice. It will reduce your chances of survival, slow you down to a crawl. Just imagine how you would walk if you had to move every muscle consciously. Try it and you’ll be even more disappointed. There are martial artists who can touch you before you notice that they even moved. That kind of speed is impossible with a human brain.

Things change considerably when we look at the long term. Looking at cats and monkeys, they don’t seem to plan ahead at all. The cat doesn’t think about the dangers outside when you leave a door open. All it will see is a new opening which it hasn’t explored yet and it will dash for it. Monkeys don’t build shelters. They do use tools but there is a distinct limit how far they can look ahead. Not so with us humans. We can look ahead as far as we want (or at least we believe we can). We can plan for days, weeks, months, years, decades, centuries. We can plan and build big cities and they don’t fall apart with the first woodpecker.

For example, building the famous World Trade Center took seven years (1966-73) or even twelve years (1961-73) if you start with when the initial plans were made public. The dream of building it started even before that.

My favorite story is the roof of New College, Oxford. When the large oak beams of the roof in the New College in Oxford were yielding to the teeth of time, the owners of the place were at a loss how to replace them. Can you imagine the price of oak beams spanning a great hall? They considered replacing them with steel but that was also way beyond their budget. By chance, one of the foresters of the college heard about this and mentioned that, 500 years ago, the builders of the place had planted oak trees just for this occasion. So in the end, they got the new roof for free. Of course, this is just an urban myth but a nice one. The cynical version adds that they sold the forest for profit afterwards without regard for what will happen in 500 years from now.

So, while someone might not be responsible for killing a guy in that brawl last night, he is fully responsible for getting into that brawl in the first place. His self is fully capable of looking that far into the future and preparing to avoid such a situation, for example by not drowning his ability to plan ahead in alcohol, by looking for a nicer place to get drunk or by just walking away when that guy started to make trouble.

“The avalanche has already started. It is too late for the pebbles to vote.” – Kosh, Babylon 5

That is why understanding how our own brain works is so important: In the heat of the moment, the conscious part (the “I”) of ourselves has no chance to vote anymore, so it must make the decisions before that moment. This will influence the options our unconscious has when it must move in an instant.

Because it does listen to us but only when it can afford the time. That is why we can change our lives and why it always takes so long.

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