If You Think You’re What You Think You Are, Think Again


The Many Sides of the Self

Most of us have some concept about “self” or “I” that is formed with these abstract droplets of symbols and sounds we call words. They seem like a very handy way to put a skin on a vague swishy cloud of stuff that might otherwise seem like it has no definable borders. We typically conjure our notion of “self” with the idea that we are something that bubbles up from somewhere inside the brain. Once we have our wordy skin to wrap ourselves in, voilà! We’re done! Not so fast…

If we begin to more closely examine the parts of our “self” specifically involved with wrapping things in verbal packaging we can see that it is not as clear cut as we might like to think. While it’s true that certain areas of the brain have a lot to do with language processing and verbal memory, this is actually a very tiny portion of the overall community of relationships that compose our total “self”. We remember and think many things non-verbally, so our verbal notion of our self can be in conflict with, be controlled by, and even be completely unaware of many of these other selves.

There are two important things to consider about our reliance on words as the tool understand our sense of “self”. The first is that words can be inadequate. Sometimes they simply cannot neatly wrap up what’s going on with the bubbling cauldron of electrochemical relationships in space-time that is our biological body. No matter how rich our vocabulary might be, sometimes we just can’t package our self in abstract bubble wrap. This fact also has many other consequences when consider our attempts to share ourselves with each other and build relationships. Being misunderstood because we lack the words to accurately present ourselves is just part of the problem. We can lack a shared language or communication can be diminished through fuzzy subtleties that emerge out of context and semantics. We can also be mischaracterized deliberately or sincerely even if we accurately describe our self with words. There is both a sender and a receiver involved in any relationship and there is no guarantee that the process of communication is clean and accurate.

This brings us to the second important point to remember about our sense of self: We have many selves within is. Much of who we are is a community of selves that are non-verbal – complete with non-verbal thoughts, senses of identity, decision making capabilities and so on. These various non-verbal entities within us are also not necessarily communicating clearly with each other much less telegraphing an accurate picture of our total self to that miniscule part of brain real estate involved in verbal awareness. The same possibility of communication breakdown of many varieties that we have between each other also happens between the various aspects of our internal selves.

To better understand the nature of the community of relationships that we feebly attempt to wrap in words, we can look at the relationship between two aspects of ourselves: Our gut and our brain. All of us have some sense of what we typically call a “gut feeling”, but what we may not know is that there is a whole other “self” going on in there. Our gut happens to have its own brain and thought processes, language, capability for behavioral expression, habits and so on.[1] The gut brain is about the size of a cat brain and is connected to our other brain through a large nerve[2]. We might think that our brain controls the stomach. It would be more accurate to see the relationship between the stomach and the brain the same as the relationship between a president and a parliament.[3] The gut brain often makes decisions that sometimes the rest of our selves just follow along with.

More than handling digestion or blurting out a nervous pang now and then, our gut brain frequently determines to a large measure our mental state of being. The brain in our head communicates much less with the gut brain than the other way around. The gut brain is in fact a chatty little person living inside of us. Like any relationship, violent disagreements with the rest of “us” can result in chaos. Such things as spastic colon, depression and even bone disease have been linked to the nature of the relationship between out gut and the rest of us. In fact; the manifestation of many diseases depends on how well or poorly all of our different selves both communicate and get along with each other.

It might be a little unsettling to know that what we consider our “self” is actually a vast set of relationships between many selves that we actually attempt to more or less capture in a single verbal pinpoint. It’s a lot like trying to grab the air in our fist. Our verbal state of awareness may be a wordy illusion imposed on a vast community of relationships with different interests and ideas all competing for a voice, with power shifts moving over time and climatic cultural shifts, migrations and so on much or all of which is outside our verbal net. Welcome to the wide world of parliamentary politics that is our self. Complete with factions and wars, convenient arrangements, betrayals, coalitions, intimate friendships and so on.

Our verbal state of awareness can be compared to what we might call a national identity or a broad culture composed of many individuals with complex problems and issues on multiple fronts, strengths and weaknesses and so on. In fact our broader social structures can be seen as a reflection the biological functions going on inside us. This should perhaps come as no surprise. It should also come as no surprise that the better we are able to understand and harmonize our multicultural internal relationships, the better equipped we are to deal with the issues that we face on larger fronts including nationally, internationally and globally.

Understanding our gut as a self can be helpful in understanding such things as how what we eat has a powerful effect on our identity in ways we may not have thought of before. It also illustrates the point that the various aspects of ourselves must have a friendly and cooperative relationship with each other in order to experience what we would call health. (A good biological economy if you will) Another take away point is the actual weak position of our verbal state of awareness which we seem to have falsely elevated to god status. It can be more accurately seen as playing a shaman “reporter-explainer-comforter” role that failingly attempts to explain the frightening and mysterious night sky, volcanoes, birth and death as they once appeared to us tens of thousands of years ago. In other words; we could be much earlier in the process of self-awareness than we think we are. Something to think about…

[1] Called the enteric nervous system.

[2] Called the vagus nerve.

[3] For more information on this read “The Second Brain : The Scientific Basis of Gut Instinct and a Groundbreaking New Understanding of Nervous Disorders of the Stomach and Intestines” by Michael Gershon


2 responses to “If You Think You’re What You Think You Are, Think Again

  1. Eye opening! Never thought of me as having multiple selfs inside.

    • Thanks for the feedback! I tried to illuminate something much deeper than the example of the gut brain without writing something too long. The multiple selves concept goes far beyond just brain divisions and organ structures. It includes the microorganisms that we host in our bodies, protein structures and even particular atoms. These factors have a great deal to do with not only individual identity, but cultural mindsets, history and all the connected tissue associated with that. Perhaps a future post will elaborate on this a little more.

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