Q&A: How Humans — and Some Animals — Develop a Sense of Self

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I was just going to ask you about that. Do cats have autobiographical selves that record the stories of their lives?

I think a very modest one. And dogs also have a modest, autobiographical self.

So they remember, “I went to the vet, and it sucked.”

Probably, they don’t picture it. [But] they will remember something.

If you try to put the cat in the carrier again, it’s not going to want to get in there.

Exactly. Even the fact that it has a special relationship to the owner means that there is an autobiographical relationship that only has been learned as part of the story of that particular animal. But how much they tell that story to themselves is a different problem. Whereas we clearly do. We constantly tell our story to ourselves and we create reinterpretations and we edit. (More on Time.com: Are Stoners Really Dumb, or Do They Just Think They Are?)

That’s very natural because we are born storytellers. But there’s something in that autobiographical self that I think should be emphasized, which is the fact that it’s not just about the past. It’s about the past and about the anticipated future. We are constantly caught in a present that is moving in time. Behind it is the lived past and in front of it are the things we have planned.

So when you ask me, well, do other species have feelings, I’d say, yes. But do other species have, for example, the same degree of suffering that we have when we have a loss? They probably have some, but our losses are amplified. If we lose somebody that we love, its not just losing there and then. It is losing that person in the perspective of the past and also the perspective of what you thought would happen in the future. That is a colossal difference.

Some people say that if you lived for centuries or forever, you wouldn’t really be the same self.

I think that that’s a different issue. Because I think actually it will be easier to find ways in which we could live forever than to find ways in which we could, say, download our self into a computer.

Would that not work because of emotions and the need for a body?

It may well be. First of all, the idea of making us live forever, I think is quite possible. It’s really a matter of how you do the reverse engineering of our biology enough to have the ability to control it. I think that’s a distinct possibility.

The downloading depends on how much detail we can get into the understanding of the signals that are going through and the incredible riches of brain circuitry. We could get potentially to a point where we would have something that you could transfer into another medium. I don’t think it’s impossible; I just find it extremely unlikely because of the complexity.

Now say you could have yourself downloaded into a computer. Would it be you or would it just think that it was you?

I don’t think it would be me, because the me is so tied to my body. (More on Time.com: Mind Reading: Terrorism Expert Jessica Stern on Her Own Terror and Trauma)

But it would think it was you.

Yeah, it might.

In terms of the anatomical construction of the self in the brain, the brainstem is important. What other key areas matter?

In the brainstem, [self-related regions include a] variety of nuclei — especially the nuclei that are related to our life regulation. In the cerebral cortex, there are certain regions that are very, very critical.

Especially in relation to consciousness, there are certain [regions called the] posteromedial cortices. We have every reason to believe that they play a very important role.

And how do we know that?

We know that through lesions. Also, for example, people with Alzheimer’s disease very late in the disease generally get to be almost vegetative in the way they look. [Their selves have been worn away.] We know that this is one of the areas where anesthetics work very powerfully. And we know that this is one of the areas in people in a vegetative state or coma, the ones that are lucky enough to wake up from that, this is the first region that recovers cerebral blood flow.

I once had a very strange experience at the dentist on nitrous oxide. It was like my self dissolved, and it was terrifying — I didn’t understand the concept of a dentist or where or what I was.

Interesting. It all has to do with the induction of the anesthetic effect, because a lot of the times if one goes through anesthesia, your — literally — your self goes. And you don’t know anything because the whole thing about consciousness is that it is our means of knowing. No consciousness, no knowledge — you don’t know that you are or who anybody else is, you don’t know that there’s a world. (More on Time.com: Is a Wandering Mind an Unhappy One?)

How do you think the Internet is affecting consciousness?

I think that there are certain things that the Internet is doing to our minds that have to do with the speed at which we process information — especially for children. They are developing and they are doing all this multitasking and we don’t know if that’s going to be good or bad. In a way it’s likely it to be good because it expands the speed of operation. The question is whether there will be a tradeoff in terms of what you remember.

Related Links:

Study: Some Autistic Brains Really Are Wired Differently

Mind Reading: Do Humans Prefer Free Love Over the Bonds of Nuclear Family?

New MRI Test May Be Best at Detecting Autism

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