Monday, June 22, 2009

the user illusion

Exerpt from : Meme, Myself, I By Susan Blackmore

Heart of the selfplex
These vast memeplexes, with their varied means of propagation, form the very stuff of our lives. Yet there is one memeplex, perhaps the most powerful of all, that we readily overlook. That is our own familiar self. Like other animals, we have a body image--a plan of our body used for organising sensations and planning skilled actions. We also have, as some other animals do, the ability to recognise other individuals and understand that they, too, have desires and plans. So far so good--but now we add the capacity to imitate, the use of language and the word "I".


At first "I" may mean just "this body", but soon it begins to change. We say "I like ice cream", "I can't stand shopping malls", "I want to be famous", or "I believe in Father Christmas". And the "I" no longer refers just to a body, but to some imagined inner self that has intentions, possessions, fears, beliefs and aspirations.

This "I" forms the heart of the selfplex. And all the memes in your selfplex thrive because you work to defend them in arguments, to promote them in discussions, perhaps even to write about them in books and articles. In this way these self-related memes succeed where others fail, and so the selfplex grows.

Once the "self" has begun to form, it meets each new idea it comes across with "Yes, I agree with this" or "No, I don't like that". Although each self is unique in the body it describes as "mine", and in the ideas it picks up along the way, those ideas are all memes and the self offers them a safe haven.

I think modern neuroscience makes it clear that the self cannot be what it appears to be. We may feel as though we have a special little "me" inside, who has sensations and consciousness, who lives my life, and makes my decisions. Yet, this does not fit with what we know about the brain. Look inside a brain and what do you see? There is no central place into which all the impressions come and from where the orders go out. Rather, there is a massive processing system dealing with numerous things at once, only very few of which ever reach consciousness.

It may feel as though "my" consciousness starts the actions this body performs, but as Libet's experiments showed, conscious awareness takes about half a second to build up, far too long for it to initiate reactions to a fast changing world. And the brain is constantly being changed by everything that happens to it, so that "I" am not the same as I was ten years, or even a few moments, ago.

There is a long and venerable tradition of thinkers who have rejected the idea of a real and persistent self. The Buddha proclaimed that actions and their consequences exist, but that the person who acts does not. According to the Buddhist doctrine of anatta, the self is more like an ever-changing construction than a solid entity. The 18th-century philosopher David Hume likened the self to a bundle of sensations tied together by a common history.

Using more contemporary metaphors, Dennett argues that the brain builds multiple drafts of what is happening as information flows through its parallel networks. One of these drafts becomes the story we tell ourselves and includes the idea of an author of the story, or a user of the brain's virtual machine--consciousness is a "benign user illusion". So rather than being a permanent, persisting entity, the self may be more like a story about a self that does not really exist.

I believe these ideas have implications for the way we live. As society becomes more complex, and memes spread faster and farther, so our selves become more complicated. The unhappiness, desperation and psychological ill-health of many modern people may reflect the fact that increasing numbers of memes are using our poor over-stretched brains to construct a false self for their own propagation. Perhaps the user illusion is not so benign after all. Some would even say that belief in a permanent self is the cause of all human suffering--of fear, jealousy, hatred and unkindness.

But is it possible to live life without the illusion? One way might be to calm your mind. Techniques such as meditation, say, can still the memes that are constantly competing for your brain space, forcing you to keep thinking. Long traditions of training in meditation show this is possible: that years of practice can bring emptiness, compassion and clarity of mind. Meditation, at its simplest, consists of just sitting quietly and clearing the mind of all thoughts, and then, when more arise, just letting them go.

Meditation is itself a meme, but is, if you like, a meme-clearing meme. Its effect is not to obliterate all awareness, but rather to create an awareness that is more spacious and open, and seems, perhaps paradoxically, to be without a self who is experiencing it.

If this memetic analysis is correct, the choices you make are not made by an inner self who has free will, but are just the consequence of the replicators playing out their competition in a particular environment. In the process they create the illusion of a self who is in control.

Dawkins ends The Selfish Gene with his famous claim that: "We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators". Yet, if we take his idea of memes seriously, and push it to its logical conclusion, we find that there is no one left to rebel.

SUSAN BLACKMORE is a lecturer in psychology at the University of the West of England, Bristol.