If you’re like most people, your answer to this question is probably something like, “I begin inside my skull, at a spot about an inch or two behind my eyes, and I extend only as far as my skin.”
Other than the feeling that this is the extent of your geography, is there any other reason to believe that these are the true borders of you?
Perhaps, and probably not.
Your sense of your identity’s geography, like everything else about you and your mind, has roots in your brain. Moreover, the parts of the brain responsible for this feeling can be influenced, damaged, and manipulated to change the feeling of where you begin and end.
In controlled experiments, for example, subjects can be induced to believe fake rubber hands, mannequins, and even other people are a part of who they are — in the same way that you currently believe your hand is a part of you. Similarly, damage to the brain can cause a person to deny that one of his limbs belongs to him — in the same way that you are likely to deny that another person’s limb belongs to you. Last but not least, a person can be induced to believe, by seizure activity, intentional stimulation of the brain, and psychoactive chemicals, that they exist outside of their body — in the same way you think you exist inside your body now. In other words, that feeling of where you begin and end is not set in stone and is open to influence and manipulation from and by stimulus in your environment.
Once we recognize and accept this fact about our sense of self, it become much easier to second guess the presumption that a mind — yours or mine — necessarily originates in one body or brain. If the feeling of where a person begins and ends can change depending on how the brain is stimulated, there doesn’t seem to be any reason to accept as natural and given the very modern notion that a mind is something that originates in and, ultimately, belongs to one body or brain. We might even come to question whether or not this modern notion is the correct understanding of the relationship between a mind and the environment in which it emerges.
For example, many indigenous people often talk as if the land is a part of who they are, in a very concrete sense. There is an easy temptation to understand such talk allegorically, but, if a brain can be induced to believe that a fake rubber hand is a part of its identity, presumably a brain can also evolve to see the land around it as a part of its identity, in a way that is as concrete as the feeling that your hand is a part of you.
More importantly, we can and should turn this observation on its head and ask, instead, if it is our modern sense of self that has been distorted, say, by colonialism and capitalism. It is, after all, much easier to exploit other people and the world around us, when we believe that our identity extends no further than our skin.
If this line of reasoning has piqued your interest, please take a look at some of my other posts that discuss our new and growing understanding of the brain.
If you’re feeling more ambitious, take a look at Robert A. Burton’s A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind. It a friendly and accessible start to a fascinating topic, which discusses some of the research I’ve mentioned in this post.
I’m also in the process of developing a little (and free!) online course, which will explore the implications of the research described in Burton’s book (and others) from a philosophical perspective.
If you would prefer a personal guided tour through this research and its implications, let’s talk.