One Brain, Many Selves?

Today my childhood friend Sue Dominus came out with an article in the New York Times (see the Magazine Sunday for print subscribers – the photographs are incredible) about conjoined twins whose brains are connected by a neural bridge, and who therefore may – quite possibly – share mind.  Not necessarily ‘a’ mind, but mind per se.  Now as Sue emphasizes, the data needed to characterize the connection, and to know what types of information pass between their brains (or do I mean “within their brain?”) aren’t in. The girls are still a bit too young to report accurately the subjective information we need to know, and the connectivity scans needed – ideally a DTI in “big magnet” MRI – haven’t been done.

Still, if the girls turn out to share mind, they will give us a one-in-a-billion – or do I mean two-in-a billion? – opportunity to think about what it means to be “me.”

If you let your mind get caught in a loop of thinking, these girls will trigger a sort of philosophical optical illusion about the self.  On the one hand, if their brains are indeed connected and sharing information, they have one – very unusual – brain.  So using a neural definition of the self, that means they’re one person.   But when you see them on video you experience them – as their mother does – as having two minds. Using a mental definition of self, that means they’re two selves.  But then you realize these two selves have one brain… and back again you go to the beginning.

And that’s the optical illusion. Depending on whether you define the self using minds or brains, you see a different number of people: One. Two. One. Two.  The purpose of this illusion, which I submit should be called the “Neuroself Illusion,” is not to get you to choose one or two.  Rather, it is to introduce you to the very real possibility that neuroscience does not support our four-hundred year-old Enlightenment assumption that each of us has a single self.  Rather, neuroscience – mixed with simple logic – makes it increasingly likely that we will conclude the brain makes multiple selves or – if you think that idea makes no sense – no self at all.  But either way we’re in for a cultural (but not a scientific!) paradigm shift.  Because both conclusions rock western society’s core metaphysical assumption: that an individual self, in an individual body, is what we really are.  Increasingly, the smart money says it ain’t.

It will be interesting, and important, to see how they experience this illusion themselves.

The girls are the first to crystalize – in humane and, as the article shows, charmingly mundane terms – some of the fancy-pants philosophical debates that western society has been having about the nature of the self at least since Socrates.  They also illustrate (at least to me) why the Neuroself framework that I’ve been developing is useful in my clinical work with patients.  The twins’ experiences, and Sue’s and their doctors’ observations, expose serious flaws in the conventional assumption that single brains house single selves.

In my thinking this isn’t true.  In the Neuroself framework, two key ideas dominate. First, the brain creates multiple selves, which exist for varying lengths of time – some fleeting, some long-acting – that sometimes collaborate, sometimes compete, and much of the time ignore one another completely and just go about their business.  The whole time their short-term goal is to gain access to your muscles.  They want to move.  

Second, the purpose of any given self is to stop existing. Selves work – by producing and consuming information – to make themselves unnecessary. They do so through action.  You eat until you are full.  You attend until you are bored.  You speak until you have gotten everything off your chest.  You are an endless series of loops looking for that perfect negative feedback to shut themselves down – that’s just how the brain is set up.That’s why you eat chocolate cake at night and vow never to again in the morning, why you buy yourself that great coat and then return it, why you feel such conflict and confusion at all times.  Multiple selves inside you are in a constant state of competition – and what they are competing for, just as in the twins, is access to motor neurons.  They are competing for how you move. 

If this is true, these two girls are typical human beings, just as their mother says – and their brain is not categorically different than yours and mine.  And yes, I mean it when I say ‘their brain.’  They are two girls in one brain, and that is not unusual.  In looking at them we are looking in the mirror and seeing ourselves, correctly, for the first time. Multiple selves live in single brains – including yours. It’s just that those brains are typically in one body and behind one face, not two.  And while neurocredulists will respond by saying that these two girls have two frontal lobes, or four amygdalae, or what have you, and therefore as two people – as though personhood comes down to a given brain region – on close inspection this position turns out to be indefensible.   One is left with arbitrary definitions once one tries to specify what, exactly, it is about a brain that makes a person.

