Phrenology diagram from 1883

Phrenology — a popular pseudoscience in the 19th century — suggested you could understand a person’s cognitive traits by measuring specific areas of their skull. Although most of it was bogus, it did get one thing right: Different brain areas are specialized for different functions.

This functional specialization reveals a conundrum. How do all of those separate streams of information in the brain come together to give you a single coherent perception of the world?

Visual, auditory, cognitive, and all other types of processing happen in parallel across specialized networks in the brain. And although there’s plenty of connection and interaction between brain areas, there’s no “center” where everything coalesces into a single conscious experience.

So why do we feel like a single enduring self rather than a set of distinct changing experiences?

Where is your mind?

When I ask most people where their mind is, they point at their head. This isn’t surprising since mental work primarily happens in the brain, but it is strange that most of us (including me) have the feeling that there’s a distinct substance called “mind” or “self” sitting inside our brains.

In a recent study, researchers asked over 2000 people to identify exactly where in the brain they thought their conscious minds were. When shown a picture of a brain, people consistently pointed to the very front of it in the prefrontal cortex.

Locating the mind at the front of the head is an interesting intuition because many thoughts and sensations don’t even feel like they come from the head. Think of conscious experiences like physical pain or vision for example. When you have foot pain, you feel it in your foot, not your head. And when you see a tree in the distance, you experience the tree as actually standing in the distance, not in your head or body. And yet we rarely think of a mind in the foot or outside the body.

The nature of consciousness remains the biggest mystery in neuroscience and there won’t be any major revelation here. But one thing does seem clear: You won’t find your mind in any particular location within your body or around the world. Your brain runs its computations in coordination with the rest of your body, and one byproduct is a stream of conscious experience that is impossible to pinpoint.

There’s a lot of ambiguity in words like “consciousness” and “mind”. Many scientists and philosophers argue that the whole concept of a “conscious experience” is an illusion to begin with. But whatever consciousness is, it’s not a ball of energy sitting in the brain as the “self”, and it’s not a “mind” in the sense of a separable or localized entity within the body.

The more you look for yourself, the more you realize there is no self to look for.

Meditation & selflessness

To some, the idea that there’s no distinct “mind” or “self” living within them is worrying or even depressing. Are we all just soulless fleshy robots?

The reality doesn’t have to be so gloomy. In fact, mindfulness is good for mental well-being partly because it weakens the illusion of having a self. When you realize how nebulous your sense of self is, negative emotions have a harder time latching on to you for longer than they’re welcome. You see emotions for what they really are: fleeting moments of intense sensation that come and go without changing this thing called “you”.

In a 2016 study, researchers used body-scan meditations to help people feel a sense of selflessness. After meditating, people reported feeling less limited by the boundaries of their bodies. They felt less like a soul locked inside a body and more like a stream of changing sensations and experiences. This feeling of selflessness brought with it greater happiness and less anxiety.

Mindfulness helps you move from “I am sad” to “there is a feeling of sadness here.” Feelings flow in and out of your conscious experience like ripples on a lake — ripples never fundamentally change a lake and they disappear before long. When you dispel the illusion of a static sense of self getting buffeted by negativity, emotions become more like passing ripples and less like intrusive icebergs.

Rubber hand illusion

Some activities directly show you how malleable and illusory your sense of self is. Hide your hand under a table and then place a visible rubber hand on top of the table. Ask a friend to repeatedly stroke each of the fingers on your hidden real hand and the visible rubber hand simultaneously in perfect synchrony.

After watching the stroking of the rubber hand and feeling the stroking on your real hand for a minute or so, you may start to feel as though the rubber hand is your real hand. Your brain interprets the synchronous feeling of touch and vision as “this visible hand must be my real hand” and adjusts your sense of self to fit. It’s a great example of how your sense of self is merely a feeling constructed by the brain, just like every other feeling your brain constructs.

You can easily find videos showing how the rubber hand illusion works. Here is one from the BBC.

“People often say that this or that person has not yet found himself. But the self is not something one finds, it is something one creates.”

~ Thomas Szasz

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Takeaway tips

  • We are made of the same stuff as every other living thing on Earth (mostly oxygen and carbon). Buddhists have a point when they talk about our “oneness” with the rest of nature. Despite most people’s intuitions, there is no static or unitary self living inside you.
  • Is there such a thing as a “real you”? Consider how much you change when interacting with different people and contexts. You’re a different person with your family vs your close friends. And you’re different at work vs a party. There are some predictable patterns in your personality traits relative to other people’s traits, but you are mostly in constant flux.
  • Realizing the illusion of self comes with mental health benefits. Negative emotions don’t last as long, and you feel more connected to the world around you instead of feeling like an isolated mind trapped inside a body. Sadness, anxiety, anger, and other negative emotions don’t define you; you merely experience them temporarily.
  • You can practice the feeling of selflessness with meditation and mindfulness techniques. Whether you’re sitting for a meditation or walking around outside, investigate what it feels like to have a self. Where is your mind? Can you point to it? Can you focus on it? Is your sense of self similar to any other feeling? Does the feeling of having a mind change when you try to focus your attention on it?

This article was originally published in my free weekly newsletter at erman.substack.com. Sign up at this link for regular, science-backed tips to improve your health and happiness.

Neuroscientist writing about brains, behavior, & health. Sign up for my free newsletter on the science of well-being: erman.substack.com