Most of us instinctively think that our sense of self is located in our head – but experiments show that our brains aren’t working alone in creating our sense of self

Humans



9 December 2020

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Where is your self?

FOR the Ancient Egyptians, it was the heart. For philosopher René Descartes, it was somewhere entirely separate from the body. According to the Buddhist concept of anatta, it isn’t anywhere, because the thing concerned doesn’t exist.

But what does modern science say about where your self – your “soul”, if you like – resides?

At first pass, that might not seem a particularly scientific question. Regardless, most of us have an intuitive answer. When, in as-yet unpublished work, Christina Starmans and her colleagues showed people from the US and India pictures of flies circling around a person, and asked which flies they thought were closest, the results were striking: regardless of cultural background, most people pointed to flies near a person’s eyes. “This suggests there is a universal sense of the self being located in the head, near the eyes,” says Starmans, a psychologist at the University of Toronto in Canada.

Subjectively at least, the eyes being windows to the soul checks out. “The sense of where in our bodies we are located is informed by our dominant experience of the world,” says Starmans. “Almost all of our input from the world comes in through our head.”

What our heads do with these inputs is certainly incredible, and key to our feeling that we are coherent beings. Our brains take a hotchpotch of electrical messages from our sense organs – eyes, ears, nose, skin – and combine them with memories to create a vivid, unified sense of conscious experience that is continuous in time.

How exactly this happens is still something of a mystery. But …