We have a strong sense that we are who we are. This is reinforced and explained by a series of ‘I am’ statements. I am Lee Aspland. I am 54 years old, I am a photographer. I am a husband, father, son, brother etc. Each statement provides further clarity and determination that we are an entity, that somewhere inside of us resides a self. An independent human being, separate and distinct from every other human being.
But as you take a closer look at those statements you will note that each one of them is subject to change. Through the passage of time each one of our ‘I am’ statements can dissolve. Our notion of who we are is created over time by place, circumstance and events. It is created and reinforced by memory to become this thing that is described as the ‘autobiographical self’
“What we sense as a “self” emerges from stimuli both from within and without our body through complex levels of neural integration. The integration of memory and self is not a one-time occurrence but involves lifelong development. The autobiography of self is the accumulated unique mental narrative that emerges from our experiencing and participating in the flow of events and interpersonal encounters that reach a level of awareness critically facilitated by emotional tone. Autobiographical memory plays an important role in the construction of personal identity. An individual’s construction of themselves through time serves the function of creating a coherent and largely favorable view of their present selves and circumstances.”
Barton J Blinder MD PhD
Me, selfies and the self
I created the photo in this post to represent this idea of an autobiographical self. Each individual photo represents me at a different age and in a different role. Attached to each photo is also a memory. Each memory is both reinforced and created by the photo. I may remember the time and place of the photograph, or I may have memories attached to that time and place, or I may only have memories of the photo itself, its existence freezing a self that no longer exists.
This process where we create our identity is reinforced by time. We imagine a strong web linking each moment from our lives, each event and circumstance further defining this notion of ourselves. Photography plays a key role in this process. Each portrait captures forever a momentary self. Each photograph supporting the memory and creating a narrative of our lives.
But the reality is that each moment is gone. The person I was 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago is longer who I am now. Each moment is transitory, each aspect of our self is already fading as we think of it.
The idea that the self is a product of our consciousness, our mind, constantly created, adjusted and developed is one that is well explained by neurological theory. And yet we don’t want to let go of this notion of who we are: this individual self. And why should we?
The answer to that question underpins our raison d’être – our reason for being and fuels our interest in who we are and why we are here. It is the stuff of life and has been the motivation to explore the idea that the self is an illusion. If that is something that intrigues you there are a couple of resources below you might find of interest.
Here is a link to an interesting talk by Leela Sarti that explores several of these themes. It is has a Buddhist philosophical perspective, but is very much rooted in our current world and life. The talk can be listened to on the website or downloaded and replaying at your leisure
The Illusion of Self, Equanimity and Beyond the Abyss
Two overviews of the Illusion of Self
A blog post by Sam Harris: Interview with Bruce Hood author of Self Illusion
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