This post ends with a thought-experiment to help explore this idea (no MRI scanners needer – just a chair and your thoughts).  In conjunction with this series of posts  this should help you see that a brain does not create what the Enlightenment has tried to convince us exists in nature as a single: an individual self.

An integrated, constant and solid sense of self is a Holy Grail of psychotherapy and the pop culture – constantly talked about, never experienced. The position here is that this is because it doesn’t exist!

When a sense of wholeness is experienced – and it absolutely is, by many people, every day – it is a direct function of their having done one of two things.  Either they have  forgotten or transcended or seen through the illusion of the self, and become seamlessly engaged with the world.  Or they have experienced themselves as hovering over and watching their many simultaneously active and conflicting selves, none of which they define as “them.”

The first kind of experience is, in the West, sometimes called “flow.” I don’t know what it’s called in other cultures, but I doubt it’s the non-self state of Enlightenment; it’s far too common for that – most unenlightened people experience it with some frequency. Selflessness is a democratic experience.  The second kind of experience involves what Freud called an “observing ego.” By this he meant the capacity of the mature mind to tolerate the coexistence in its content of conflicting, contradictory, and taboo thoughts and impulses.

It is, I think, a sort of reckless gloss to call this observing ego “the self,” because its primary feature is the absence of identification with any single feature of the mind.  The observing ego can accommodate any given mental content – in which case it is, as in the case of flow, indistinguishable from a universal consciousness.

Therefore the conclusion that the observing ego itself – in contrast to its contents – is a product of an individual brain is illogical and does not follow from any neurological principle.  Consciousness itself is not identical to its contents, just as gravity is not identical to the objects that falling by it.  In science, a force and the objects it moves are different things.  And so might be the case with the brain.

It is perhaps the cardinal error of modern neuroscience to assume that the brain produces not only the contents of consciousness – your specific thoughts, such as these words – but consciousness itself.  It simply does not follow – unless you think that consciousness does not exist.  It also does not not follow.  Where you believe the source of consciousness to be located depends on your metaphysical commitments – not your scientific ones. That is, science works exactly the same way, and believes exactly the same facts, regardless of whether you believe consciousness per se is made by the brain or exists as a fundamental aspect of the universe.

Making matters far worse, the rules of science – in particular, the laws of thermodynamics – make the brain’s production of the self impossible in principle, a point I explore at length here.  The problem is that neuroscience has been mis-defining the self – in concrete rather than the Enlightenment terms that society uses it – and it has been this mistake that’s allowed neurocredulists to believe they can find it in the brain.

But we don’t need neuroscience to prove this.  We can see this just sitting in our chairs.

I submit that every time you have a “sense of self,” if you stop what you are doing and introspect closely you will find it is analogous to seeing a floater in your eye but thinking you’ve seen something out in the world.  Turning your gaze upon it directly causes it to move, such that you can never look at it directly.  Such is the case with the self: it is always intuited, but never discovered, and this is because we have mistaken our intuition for consciousness as a blank slate with its ever-changing contents.   As discussed in previous posts, there are also neural and evolutionary reasons to believe that the belief in the unified self is a myth.  Brains are set up to imagine selves, and want selves, and chase selves, but not to have or actually create them.

But this post is not about that idea. Rather it’s designed to isolate the philosophical question at the heart of Sue’s story: what is the relationship between the brain and the self?  If you like thought experiments, it’s for you.

I think it illustrates that, in principle, single brains do not make single selves – not necessarily, and most likely only accidentally in practice.  If you disagree, the thought experiment requires you to identify where my story “goes wrong.”

Why One Brain May Make Many Selves: A Thought Experiment

Imagine an alternate America in which the telephone (or cell phone or walky-talky or Skype) has not been invented. Nobody can call from one house to another house. However every house has an intercom system in which anytime one person wants to speak to another person in the house, they press the intercom button and their voice is broadcast into every room.

