The Times has just published an article by neuropsychologist Paul Broks on the concept of the self and how it becomes distorted when affected by mental illness or brain injury.
The self has a fascinating history in mind and brain science as the concept has changed considerably over the years.
In the first chapter of the book The Self in Neuroscience and Psychiatry Berrios and Markov√° track how our modern-day idea of the self shows only traces in the thinking of the early Greek philosophers. It wasn’t until St Augustine that the self was defined as a ‘private inner space’.
17th century philosopher John Locke doubted the self was anything more than the ability of memory to give the illusion of continuity, when in reality, the mind was being bombarded with constantly changing thoughts and perceptions.
Perhaps for this reason, schizophrenia is often confused with ‘multiple personality disorder’, although the two are considered distinct by psychiatrists.
Nevertheless, people who ‘hear voices‘ – an experience that also occurs in people who aren’t considered mentally ill – often experience them as having distinct personalities. In effect, these are distinct and autonomous selves within an individual’s self-consciousness.
On the more mundane level, phrases like “I’m not feeling myself today” suggest that we hold multiple ideas of who and what our self is, and that we can experience other forms of self-hood.
Broks’ article deals with some of the ways the self has been explained by notable neuroscientists and psychologists, and how this abstract notion can arise from the seemingly mechanical function of the biological brain.