Mirror of Zen Blog

How Your Brain Invents Your “Self”

I ordered Anil Seth’s new book, Being You, back in the summer. I was put on waiting for several months. Amazon told me recently that they couldn’t fulfill the order, in the end, doubtless due to high demand for this extremely important thinker’s compelling scientific researches into the nature of “selfhood”.

While I certainly much prefer (and trust) researches of the purely meditative kind — direct experience unmediated by words — one can’t help but be stimulated by Seth’s genuine insights, however they may be locked in the confines of a purely materialist understanding. The recent conversation between him and Sam Harris, a re-released conversation from three years ago, was so fascinating that I needed to replay many of its topics over and over again. His is a fascinating, nimble, passionate truth-seeking mind engaged in the most sincere search for tangible, measurable answers to the most essential question of any: “What am I?”

Fellow subscribers to Sam Harris would do well to set aside a few hours to absorb a more nuanced presentation of the matter (“Consciousness and Self”, podcast #264 on Sam’s website) than this necessarily briefer TED format.

Again, no scientific/conceptual answer Seth would arrive at, through measurement or conceptualization, could ever substitute for the more holistic immeasurable revealed by true meditation itself. But talks like this give me hope, at least, that there are decent humans of great erudition compelled by the same compulsion to devote their lives to this, the most fundamental question of them all.

This recent TED Talk of his has already reached 1 million views, just a little over two months after release. For those of you who have not encountered him elsewhere, this gives great basic insight into his quest, which should also be yours.

The nut of his research:

The self is not the thing that does the perceiving. The self is a perception too, or rather, it's a collection of related perceptions. Experiences of the self and of the world turn out to be kinds of controlled hallucinations, brain-based best guesses that remain tied to the world and the body in ways determined not by their accuracy, but by their utility, by their usefulness for the organism in the business of staying alive. 

The perceptual world that arises for us in each conscious moment -- a world full of objects and people, with properties like shape, color and position -- is always and everywhere created by the brain, through a process of what we can call “inference,” of under-the-hood, neurally implemented brain-based best guessing. 

And that, in a few words, is more or less the insight of a Buddha. Jus’ sayin’.

Enjoy. It’s way, way, way short for the subject at hand, but a good basic primer:

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