Here’s two more facts about this alternate America. First, nobody ever leaves their house.  Everyone is locked inside. Second, imagine that a “family” is defined, by law, as any group of people can hear each other over the intercom.  If you can hear someone’s voice, you are in their family.  If you can’t hear someone’s voice, you are not in their family.

Notice two things about this state of affairs.  First, because nobody ever leaves their house, the official definition of  ‘family’ means that families always live in the same house.  That is, being able to hear someone’s voice, and living in the same house as them, always go together.  In statistics we would say they are 100% correlated.  It’s like a law of nature: “one house, one voice.”   Second, notice that the definition doesn’t get into the details of houses and intercom technology.  Families aren’t defined as having intercoms, they are just defined as hearing one another.  The technology limitations of alternate America country makes it impossible to hear people any way except over the intercom in a single house.

Now consider one last fact before we make things interesting. In this alternate America, the law of the land is not “one person, one vote” the way it is for us – it is “one family, one vote.”  That is, each family gets one vote for President (sent in to an automated vote-counting center by carrier pigeon)*.  All the votes get counted up, and whoever wins, wins.

That’s the end of the set up.  Everything else about alternate America is the same.

Now imagine that just before the presidential election of 2012 a family that lives in Arizona, the Jones family, one day starts hearing, over their intercom, an unrecognized voice.  This voice starts telling them to do various things, of which there are any number, but the most important of which is “Vote for Obama!”  The Jones’s are planning on voting for Mitt Romney, and they find this voice extremely annoying and, oddly, persuasive.  Indeed, they start having the unwanted desire to vote for Obama.

They contact their local representative for help (by carrier pigeon) but he can’t explain it and tells them they’re just going to have to deal and vote for whoever they like.  “But don’t you understand, we might not vote for who we like because of this convincing voice!”  The representative can’t help.

Being practical folks, the Joneses hire a robotic intercom technician (he’s robotic so he can travel between houses) to come investigate and give him carte blanche to do whatever he must.  He comes to the house and begins exploring their indoor wiring.  After a great deal of rummaging around, he finds that their indoor wiring leads out of the house, under the lawn, down the street, under the asphalt of the highway, and he then follows it a remarkable 1000 miles away to Maine, where it terminates in the home of the Lopez family.

He knocks on the door and explains the situation.  The Lopez’s practically hug the robot when he tells them he fixes intercoms, because they have been having a crazy problem: though they are Democrats, a mysterious voice on their intercom has been persuading them to vote for Romney, not Obama, and they are starting to waver in their commitments.

The robotic technician tells both families the obvious: their two intercom systems have become connected, and that is why they are hearing these mystery voices: they are hearing a family they never knew existed.

From a technical, scientific perspective the problem is solved. Crucially, no rules of electricity or engineering or laws of physics have been violated; the intercom specialist’s explanation of the voices makes perfect scientific sense, even if it has never been seen before.

Both families ask him to cut the wire, but he says he can’t; it is technically impossible for various obscure reasons. Innumerable intercom specialists are called, and they all say the same – the wire is constructed in such a way that to cut it is impossible.  The two families are stuck.

Being American, the Jones and the Lopezes take one another to court (again, by carrier pigeon – it’s complicated – don’t ask), suing and countersuing one another to stop meddling with their voting preferences. We can imagine the arguments back and forth, which doubtless would be fascinating.  But let’s skip that and listen to the Judge.

Having heard the case, and considered all the evidence, and read and reread the legal code, she rules that the Joneses and the Lopezes are a single family.  They meet the key criteria for a family: they all hear the same voice.  Moreover, she notes, they do not have any privacy from one another.  On the contrary, their inability to regain their privacy is the cause of their dispute.

Thus, she rules, they now have only a single vote in the presidential elections, and must choose either Obama or Trump. On appeal to the Supreme Court (again by carrier pigeon), the Joneses and Lopezes join forces and sue the government.  They claim that they live in separate houses, and that since the beginning of America families have been understood to be groups of people who live separately.   They ask that their identity be ruled on the basis of what house they live in, not whose voice they can hear.

