Self is not simple

This post is more of V.S. Ramachandran’s reply to this year’s Edge question (here), this time on the notion of ‘self’.


“Neurological conditions have shown that the self is not the monolithic entity it believes itself to be. It seems to consist of many components each of which can be studied individually, and the notion of one unitary self may well be an illusion … Consider the following disorders which illustrate different aspects of self.”


He lists a number of disorders:

1.      out of body experiences as a result of some right hemisphere strokes.

2.      the intense desire to have a limb amputated (apotemnophilia) as a result of being born with an incomplete internal image of the body.

3.      trans-sexuality – lack of harmony between the different sources of sexual identity (external anatomy, internal body image, sexual orientation and sexual identity to others).

4.      patient with phantom arm feeling another’s touch sensations.

5.      patient claims to be dead and rejects evidence he is alive (Cotard’s syndrome).

6.      Sufferers from Capgras delusion feel that some people, like a mother, are imposters because they do not feel the familiarity and recognition that they should. Some can also duplicate themselves.

7.      Some people cannot move or interact although they appear to be awake (kinetic muftis). They later say that they were conscious but had no desire to de anything, or had lost their will.

8.      Consciousness can be split into a separate visual and auditory self (akinetic mutism)


“We will now consider two aspects of self that are considered almost axiomatic. First its essentially private nature. You can empathise with someone but never to the point of experiencing her sensations or dissolving into her (except in pathological states like folie a duex and romantic love). Second, it is aware of its own existence. A self that negates itself is an oxymoron. Yet both these axioms can fall apart in disease; without affecting other aspects of self. An amputee can literally feel his phantom limb being touched when he merely watches a normal person being touched. A person with Cotard’s syndrome will deny that he exists; claiming that his body is a mere empty shell. Explaining these disorders in neural terms can help illuminate how the normal self is constructed.”


Ramachandran makes a good case for ‘self’ not being a simple, single, obvious  entity.