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.
It doesn’t take much to imagine that the special abilities of the prefrontal cortex, whenever they happened to finally come together over the long course of evolution, made our species dramatically different — outrageous, really. To be able to represent our thinking symbolically and then embed these symbols inside one another like mental Matryoshka dolls, we became beings able to efficiently create, organize, and recall enormous amounts of complex information for still more revision. Without our ability to gather together systems of symbols and connect them in elaborate, nested patterns like this, there would be no language or alphabets, no Hamlet, Faust, or “Moby Dick,” no laws of thermodynamics, no science, music, or architecture, no kabuki theater, sculpture, renaissance art, or anything else that has made the great, expansive construction project we call human culture possible. It enables minds to meld, hearts to bond and ideas to be shared, bent and shaped by many other minds, with fascinating results.
What does any of this have to do with talking to ourselves? In addition to helping us convey what we Homo sapiens feel and think to one another, it makes it possible for you to explain what you feel and think to yourself. In fact, it makes your “self ” possible, and that may be the most stunning illusion our brains have managed to pull off over the past 50,000 years — maybe the most stunning ever. The ability to create the ultimate symbol: you. Which takes us back to the question we asked at the beginning: Who are “you,” anyway?
To answer that question, keep in mind our ancestors lived and died for millions of years as members of troops consisting of 20 to 50 individuals who counted on one another every day for their survival. Living in a situation so intensely social required keeping the motives and relationships of everyone around them straight; continually recalibrating shifting agendas, relationships, alliances, and power struggles. (Do office politics come to mind?) Evolution would have favored those in the troop who used their symbol-making talents to effectively track those relationships. Maybe Goog tended to be aggressive; Targ, helpful and friendly; Moop, well organized and smart. Symbolizing would have helped our predecessors to slot others into categories so they could successfully deal with them in ways they saw fit, depending on their own personalities and circumstances.
Perhaps it was then that the prefrontal cortex reached a plateau where it could not only fully symbolize others but manage the one last thing that made us fundamentally different from all other primates and humans that had come before us, or even evolved with us: symbolize ourselves. With that, everything changed, radically. Because when we could make emblems of ourselves, it meant that we could also begin to embed our symbolic alter egos among all the other symbols we had created around us. We could conceive of guiding our own behaviors, like a chess player moves his pieces on a chessboard. We began, entirely inside of our minds, to foresee what we might do, before we did it.
We could imagine. That, in itself, represents a remarkable leap, but it made still one more leap possible. The moment we consciously direct our actions within a scenario that we have imagined, it means we have purposefully made choices. With the invention of a symbolic “you,” intention and free will were born.
This makes “you” an illusion, but an extremely useful one, because it is this capacity that makes all of us self-aware, uniquely creative, and capable of taking control of our own fates, at least more than any other creature ever has. It has transformed us not merely into an animal that can explore a life not yet lived and imagine a future we yearn for, but one that can take hold of those dreams and make them come true, choice by choice. It creates an enormously powerful force in your life, this second you with whom you stay in constant touch and who diligently and deeply influences your every feeling, thought, and choice.
So the voice in your head that is talking to you? It’s you. But the person that is listening isn’t, not precisely. It’s a symbol you have created, the ultimate illusion.
Chip Walter is an author, former CNN bureau chief, screenwriter, and award-winning documentary filmmaker. He is the author of “Last Ape Standing: The Seven-Million-Year Story of How and Why We Survived” (from which this article was excerpted) and three other science books.