Thursday, December 04, 2008


The Guardian breathlessly reports: 'Body swap research shows that self is a trick of the mind'. As one would expect given journalistic standards, there's nothing in the substance of the story that supports this headline. The research shows that our sense of self-location is fallible; we can be tricked into feeling like another body is our own. Our mental representations may be redrawn as though from a different perspective, i.e. 'centering' on a dummy rather than our true bodies. But that shouldn't be surprising. (It's in the nature of a representation that it may misrepresent.)

So I'm not sure how or why this is supposed to have any metaphysical implications for the 'self' (whatever they mean by this). How is this any different from noting that a twig in water appears bent, and concluding that "twigs are a trick of the mind"?


  1. Out-of-body experiences have been cited as evidence for the view that we are immaterial souls or selves, capable of surviving the death of our physical bodies. Identifying the neural mechanisms that mediate such experiences has the effect of undermining their evidential force, by supplying a good naturalistic explanation which can dispense with the assumption that the experiences are veridical. The same is true, more generally, about near-death experiences, religious or mystical experiences, and the experience of conscious will. In all these cases, uncovering the neural mechanisms implicated in producing the experiences in question improves the quality of the naturalistic explanations, and in so doing strengthens the abductive case against taking such experiences at face value.

  2. Ah, you're suggesting they really meant to say, 'Body swap research shows that immaterial self is a trick of the mind'? Maybe. More generally, I guess they were getting at the idea of a 'subjective self' that is essentially located wherever our experiences seem to be. I would agree that that is a 'trick of the mind'. (Though of course it doesn't say anything about whether there's a "self" in some other, more ordinary sense.)

    Though, either way, the empirical research is kind of superfluous, since the possibility of the brain giving rise to experiences 'as if' from a different physical perspective should be obvious in advance to anyone who realizes that experiences are representations. Indeed, Dennett proved this point years ago with a mere thought experiment. (One might deny that the brain ever suffices to represent anything at all; but there's no principled position according to which the brain can represent things 'as if' from its own perspective only. So OOB experiences should never have been considered especially surprising or problematic for naturalism.)

  3. Richard, don't you worry about the self possibly not existing? This is what the hated post-structuralists like Foucault and Derrida often argue. Or even Nietzsche, which heavily criticizes the hypostasis of the self in the cartesian cogito (or in the more kantian, "I think").

    And does saying that the brain can only represent things "as if" solve the problem? By the way, at least Kant said it before Dennett, not counting perhaps Leibniz, Hume, Duns Scotus, Aquinas, Augustine, or Aristotle and Plato.

    Kant has some really good remarks when he analyses the paralogism(s) of pure reason.

    Kant says (at least in Guyer's edition, p. 446 or B 408) in his first proposition in the Paralogisms:

    "Now in every judgment I am always the determining subject of that relation that constitutes the judgment. However, that the I that I think can always be considered as subject, and as something that does not depend on thinking merely as a predicate, must be valid — this is an apodictic and even an identical proposition; but it does not signify that I as object am for myself a self-subsisting being or substance."

    The second proposition is more akin to the subject in discussion by those neurologists, but I really would like to hear what you have to say about the susbsistence or existence of the self, for how can you cojoin the "I" with the "think"? How can you guarantee that that's not an illusion?

    By the way, anyone can read this excerpt in Kemp Smith's translation here (via Google Books).

  4. Well while I'm in agreement that experiences have a representational aspect I think it incorrect to call them representations. But I'l not go down that tangent.

    I'm surprised this is news for anyone since as others noted changing ones "location" is pretty common. It's a common technique taught in martial arts where instead of thinking your center is behind your eyes (which is instinctive) you want to move it down near your solar plexus so as to obtain better balance.

    And of course supposed out of body experiences may well be tied to the same part of the brain.

  5. BTW - folks like Ricoeur or Derrida don't say the self doesn't exist. Rather they say its nature is much, much more complex and ambiguous than some philosophers like Descartes assumed. One big claim is that there isn't a self.

    The best book for this is Ricoeur's Oneself as an Other although he touches on it in his three volume Time and Narrative as well.

  6. Adriano -- I think the kind of 'self' you mention there (i.e. self as a "self-subsisting being") is a completely different matter from the 'subjective self' I reject in my above comment.

    It's quite possible that the other senses of 'self' may turn out to be illusory or incoherent also (I'm drawn to Lockean / Parfitian reductionist accounts of personal identity across time, for example). But I can't see how the fallibility of our sense of self-location could have any relevance to those other questions -- hence my 'twig' analogy.

  7. Okay, Richard. But might you please clearly state what is your concept of subjective self and how could that differ from the «self-subsisting being... of the self»?

    And Clark, I was mainly worried with what Foucault says about these questions. His appropiation of Nietzsche and the questioning of the substance of the self is really scary, since what Richard might call here "subjective self" as to Foucault isn't more than a fiction.

  8. Adriano, I defined the subjective self as "essentially located wherever our experiences seem to be"; it is thereby refuted by experiments (or thought experiments) showing that we might have experiences 'as if' coming from a place where we certainly don't have any self located.

    This is different from the "self-subsisting being", since there's no reason why the self-subsisting being couldn't still exist even as we misrepresent its location.

  9. One part I have a slight methodological problem with:

    The illusion was so convincing that when the researchers threatened the dummy with a knife they recorded an increase in the subject's skin conductance response - the indicator of stress that polygraph lie detector tests rely on. "This shows how easy it is to change the brain's perception of the physical self," said Ehrsson, who led the project.

    The experiment is interesting but the skin conductance test seems to show nothing extra. If you show anyone a film of someone being threatened with a knife (whether shot from a 3rd person or 1st person perspective, shown on an ordinary screen, or through the type of equipment used in this experiment) one might expect to detect the same 'stress' response.

    As for any subsequent debate about the self in a philosophically significant sense, I would be inclined to say that the experiment (whilst pretty cool) tells us nothing very surprising, and not to spend too much time worrying about an attention-grabbing headline...


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