What is the ‘self’? The 3 layers of your identity.

Answering the question of who you are is not an easy task. Let's unpack what culture, philosophy, and neuroscience have to say.

GISH JEN: In the West, we feel that we must differentiate ourselves from others, endlessly. We have a model of self where the self is kind of like an avocado. We have a pit inside of us. The pit is our self, our essence, our identity. It is the thing to which we must above all be true. And of course, very importantly, we see that pit as unique. So that everything we do we want to show, to reflect that pit, to reflect that self. And we want it to be unique. In Asia, people frequently have a flexi-self, so it's a different kind of self. It is a self that's oriented more to duty than to rights, for instance. And very importantly, it is not, it does not have a cultural mandate to be different and to be unique. So if you ask, are they individuals? Of course they're individuals. Are they different? Of course they are different. But of course, for them, it's like, well of course I'm different, why would I make a big deal of that, right?

The difference is, how much significance do we attach to that difference? In other words, do we think it's very important to differentiate ourselves from others? So one of the ways that we do that, of course, is through choice. Choice in the West is very, very important. Everyone is always making choices. And honestly, a lot of those choices make us a little anxious. If you do a study where you are just sitting in an empty room, and you're making a choice, and you come from a more individualistic culture, you actually show signs of a little anxiety. Every little choice that you make, even in private, because it's defining of who you are, is a little loaded. They feel like, they just choose. When they make those choices it doesn't have this overlay. And that's one of the reasons they feel that actually we are less free than they are. So they think that we are the ones who are kind of in this prison where, like I say, every moment we must define ourselves. Well, isn't that awful? And of course the way that we live, we feel that, we want to be freely electing to live the way that we live. And so even when we're doing things like taking care of the elderly, for example, we want to feel that it's an extension of our great love, and the nature of our being to be able to take care of the elderly. Well, the other day I was having dinner with somebody who said, I just don't feel that. And it's just very, very hard. So somebody from a more flexi-self, or interdependent culture, would say, it's just your duty. And so for them, it's like, they help their elderly parent. They just go take care of the elderly parent because that's their duty. For them, this is really liberating. You just go do it and you don't expect it to be an expression of yourself. It's just what people do. From their point of view, we have made things very, very hard for ourselves to demand that everything should be an expression of our inner nature.

MICHAEL PUETT: We often like to think that the way to become a good person is to look within, find one's true self, the sort of natural self that we have. And once you've found that self, that natural thing that you are, the goal is to be sincere and authentic to that true self. So if we stick to what we naturally are meant to be, the gifts that we're naturally endowed with, that's how we can be a sincere, authentic person. Now, a lot of our Chinese philosophers would say, that sounds good, but is on the contrary extremely restraining—and constraining—to what we could do. The fact is, if we're messy creatures, as many of them would say, what we perhaps are in our daily lives are simply people whose emotions are being pulled out all the time, by people we encounter, interactions we have. And over time, those responses fall into kind of ruts and patterns that can just be repeated endlessly.

So someone does something, it makes me angry, and not even because of what they immediately did, but because for some reason it brings back say, someone from my childhood yelling at me. And I just have a patterned response to a certain action, being done in a certain way, by anyone, that brings out a certain response. So if they're onto something in this, and I might add lots of psychological experiments show that they really are, then what that means if you try to look within and find your true self, this thing you think you naturally are, what you're probably finding are just a bunch of patterns you've fallen into. Many of which could potentially be dangerous, for you, for those around you. And if that's the goal, you should be trying to break those patterns, alter those patterns, change the way you interact in the world. And if you're simply saying, I should be who I naturally am meant to be, well, what you're probably doing is simply continuing to follow a bunch of patterns, probably destructive to yourself, and almost assuredly destructive to those around you.

The idea is it's constant work working through these patterns we're falling into, altering these patterns, breaking these patterns, creating different patterns. And it's an endless work of every situation, from the very mundane to the very, very large scale, of constantly trying to shift these patterns for the better. And the vision is that, and really only that, is what the good life is. The good life is a world in which as many of us as possible, ideally everyone, is flourishing. And you'll never get there, but it's a lifelong process of ever trying to create worlds within which we can flourish.

