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Philosophy

Selves, snakes and sticks

Our selves do not end in our bodies. It reaches out, especially to other humans, but also to the whole planet. This intertwining makes egoism impossible. The neurons in our brains are wired from how we were raised and what culture we were exposed to. By purpose and coincidence. We got our parents, our friends and our enemies reaching deep into our physical brains.

Based on past experience the brain, in every moment anew, predicts a model of reality. Senses are mostly used as error correction. The brain considers the state of your body and predicts the best course of action to survive and thrive. It predicts thoughts and emotions. It predicts what we experience as our selves. The self is a non-physical concept. Like a projection. Our brain is a prism and our self is the rainbow.

There is no innate self stored somewhere inside us. A newborn have no experience, no self. We are only born with tools and possibilities. With that the self is constructed by interaction and circumstance. Sometimes it is built by chance and habit. Sometimes it becomes a facade that we believe ourselves. But what may feel as different selves are facets of the same thing – your brain trying to make sense of the world to survive.

Modern neuroscience dispels the myth of our human side having to subdue our animal side in a struggle between the reptilian brain versus the neocortex. In fact it is all one unit, one network, developed all at the same time. Emotions are not uncontrollable beasts that live inside your head and your logic is not a shepherd trying to keep them in check. We have more control than we think.

Our brains are so tuned to predict all the time that they predict things that are not real. It predicts that the stick on the ground is a poisonous snake. Because that is better than to mistake a snake for a stick. The downside is when you get anxiety, which is the brain wanting to get away from a potentially dangerous situation, from having to much to do at work, which is rarely life-threatening.

Anxiety and depression could (at least in part) be results of prediction error. The brain shuts down attention and interest in the world to save resources for anticipated action. Comfort eating works because the brain gets satisfied by stocking up on energy that it expects to release, any minute now, as response to an imminent catastrophe. Which mostly never comes.

But, and here the beauty of it finally comes, prediction can be harnessed for many amazing things. We humans have, on top of physical reality, created a new social reality where intangible things exist. Concepts like Sundays, tickets, red means stop, chess, Osiris, social classes, the Cuba crisis. Many wonderful and horrible things that are not real but still affect us and thereby in extension also affect reality. Dreams, fantasy and fiction are predictions without error correction from reality.

Our lives are predictions. We are predictions. We love predictions. We love taking part in prediction-fiction. The fiction of who we are, the fiction of culture, of religion, of stories, songs and paintings. The arts are predictions which from a safe distance gives us the thrill of trying to figure out whether we see snakes or sticks.


These rambling thoughts are me trying to sort out what I learned from some books on neuroscience I have read lately. One book in particular is How Emotions Are Made by Lisa Feldman Barrett.