"You" might not be as real as you think you are. Here's what Buddhism has to say about living ego-free, and how Freud misunderstood it.
You first develop your ego when you are two or three years old. It creeps into existence the moment you realize that you are not empty—you are a self, and everyone else has a self in them. As you grow up, it latches onto positive and negative feedback and uses them to build the story of who you are. "The ego likes certainty, it likes security, it likes repetition, and so it’s always reinforcing its own vision of itself, and that starts to restrict us, to confine us, to make us think that we know ourselves better than we actually do," says psychiatrist Mark Epstein. So what to make of the Buddhist concept of 'egolessness'? Should we destroy the ego? Freud seemed to think that's what Buddhists meant, but as Mark Epstein explains, the famous psychoanalyst got it wrong. The full nuance of 'egolessness' is not to be completely without ego, but to doubt the story that it tells you. "For many people [the ego] stays in a kind of immature place," he says. Your ego has been your constant companion throughout life, but was there some point at which it stopped growing? "Maybe some of those fixed ideas that have been operating inside of you since you were a little kid and conditioning the way you interact with other people, with the world, maybe those are not all so right. Maybe you’re not as "really real" as you think you are, and you could start to let go of some of that a little bit." Mark Epstein is the author of Advice Not Given: A Guide to Getting Over Yourself.
Reality is whatever your body believes. Virtual reality knows how to hack that.
"The line between what it means to be dreaming and what it means to be awake is going to become very interesting," says Jordan Greenhall, CEO of Neurohacker. Virtual reality is perhaps the easiest way to conceive of that concept right now, but it's just one piece in a much larger body of accelerated technology on the horizon. Our sense of reality, how our self fits into our perception of the world, can be easily shaken through sensory input manipulation—and in very low-tech and low-quality ways. So image what a sophisticated approach will bring. VR and its relatives will be able to hack our mind in ways we will be helpless to resist—dream up an object and one day it might be 3D printed in quasi-real-time, straight from your imagination. Of course, there are enormous ethical implications. If we think social media encroaches on our lives now, we are not prepared for a future in which dreaming and waking look eerily similar. How will it change election campaigns, personal relationships, will you responsible for your own addictions and behaviors in this future? How will we establish the first rules of consent—hopefully not the hard way. VR will disrupt our very deepest construct: how we see and react to reality. If we are thoughtful about design and ethics, Greenhall hopes this radically upgrade our potential, rather than downgrade how we relate to one another.
AI is short for more than just 'Artificial Intelligence'. At this crucial stage in its design, we have to decide whether we want it to merely serve us, or to challenge and augment our many selves.
What if AI stood for 'Augmented Introspection' as well as 'Artificial Intelligence'? We've been given a precious do-over opportunity in this emergent time of AI technology, where we can choose to re-design our cities and our selves to align more closely with what we want those things to be. So -- what do we want it to be? Michael Schrage, MIT research fellow and innovation leader, thinks we need to push past the base-level notion of AI servants and assistants. What individuals need to succeed economically and personally are digital tools that can augment (or suppress) our selves — that's right, plural. Schrage's vision of AI is informed by theories of mind developed by cognitive scientists and behavioral economists like Daniel Kahneman, Marvin Minsky, Robert Kurzban and Jonathan Haidt. "According to empirical scientific research, there's no such thing as 'the self'. In fact the metaphor that many people use is that your mind is like a committee, and that depending upon time of day and your mood... One self or aspect of the self may dominate over another," says Schrage. So what aspect of yourself do you most want to enhance and what aspect of yourself do you want to mitigate? AI will help you do that. It will not, however, be a passive pushover that bends to your flaws: great AI, says Schrage, will "kick your assumptions in the groin." Take the example of an online book recommender. A truly intelligent and introspective tool will not just show you books that echo what you've read in the past, it will suggest books that are completely outside of your wheelhouse. It will not simply serve you, it will stretch your thinking. Michael Schrage's most recent book is The Innovator's Hypothesis: How Cheap Experiments Are Worth More Than Good Ideas.
People in the East and West really do think differently, especially when it comes to self-identity. Depending where you live, it's either associative or distinctive thinking that shapes your sense of self.
You can learn a lot about yourself by looking through the lens of a different worldview. Gish Jen presents that awareness here by comparing notions of self-identity in the Eastern world and in the West. Having grown up with a foot in each culture, she’s in the ideal position to show the differences in how the self operates in America and Asia—without prescribing the idea that one system is better than the other. In her analysis, Westerners have a "pit-self", like an avocado, where our center is this unique individual self that must be expressed in every choice we make. We are always trying to differentiate ourselves from others, it’s central to every choice we make. Easterners are undoubtedly all individuals, but they ascribe to a "flexi-self" which is more interdependent, and focused on their place within a community or family. It’s more about duty, than rights. The differences are fascinating and, if you’re a westerner, it might drag into the spotlight the interesting ways in which you assert your individuality. Gish Jen's most recent book is The Girl at the Baggage Claim: Explaining the East-West Culture Gap.