MARK EPSTEIN: There's this notion in Buddhist psychology of egoless-ness or no-self. And most people misinterpret that, as Freud actually did, most people misinterpret it to think that, oh, Buddhism is saying, we don't need the ego at all, or we don't need the self at all. Like get rid of it, and then we're one with everything, and that's it. And I think that's wrong. Obviously, we need our egos. A good friend of mine, Robert Thurman, who's a professor of Buddhism at Columbia, professor of religion at Columbia. He had a Mongolian teacher in the 1960s who used to say to him about this topic of egoless-ness or selflessness: "It's not that you're not real. Of course you're real, you have a self. But people like you, secular people who don't really understand, think that they're really real." And what Buddhism is teaching is that that belief in your own really realness is misguided. We take ourselves more seriously than we need to. The self is not as fixed as we would like to think. The ego is born out of fear and isolation. It comes into being when self-consciousness first starts to come, when you're two or three years old, and you start to realize, oh, there's a person in here. And you're kind of like trying to make sense of everything, who you are, who are those parents there. The ego is a way of organizing oneself, and it comes from the intellect as the mind starts to click in. And for many people it stays in a kind of immature place where our thinking mind, our intellect, is defining for ourselves who we are. Either taking all the negative feedback, like I'm not good enough, and the ego fastens onto all the negativity. Or the positive, the affirmation, like oh, I'm really something. And 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. It starts to restrict us, to confine us, to make us think that we know ourselves better than we actually do.

SAM HARRIS: One of the problems we have in discussing consciousness scientifically is that consciousness is irreducibly subjective. Consciousness is what it's like to be you. If there's an experiential internal qualitative dimension to any physical system, then that is consciousness. And we can't reduce the experiential side to talk of information processing, and neurotransmitters, and states of the brain in our case. And people want to do this. Someone like Francis Crick said famously, you're nothing but a pack of neurons. And that misses the fact that half of the reality we're talking about is the qualitative experiential side. So when you're trying to study human consciousness, for instance, by looking at states of the brain, all you can do is correlate experiential changes with changes in brain states. But no matter how tight these correlations become, that never gives you license to throw out the first-person experiential side. That'd be analogous to saying that if you just flipped a coin long enough you would realize it had only one side. And now it's true you can be committed to talking about just one side. You can say that heads being up is just the case of tails being down. But that doesn't actually reduce one side of reality to the other.

I'm not arguing that consciousness is a reality beyond science, or beyond the brain, or that it floats free of the brain at death. I'm not making any spooky claims about its metaphysics. What I am saying, however, is that the self is an illusion. The sense of being an ego, an I, a thinker of thoughts in addition to the thoughts, an experiencer in addition to the experience. That the sense that we all have of riding around inside our heads as a kind of a passenger in the vehicle of the body, that's where most people start when they think about any of these questions. Most people don't feel identical to their bodies. They feel like they have bodies. They feel like they're inside the body. And most people feel like they're inside their heads. Now that sense of being a subject, a locus of consciousness inside the head, is an illusion. That is, it makes no neuroanatomical sense, there's no place in the brain for your ego to be hiding. We know that everything you experience, your conscious emotions, and thoughts, and moods, and the impulses that initiate behavior, all of these things are delivered by myriad different processes in the brain that are spread out over the whole of the brain. They can be independently erupted. We have a changing system, we are a process. And there's not one unitary self that's carried through from one moment to the next, unchanging. And yet we feel that we have this self that's just this center of experience.

  • Who am I? It's a question that humans have grappled with since the dawn of time, and most of us are no closer to an answer.
  • Trying to pin down what makes you you depends on which school of thought you prescribe to. Some argue that the self is an illusion, while others believe that finding one's "true self" is about sincerity and authenticity.
  • In this video, author Gish Jen, Harvard professor Michael Puett, psychotherapist Mark Epstein, and neuroscientist Sam Harris discuss three layers of the self, looking through the lens of culture, philosophy, and neuroscience.

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