Their articulate lawyer is wonderfully provocative.  What, he asks the Supreme court, is to stop the entire country from turning into a single family once wiring connects all the houses to one another?  Or what, he asks, is to stop family members in a single house from cutting their room’s intercom connections with the rest of the house, thereby rendering each individual incapable of hearing any voice but their own – and thus by law making them their own family, and creating multiple families in a given house.

To press the practical concerns at stake, the lawyer produces an intercom expert who says that, given this one freak wiring case, the intercom industry should soon be able to figure out how to make both of his “nightmare scenarios” a reality.  Eventually, he says, America will end up either as one big family, or having no families at all!

Clarence Thomas, speaking up (by carrier pigeon) for the first time in 10 years, notes that the moral and ethical principle at stake is that of privacy.  Essentially, he points out, families have always been defined as privacy.  Not as having privacy, but as literally being privacy: any voice that could hear itself was a family; anyone who could not hear that voice was not, and so the key issue was privacy.  If you weren’t private, you weren’t a family.  Now, he went on, the lawyer seemed to be proposing that a family did not need to be private.   You could still be your own family while hearing another voice.  But this would mean the loss of the clear boundaries and borders between families that allowed private property and capitalism.  How, Thomas asked, is society to function without privacy?

That’s the end of the thought experiment.  Here are the questions raised:

  • Does the anecdote capture the philosophical optical illusion of the Hogan twins?
  • Are the “houses” in the story good stand-ins for “the body”?
  • Is the “intercom wiring” in the story a good stand in for “the brain”?
  • Are the “families” in the story good stand-ins for “the self.”
  • Are the “carrier pigeons” in the story good stand ins for the photons and virtual photons by which all inter-human communication occurs?
  • Has the 100% correlation of self and brain fooled us into thinking that brains create selves, but can they be separated – and if so, does this mean one brain can have many selves, or none, or two can share one, and so forth?
  • Does wiring two brains together place stress on our theory of the self?
  • If not, what happens to the problem of privacy, with which modern America is obsessed: the question of what makes something subjective?

In my own work, I have come to the conclusion that the self, as western society understands it – the private thing, the private conscious experience, which has always co-varied with a single brain or body or named individual – is not what Wittgenstein called a natural kind.  It is a social construct. But once our technology makes this evident, what is going to happen to our Enlightenment assumptions about the individual?

* Many thanks to the commentators (see below) who noted problems with the mode of communication between houses and government officials in previous versions.  I have added carrier pigeons to address this problem.


    1. 0Man I hope they don’t start matching shrmtpaones to condom sizes. Some people will never find theirs. As for me I do not want a new Samsung Magnum XL with a 9 inch screen LOL. Well maybe if it has dual quad processors.

    2. – LOVE these of her and her kitty! I especially love all the dineerfft angles and perspectives you took while capturing her (up close, voyeuristically looking from afar, peeking through the bed posts ). I hope when I have babies some day that one of my good friends can go through that journey alongside me as well <3

  1. Now that I’ve read the whole thought experiement…

    This line of questioning reminds me of a meditation on self which I read on a Buddhism site. In trying to navigate through his conflicting thoughts to his core self, the author realized that there was no such thing.

    1. From what I have read of the world literature, most people who have gone introspecting for a core self, both east and west, have failed to find one. I believe Hume is the most famous westerner to hold this position.

      1. can’t rely on using a measuring tape I find.. the shape of the head makes a big diereffnce. I measure my head and I got about 59cm or 23inches. I wear an XL. I tried others and they felt painfully tight. But my friend who also measures the same length is wearing a medium.. how does that work ??

  2. “They call their local congressman for help but he can’t explain it and tells them they’re just going to have to deal and vote for whoever they like. ”But don’t you understand, we might not vote for who we like because of this convincing voice!” The congressman shrugs and gets off the phone.”

    Didn’t you just say there are no phones and people can’t call out? … Maybe it was another you, who didn’t read the premise of your tale.

