I’ve written about this quite often over the years, but I always forget it. I am my brain. Whenever I remember this I feel as if I’ve been hit by ton of bricks. This thought simultaneously fills me with horror and wonder, while also raising all sorts of ethical questions as to how I should live my life. Why should this be? After all, I’ve become accustomed to the proposition our selves are housed in our brains. I take it for granted, as an immediate and obvious truth about the world. Yet somehow that truth never quite sinks in. While I can mouth the words– or think them –the implications and truth of this statement quickly seem to withdraw. I understand it abstractly, but not concretely.
Like so many of us, I don’t think of myself as being my brain, but rather as being a self. In day to day life, my spontaneous sense of my being is that of a self rather than a brain. Of course, it’s true that if I am my brain, then my self is a brain. However, the point is that if it’s true that the self is the brain, I have to thoroughly revise my understanding of what my self is. What, then, do I take my self to be in my spontaneous consciousness of existence? I guess I take my self to be an abiding identity that is independent of its thoughts, experiences, sensations, and the world. My self is something that abides as invariant and the same throughout all my thoughts, sensations, experiences, and encounters with other persons and the world.
I think, for example, this thought. Perhaps it’s a thought of a purple elephant dancing in an otherworldly circle. There is me, this self, and then there is this thought. No matter about this thought. I might find the thought disturbing like a frightening clown in a bad dream. No matter. The thought will soon pass and I, this self that I am, will remain. Likewise, I have this harrowing experience of being trapped in an elevator. There is me, this self, and the experience. No worries. My self will abide, while the experience will pass.
In my spontaneous and unreflective experience of my being as a self, I experience my self and my experience, thoughts, memories, and sensations as always at a distance from one another. These thoughts, memories, sensations, and experiences will all pass and disappear, while I will abide as I always was. There is always a kernel of identity, of substantiality naively understood, that is above or below the tumult of my mental life. To think, to remember, to experience, to observe, and to sense are, for this self that I am, without consequence. The self abides, the thoughts, sensations, memories, and experiences pass. I am always at a distance from these things. I regard them, judge them, choose whether to affirm them or not, choose how to react to them, choose whether to carry them along with me, but I’m always at a distance from them and can push them away should I so choose. It was just a dream, it was just a thought. This experience too will pass.
Yet if my self is my brain, all of this changes. The neurologists tell me that my brain is plastic. It is not a fixed and unchanging thing, but a dynamic thing that is perpetually rewiring itself. Moreover, every activity that takes place in my brain seems to unfold in a dual fashion (my language is inadequate here). I have this thought. I am perhaps thinking of my cat. As the phenomenologists tell me, this thought is characterized by intentionality or directedness. I am thinking of my cat. However, this is not all. My thought of my cat also, simultaneously “records” my thought of my cat. In thinking of my cat I am also rewiring my brain. Likewise, I am now remembering my last trip to Crabtree Falls in Virginia. My memory of Crabtree Falls is not simply the recollection of something that will pass away once it falls out of my consciousness. Rather, the act of remembering is also a rewiring my brain. In remembering I am ever so slightly or dramatically changing the very nature of that recollection, structuring my brain differently, coding myself differently.
If my self is my brain, then there is no distance between my self and my experiences, thoughts, rememberings, sensations, acts of reading, conversations, and all the rest. All of these things are no longer things that will pass away while my self remains the same. Rather, all of these things, all of these activities, are rewiring me, making me other, changing me. With each of these activities I become other and am raw to the world. Moreover, with every sip of wine, with every slice of the neurosurgeon’s knife, if I have a stroke, a bit of my self passes away never to be regained again. If this is true, what am I really I wonder? What kind of being am I that I am making my self in the activity of thinking and remembering? How can I bear the thought that my self is passing away as I age or if I suffer serious damage to my brain?
When I thought there was a distance between my self and my thoughts, experiences, sensations, recollections, conversations, readings, loves, and all the rest, I could take these things casually. There was no risk in any of these things. Yet if I am my brain, I see that there’s a risk in all of these things. To think is to undertake an irreversible voyage that will forever change me. To love is to expose myself to another that will remake me in ways from which I can never return. To have a conversation is to expose myself to others in ways that will transform me. I am exposed to the world for I cannot withdraw from it, and my thoughts, relations to the world, and relations to others are perpetually remaking me. And paradoxically, as I think, judge, feel, and recollect, I am also choosing myself and remaking myself. Yet I am choosing and remaking myself in ways whose outcomes cannot be determined, and which later phases of myself might very much dislike. If I am my brain, then how should I think, how should I live, with whom should I converse, and when– in the case of tremendous psychological despair or neurological damage –does my self, as a project and activity, exhaust the value of continuing this adventure? The recognition that my self is my brain fills me with horror and wonder, but also a tremendous appreciation for the risk and adventure of cognizing.