Suppose you could shrink down to the size of a molecule and enter your brain. You would immediately find yourself flying among billions of neurons along great highways of dendrites and axons with streams of chemicals splashing across synaptic gaps and firestorms of electricity arcing all around. At this scale, the real estate of your mind would be vast, planetary in its dimensions, as you rode your molecule-size vehicle. Everywhere, commands that make it possible for you to walk, breath, see, smell, speak, reflect, and imagine would be at work.
Witnessing the weather of your thoughts and feelings like this would be extraordinary, but even from this vantage point, or maybe because of it, you could never imagine that all of the impulses and chemistry blowing up and down the intricate infrastructure around you could possibly be you. Yet it is. You are assembled from these nonstop, chaotic processes; the rolled-up, aggregated chemistry and biology through which you are zipping.
The bewildering mystery of how this happens is what Douglas Hofstadter hoped to resolve when he penned his landmark book “Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid,” and asked, “What is a self, and how can a self come out of stuff that is as selfless as a stone or a puddle? What is an ‘I’?”
It’s an easy question to ask, and we’ve been asking it for as long as we have been around to put it on the table. The answer, though, is just a bit tougher to come by than the asking.
But we can try.
You may have noticed from time to time that when you think, you find that you are talking to yourself; not necessarily out loud, but in your mind. Nearly every waking moment, we describe what is going on in our minds to ourselves, like a sports announcer calling a game, remarking on what we see, commenting on our own insights, polling ourselves on what we feel, wondering why this and how that. God, I’m edgy this morning. This coffee is delicious! Hmmm, rain — better grab the umbrella. That’s an interesting choice in a hat, if you’re insane! You know you really have to get better at remembering people’s names.
Our reflections run the gamut from the mundane to the ethereal, occasionally the sublime, but they almost never stop, until we fall asleep. When you think about how you think about yourself, you are experiencing what psychologists call metaconsciousness, the ability to be aware that you are aware.
Though we take it for granted, this capability requires language, and the interesting thing about language is that it requires using symbols that we sound out in our minds so we can understand what we are saying to ourselves. That we can do this is remarkable in itself, but doesn’t conversing with yourself make you wonder: If you are doing the talking, then who are you we talking to? Or, if you are doing the listening, then who, precisely, is doing the talking? Are we one person or two? Or many? Who is the voice in your head, and how did it get there?
The answer stems from our special ability to not only attach symbols like sounds and images to thoughts, feelings, and concepts, but to weave whole herds of symbols into intricate and nested emblematic systems. No other animal can do this, but we can, and we can do it in an almost infinite variety of ways. Take this paragraph, for example. You not only see the letter A in the words here and associate a sound with that letter, but your mind effortlessly combines many A’s and other letters into words, each of which has still greater meaning than the individual sounds of each letter. And then you can pile together these new word-symbols into sentences that express greater meaning than any one word, and so on.
This talent we have for nesting symbols within symbols resides in the prefrontal cortex. Thanks to it, we are able to think ahead by taking symbolized ideas, concepts, and memories, and then cobbling them together into scenarios that are completely nonexistent except in our brains. By recalling information held in our long-term memory, packaging it with new information, setting these newly organized symbols aside in working memory so they can percolate while we move forward with other goals and ideas, we can advance through the day, prioritizing, organizing, imagining, worrying, creating. Sometimes the work is mundane, like figuring out how to get showered, make phone calls, answer email and catch the subway in more or less the correct order so we don’t show up at an appointment late, unbathed, and misinformed. Sometimes the work is profound and results in the special theory of relativity. You never know.