  3. Having an interest in this subject, I must admit to coming to a similar conclusion about the mind before. I believe I once read a specific name for something like the mini-selves you write about written about back in the 1960s, though it does escape me now.

    What I don’t agree with you is that those selves are trying for negative feedback so that they can self-destruct. It seems more likely that most often they are lazy and want to get back to sleep as soon as possible (ok, not hungry anymore, don’t have to think about it). They then re-emerge as they are called upon. Of course, some are less lazy than others, calling upon themselves even when they are not required.

    With that, it has always made for a compelling theory of the mind.

    A person with MPD is just rotating the different groups of selves to the front; focusing on one group more than any others at a given time, then switching. So the house is multistory, each floor has it’s own intercom loop, and the motor control changes first between floors, then between rooms. There may or may not be some connections between floors. Of course, there is a ground floor.

    A person with ADHD is someone who has many selves running concurrently, shouting over each other, unable to bring one to the forefront for any length of time. The intercom is on all the time in every room, waking dormant selves even when they are not required, which makes them cranky and vie for control.

    Schizophrenia is the distancing of the selves from one another (with one group of selves being dominant) while they still try to communicate with one another. The intercom has reached capacity and only allows communication over it in certain parts of the house. So other members have to shout through the walls or find each other in their rooms. The largest intercom loop holds control.

    Autism could be almost the same, but the distancing happens too early and too evenly for there to be a sense of self in the first place. So the intercoms reach capacity early; the members of the house never bother talking to each other, and just try to get on with whatever work is brought before them.

    OCD would be certain selves holding absolute dominance over others, with ceremonies that demonstrate that they, and they alone, can be allowed control. The turning of the key, the setting of the foot, the spinning of the dish, the tugging of the tie just so.

    Of course, the literature in this field probably blows my theories and thoughts out of the water. But just because I know that much of my thinking is probably wrong doesn’t mean I look forward to proving it.

    1. I love it! I agree with your point – the “same” self appears and disappears constantly. For example, my “I need to eat something” self appears several times a day, eats, and then becomes quiescent. Don’t worry about the literature – we need people like you developing these ideas!

      1. Now if you include books that you have taken in on film, patirally read, or heard enough about to figure you could fake your way through a discussion of – that number might even be higher. These criteria push my number up to 14.

      2. Well this is the coolest thing I have ever seen, and thank you for piuttng it on youtube, or I may never have found it. I think you said it can play an Ipod wireless as well? And could you, for example, take a cord and plug it into an external speaker to play the music for everyone to hear? And can the microphone detatch? I’m actually thinking of using it for a costume, so i figured I would ask someone who had it already. Thanks for your time..

  4. There is an important point I would like to make about your interesting articles.

    It seems that you are giving an exaggerated significance to the Enlightenment. Perhaps this is due to not having a good knowledge of history.

    Comments in another of your articles like, “Once, before Enlightenment, we were like animals. … We had no novels – and certainly no first-person ones” are, quite simply, factually wrong.

    If you spend some time reading the history of ideas, you will find that ancient cultures and even the Middle Ages, not to mention Eastern cultures, had very highly developed debates about consciousness, had first person novels, and were not that much different from modern intellectuals in the sophistication and subtlety of their debates and ideas. Perhaps their insights into the question were even better than ours in some ways.

    Go and read the Greek and Roman philosophers, read the Satyricon of Petronius or the Golden Ass of Apuleius (both first persons novels, 1st & 2nd centuries AD) or ancient Chinese and Japanese novels. Go and read St Augustine.

    And if you *really* want some interesting and profound ideas about the nature consciousness go and read the Yoga Vasistha, or Shankara’s commentaries on the Upanishads, or Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s commentary on the Bhagavad Gita.

    To imagine that the nature of consciousness has only been thought about in the West since the Enlightenment is extremely naive, I’m sorry to say. And to imagine that previous ages and cultures had nothing worth saying on the subject is equally naive.

    You are like a scientist doing research without knowing that previous research in the field even exists, never mind reading up on it.

