The self-absorption of humans is extraordinary. It’s a defining quality of our human psychology. Some writers have even gone so far as to say mind and self go hand in hand.
What is it for? The brain uses about 20% of our body’s energy. Self-absorption is costly. We don’t need to brood about ourselves to act selfishly and survive, so what’s it all about?
A lot of people seem to think that our sense of self is for decision-making. They say that we’re so intelligent and in control of our environment that we need to use our deliberate reasoning powers in order to create impressive erections such as rockets to the moon and thereby demonstrate our dominance over nature.
You see? It’s narcissism. It seems to run as background noise all the time. We are gods of our own reality and we can’t switch it off to say, hey, that makes no sense.
But the evidence points elsewhere.
- Truth is an illusion. Well, duh. Everyone knows that truth is an illusion, but we know it like an esoteric fact that we can pull out when the conversation gets philosophical. It has nothing to with day-to-day truths like the dishes, supermarket car parks, and relatives. Those things seem so real that they define our reality in the same way as knowing our hands are our hands when we stare at them while on the toilet.
- The brain is active not passive. Everything we perceive, feel and think is an action. It must be. It is. But it doesn’t feel that way. If you’re lying on the grass and staring at the clouds, and the person next to you sees a heart shape, and then you see it too, it seems like you’re just taking in what’s out there. You’re seeing clouds because there are clouds and your eyes are kinda videoing them with neurons. You feel like you, yourself, are at the control center of the mind sorting through incoming perceptions and messages. You get a pain message from your leg but you ignore it because you have a gut feeling that the other person is about to say something wonderful. The control center makes a choice to lie still. That’s how it seems.
- We don’t exist in our heads alone. Of course we don’t. Mind-body. We can’t live without the support of the group. Most of our actions are not done consciously, we are strongly influenced by the physical environment and by other people, we are owned by habits, and we have trouble controlling ourselves. We know all this. And yet, there behind my eyes it’s me. I feel so sure of it, I love it so, my fragile self.
The miracle of rockets is not decision-making or reason, but coordination of large groups. Unfortunately for my self-esteem, I am not a rocket scientist but I bet that every piece of information that was used to build a rocket was established by trial and error and then shared. There were a long string of errors to learn from. It was the organization of group knowledge and effort that was the miracle, same it was for all other human miracles such as the pyramids, small pox injections and clean water in cities. We are the hive. Again, we know this…in theory.
It just doesn’t seem that way. At the supermarket, with my shopping basket, my choices seem deliberate and planned. They matter. What kind of person am I? What kind of dining experience will I create for my family tonight, and what will that say about me? All around the world, millions of people are scurrying about with similar thoughts to this. They’re all absorbed in their own lives and their own plans and it feels like reality.
Evolution doesn’t care about us. It wouldn’t let us spend 20% of our energy on basking in our own divinity because it’s all just so real. Our egocentrism must be have some immediate and essential function. Our feelings of self are an action. We do self, and the reason for it must be coordination with others.
Suppose you, me and some other losers are dividing up tasks between us. I can’t say who’s going to do what without a sense of self, and you can’t understand and obey without a sense of who you are. I pick who does what based on my assessment of our competencies – which requires a sense of self and other. You wouldn’t obey me without your sensitivity to hierarchy – which requires a sense of self within the group. Sharing resources efficiently between the group requires a sense of fairness, as well as a sense of outrage when the self has been treated poorly. Self is a function, and a good one.