Return Home

Where is that part that is "me"?

Back to Episode

Looking into a mirror as a young child, Steven Johnson wondered, "How is that me?" We try to find that part of the brain that recognizes ones self with Montclair State University Professor Julian Keenan. Turns out: only half of your brain really knows who you are. Also, Independent radio producer Hannah Palin tells about her mother, who, after suffering an aneurism, woke up with a completely different personality. She looks the same, and has the same memories, but where did her old mother go? One possible answer: Vietnam. Later, Paul Broks continues the discussion on the fragility of the self.

Read more:

Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life, by Steven Johnson

The Face in the Mirror: The Search for the Origins of Consciousness, by Julian Keenan

Into The Silent Land: Travels in Neuropsychology, by Paul Broks



Paul Broks and Dr. Julian Keenan


Hannah Palin

Comments [10]

Christy from Norfolk, VA

Fascinating topic, Thank you!

There is a phrase for the story Mr. Broks uses to explain his self, Emergent Behavior. This is what happens, for example, when more than three birds meet and, each using the same instinctive rules regarding proximity to other birds create a flock. You can point to the flock while it exists, but when the birds land or separate where did the flock go? I believe the self is the flock created by our neurons following their instinctive rules. When the electrical signals stop, where did the self go?

Feb. 17 2018 10:32 AM
lwc from Atlanta

Your mother's transformation is probably common. Once someone has gone through a near-death experience, the brevity of life becomes readily apparent, leaving one less concerned about arbitrary social constraints.

In other words, life is short.

If you feel like singing, then sing away !

May. 27 2013 08:09 PM
lwc from Atlanta

Your mother's transformation is probably common. Once someone has gone through a near-death experience, the brevity of life becomes readily apparent, leaving one less concerned about arbitrary social constraints.

In other words, life is short.

If she feels like singing, then sign away !

May. 27 2013 08:05 PM
harris from Minnesota

My thoughts are similar to that of Julie's. I wish the important question of who is this "me" or "I" that puts this story together was addressed in the broadcast. I cannot see how we can get away from the concept of a soul who is this "me." The question, "Where does this soul reside?" is I think a meaningless question as the soul by definition is non material and does not reside in space and time. It seems to me that it is the soul that sends signals to the brain to move the rest of my body. If the soul does not exist then all we have is a continous set of action and reactions that goes all the way back to the big bang - ie determinism. If that is the case then even our beliefs are simply reactions of brain functions and we have no way of knowing whether they are true. But still we are left with the question who is it that is experiencing these beliefs!

May. 25 2013 10:32 PM
Rick Evans from 10473

A chimpanzee is not a monkey.

May. 25 2013 03:12 PM

Regarding Stephen Curtis' mention of Star Trek's transporter system, indeed there was one episode in the "next generation" series where they've found a duplicate of one of the main characters (Ryker). He was in some ship or space station that had to be evacuated or something (it was later abandoned adrift), and when he was going to use the transport to "get out" of there, he was indeed "copied" somewhere else, but the one who was in that ship/station wasn't ever destroyed. He survived there alone for years, until he was eventually found by the enterprise crew.

What I think that's even weirder than those hypothetical star-trek transport machines (on which I would never enter, thanks, but no thanks, I'd rather walk) is that perhaps something similar happens every time we sleep and awake, in a way. It's not really the "same" consciousness we have in the next day, but rather a "reboot". When we get to unconsciously stages of sleep, it's like we are "dying" in a way. This is far less troublesome than have our own body actually destroyed, but still something that's a bit counter intuitive and weird, that we only realize when we think a little bit about it.

Apr. 21 2012 02:42 PM
Stephen Curtis from Jackson, California

Persistence is the question about what Paul Broks mentioned.

When I was a child watching Star Trek The Next Generation, I always wondered if the person that appeared on the either side of the transporter was in fact the same person that left.

I wondered if the real self was killed when the transporter dematerialized them, and the exact copy made upon rematerialization was no more than a clone with identical memories. How, after all, would they ever know?

I would sometimes imagine the Star Trek Universe as being filled with zombie copies of people that didn't know they were copies, and young children stepping onto a transporter for the first time completely unaware they were about to die and be replaced by an "Invasion of the Body Snatcher's" like facsimile.

It is a question of boundaries and continuity. If each part in my brain were slowly replaced by a machine, when would I cease being a human and start being a machine. When would my self awareness stop being "me" thinking, and start being a machine simulating me thinking.

If I died today, and a computer program started tomorrow with an exact simulation of my mental processes, would I really have died? Would I, "I", be dead?

I like the idea of living forever as a machine, or a piece of software, but I want to make sure when I make the transition I am actually transitioning and not really spawning a very, very close copy.

Mar. 17 2012 11:02 PM
Christy from NC

As a disability rights advocate, I was mortified by the story about the mother "losing" her "self" through the event she experienced. A daughter, a husband, any other outsider doesn't get to define "self" for anyone else. Her mother gets to define "self" for herself. If the mother's take on it is that she used to be a lot more worried about things that she now has discovered don't matter, that should be good enough for those who love her.

I am married to a man who experienced a massive stroke at age 22, years before I knew him. What I always found interesting (and what he has always found frustrating) is that his family who knew him before his stroke lament the loss of who they thought he was before the stroke-- he was so outgoing, had lots of friends, talkative, smart, etc. Since he knew what was going on in his heart at that time, he can clearly see now (and continually tells me about) that he is a better person, and has let go of a lot of the social expectations that drove him to be frequently unkind, superficial, and self-absorbed.

Ultimately, if you love someone, you accept their growth and development as a person, and eventually have to give up mourning the loss of someone they may not even miss themselves. This whole story just made me want to cry on behalf of others, like my husband and Hannah's mother, whose loved ones can't accept who they become when faced with a life-altering experience.

Oct. 02 2010 08:13 PM
Julie from Newcastle, Australia

It's a very fascinating podcast!

So, if the "self" is just a collection of stories about me that I put together to form this identity called me, then who is this "me" that puts together the stories to make up the "me" in the first place?

Is "me" the author one and the same as "me" the product or are they different?

Is "me" the author always constant while "me" the product always changing?

Does "me" the author merged into one with the "me" the product once it's formed and becomes a new "me" the author and from there builds the next new "me" the product?

Feb. 28 2009 09:06 PM
Ptight from California

I don't think that the whole thing with the monkey was completely correct because he's talking about how monkeys see themselves in a mirror and tying to say that he has a soul, I think it is more of instinct than actually recognizing them selfs thus giving them a soul.

Oct. 17 2008 12:11 AM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.