    1. Thank you! I agree with basically everything you are saying. The whole blog is purposely written from the standpoint of Western society, as I think we need to adjust our model of the self on our own terms – importing eastern wisdom isn’t going to cause change. Although much has been made about the Greek notion of the self, for the most part in the west the modern individual self didn’t come about until Feudalism began to break up and division of labor, mechanization, capitalism and democracy kicked in as the church began to collapse. However I agree these are broad strokes and I hope to learn more. Thank you sincerely for adding so much thought to the blog!

  5. I should like to add to my previous post that in the Sanskrit literature of India there are at least 4 different words which are all translated into English as ‘self’: ahamkara, jiva, atman, brahman.

    However, they are all subtly different. They are distinct aspects of the nature of the the self, or self-consciousness – words for which the precise concepts and terminology don’t even exist in English.

    These are again different from buddhi, manas, and chitta (all different, but all usually translated into English as ‘mind’), and the tanmatras, which are the 5 channels of intermediate mental processing between the 5 senses and the subjective impressions due to the 5 senses.

    The Vedic tradition of knowledge gives the defining quality of consciousness as being its self-referral nature, which is described as being analogous to the infinite series of reflections in a pair of mirrors.

    The Yoga Vasistha says “The individual personality is vasana (=roughly, ‘mental conditioning’) which disappears on investigation”.

    These are just a few slight hints of a vast area of profound knowledge of consciousness that you may not be aware of.

    1. That would be seven for me, counting the ones I\’ve read all the way thourgh (not including ones I\’ve skimmed, or movie versions). Do we get extra points if we\’ve read some of them several times over?

  6. Very interesting post!

    Your initial discussion put me in mind (in brain?) of the particle-or-wave experiments done with photons, which obligingly behave as needed for the particular experiment at hand. That is, they behave as only a particle can, or as only a wave can. (Is the self a candy or a breath mint?)

    I was also put in mind of the spinning paired-particles experiments, in which one particle’s spin direction is intentionally changed, and its partner — across space, with no known means of communication with the other — simultaneously changes its direction of spin.

    There is also Gregory Bateson’s (I believe) notion that the mind includes everything that provides information, so that a blind person’s walking stick is part of that person’s mind and so on — including and beyond the body. If I remember correctly, Bateson did not limit mind to the brain. From that perspective, the conjoined twins in the NYTimes article may well have two selves even if one believes them to have a single brain (rather than two connected brains), unless one also believes them to have a single body (Klein bottle? Moebius strip?)

    When two freeways connect, are they the same freeway? Traffic conditions on one freeway may well be felt on the connecting freeway. As you see it, is connection the defining feature of the conjoined twins’ brain(s)?

    As regards your premise that there is competition among our multiple selves (for motor neurons), what are your thoughts about those born with partial motor impairment, and those who become motor impaired? In my work with folks who’ve had strokes, I’d say that their experience of a change in “self” depended at least in part on how central the affected function was to their own identities (personal definitions of self).

    So much to think about! Thanks – meg

    1. The phone works fine; it’s easy to use, attractive, and the size is good for us.It has a nubemr of features we probably won’t use, but it’s nice to know they’re there.[…]thanks for an excellent product.Dick Wasserman

  7. Sorry, a lazy question: I haven’t read Marvin Minsky’s “Society of Mind” but the summaries and reviews I’ve read make your idea sound like it’s pretty much the same idea. How is your approach to the understanding of consciousness different?

  8. Interesting as these twins are, one only needs to consider the split brain patients to debunk the single self/brain hypothesis. btw i think you would enjoy a paper by A Marcel – slippage in the unity of consciousness (ciba foundation symposium – experimental and theoretical studies of consciousness) – which demonstrates multiple selves using different behavioural responses in normal individuals, chiming with some of your thoughts above…

    1. Wow – I haven’t read that – looks great! Thank you for reading, and I agree with your point. As a shrink (and a person in conflict) I see multiple selves in people without split brains, even myself…. selves….

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