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“A polity of independent denizens”: Fredric March plays both Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in the 1931 film of R.L. Stevenson’s story (©Bettmann/Getty Images)


“Who am I?” we wonder as teenagers. “Why am I me?” It is the age at which, like St Augustine in his Confessions, each of us becomes “a question to myself”. Many of us never stop wondering. I can be sure, at least, that you are an inquiring reader. There is much more, of course, to your identity — a gender, profession, home town, mother tongue, eye colour, sexual preference — but you don’t need to compile a list to check out your own identity: you are you, the single subject at the centre of your world. Until recently, that single subject could be conveniently located in the soul. But, for the irreligious, this immaterial, invisible, immortal entity has too slim an evidence-base to be a plausible anchor for selfhood. We hunt around, therefore, for an alternative home for the self, reluctant to accept Robert Louis Stevenson’s dark prediction that “man will ultimately be known for a mere polity of multifarious, incongruous and independent denizens”. It seems natural to turn to the brain: this, surely, is the organ of the self. Somewhere within it we will find the key to our identity. 

This has been my tacit assumption, working as a neurologist for the past two decades. Occasionally a case has encouraged me in this belief. Some time ago I encountered a patient who insisted that his brain had died: it was his poignant reaction to the profoundly altered experience of a world that depression had emptied of vivacity, pleasure and meaning. All of us say from time to time, “I feel like death,” calling on simile: Graham had been conquered by the corresponding metaphor, like John Donne in his “Nocturnall Upon St Lucy’s Day” — “Love . . . ruin’d me, and I am rebegot/Of absence, darknesse, death; things which are not.” A functional brain scan, remarkably, showed that Graham was not entirely wrong: activity in regions of his brain linked to the sense of self was severely reduced.

More commonly, brain damage, especially damage to the frontal lobes, can cause striking changes in personality, from momentary impulsiveness to pervasive loss of empathy: once again, pathology within the organ of the self transforms identity, reshapes the “person” that we are. But while the importance of the brain in sustaining the human self is unquestionable, the project of locating it there looks to me increasingly problematic. The more eagerly I hunt in the brain for the self, the more puzzled I become: it seems to be both everywhere — and nowhere.

Consider your selves: you are — at least — your body, your mood, your agency, your current thoughts, your memories, your plans, your knowledge of yourself as one among others, as a winner of life’s prizes and a victim of life’s ignominies. This list is not exhaustive, but current research in cognitive neuroscience is gradually running each of these to ground within the brain. Let’s begin where Freud would have wanted us to, with the body.

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Ed
June 5th, 2017
2:06 PM
Well-written reflection. I did a degree course in philosophy of mind last year so can confirm the above is just one of the many positions - all of them suffering from various serious objections: dualism, reductive physicalism, non-reductive physicalism, functionalism, eliminativism, epiphenomelism, holism, monism, mysterianism, etc. The truth of the matter is that mind and particularly consciousness is a mystery - we simply don't know what it is or how it works, and continuing insistence that brain imaging will help us is simply a misunderstanding of the problem: we may one day have a complete map of the brain regions, but it won't tell us anything about the more challeneging questions.

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