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The Story of Me

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We visit U.C. San Diego Neurologist, V.S.Ramachandran who tells us about the evolution of human consciousness…or the difference between the way we think of some abstraction, like love and the way a baboon thinks of a rear end. Something in the way our brain operates tells us about our ability to imagine and perceive ourselves. Paul Broks, author of Into the Silent Land, invites us into his childhood dreams, inhabited by tiny little men whom he had no control over. Robert Louis Stevenson, famed spinner of dark tales, had his own little men in his head, that he exploited for fame and profit.

Read more:

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson

Comments [12]

DE Teodoru from NY

Eventually-- WHEN IT SERVES AN OPERANT PURPOSE-- all animals, including pigeons learn to associate image in mirror with themselves, using it as guide to goal directed behavior. I spent a lifetime looking at how animals recover operating in an environment with somatosensory input from their bodies completely removed. Note that to cut nerves (rhizotomy) bilaterally, greatly destabilizes the vertebral column and many attached muscles. Yet, recovery is amazing, especially in fine movements such as digital ones. Now increase this gruesome horror and enucleate to monkeys, making them totally blind and eve add lesion to their balance system; nevertheless, they recover, meaning they function to eat, climb, find their personal perch in a colony cage and even fight other monkeys that are totally intact or as disabled as themselves. All this takes time. But in the end they learn successful purposeful behaviors with little other input than a constructed mental image of the outside world and motor programs by which they project their limbs in exploratory and in repeat purposeful acquisition of food, a home corner in the group cage and interacting with other monkeys. We tried incapacitating monkeys to this level in the mother's womb. In comparison to animals operated in midlife, weeks post-natum, these animals seem almost normal in how they interact socially and especially in their relationship with their birth-mom!

No tricks or mirrors. But what we never appreciate about the brain is how little it "thinks" of the self in relationship to the outside world and how much, through trial and error it adjust internally wired motor programs, settling on those that produce the desired end. Totally senseless limbs are used in trial and error programs to achieve successful goal oriented programmed behaviors that bring it satisfaction and survival. For this the self is a critical component (length, strength, joint angles, complex joint interactions and postural adjustments, etc. All this paints an image of the world outside BASED ON THE IMAGE OF THE WORLD INSIDE AND ITS EXPLORATORY PROGRAMS for extracting satisfaction from the world around them. 30 years of careful observation, reading, and struggling to maintain the limbs and the health of these monkeys in excellent shape drive me to my conclusion. Whatever clever mirror trick is used to define a chimp's sense of self in his reaction to a red dot on his forehead, in reality, it is neither foresence from telereceptors (eg, eyes)nor hindsense from proprioceptors that make possible purposeful activity. It is trial and error and the results that lead a search strategy to evolution stereotypical behavior that allows repeat of success that allows these monkeys to survive a decade in this sensorily diminished state in a social setting. For too long were "etherists" like V.S. Ramachandran and Julian Keenan to make a distinction based on a mentally constructed difference as without a sense of SELF, so radically "deafferented"

Oct. 12 2015 11:19 PM
michel from New York City

In this program a neuroscientist takes credit for the idea that the self is a story we tell ourselves about ourselves. But in fact the philosopher Daniel Dennett suggested this in a 1989 paper. Dennett proposed further that we grow up developing multiple narratives about who we are and that the unified self slowly emerges as the "center of narrative gravity" --- see "Origins of the Self" at this URL:

Oct. 12 2015 09:24 PM
btaylor36 from washington d.c.

That story excerpt dragged the whole segment down. I think the point could have made with a shorter excerpt or even without it. Fascinating show otherwise.

Jul. 27 2014 12:49 PM

Here's a link to RLS's essay on dreams in which he mentions the Little People:

Jul. 26 2014 08:33 PM
Rick from London

Can anyone help me with the name of the article by Robert Lewis Stevenson that they referenced?

Jul. 26 2014 02:17 PM
Karin from St. Paul, Minnesota

Is there a transcript of this section of the show or the whole show itself? I'm a high school teacher and would like my students to listen to the show. To allow for different learning styles, it would be great if we could have a transcript, too.

Jun. 13 2013 12:52 PM
yusuf Muhammad

The fact that,validating thinking anal is to be accepted?

Dec. 27 2012 08:03 PM
Barry Ford from NYC

Buddhism has been teaching that the "self" is an illusion for 2500 years. So I think we can say with certainty that philosophy may anticipate the discoveries of science. The "I" that I am talking about is not my true self. The true self exists "before names and forms," thus it is impossible to fully describe it using words. But this true self definitely exists. If I eat something, my belly is full. But someone else may still be hungry. Each of us has a unique point of view. When we think about this point of view, we call it "I," and we make stories about it. But those are just stories. What is our original nature? Good question.

Dec. 03 2012 07:07 AM

I must not have a very active subconscious, because the ability to have what Robert Louis Stevenson has is something I have always desired.

For me, creativity is very constructed. I have to posses a good idea of what I am trying to create, and work from a starting point using notes and graphs etc. to keep the process going. I am constantly going back to outside sources and external examples to try to find something that will help a neuron fire off and push my process to the next step.

Once I have my final product, I inevitably end up going back and revising, and tweaking, and modifying it until I find it palatable. And even still, at this stage 1 out of 3 times I end up scrapping the whole thing.

And finally, the great reveal. Everyone marvels. Some love it. Some don't. All comment on how creative it is. And I sort of laugh because there was actually nothing non-mechanical or truly original about the process.

Mar. 17 2012 11:38 PM
sara from olympia WA

How can one be so sure that the chimp or dog, rat etc. does not have an imagination? On another program (sleep and dreaming) we are told that even rats enter a certain level of dreaming where according to brain scans they might be mixing and matching experiences together in their dreams, just as we do. Personally my puppy when he attacks his toys or digs in his bed is quite animated and I assume that he is more than just reacting to his world, but perhaps is imaging a more animate foe than his squeak-toy.

Dec. 03 2010 03:24 PM
Deborah from Long Island, NY

This idea of multiplicty echos ideas by the philosophers Deleuze and Guittari (the paradox of oneness in spite of multiplicity captures it best). I believe these guys' ideas hooked into a conception of the self as multiple- in an interesting way that I do not know how to elloborate, per say. But I do wonder about the connections between the research/thought and whether philosophy (it seems to do this often!) has anticipated discoveries in science.

Mar. 24 2008 10:47 PM
aira from the South

In this segment, Ramachandran seems to be claiming that animals do not have the ability to comprehend and remember abstract concepts like the color Red and apply those concepts to new situations. However, this supposition has been shown false by Brandeis University animal psychologist Irene Pepperberg, who assisted her grey parrot Alex in learning abstract concepts like colors and shapes. Pepperberg's work and the work of animal behaviorist Temple Grandin show that animals cannot learn abstract concepts using operant conditioning, which has traditionally been the methods scientists have used to teach animals to push levers, etc. Operant conditioning (stimulus- response conditioning) is an unnatural form of learning that does not exist in the wild. However, Social Modeling Theory shows us that by performing a behavior as a demonstration for an animal, we can easily teach it all sorts of complex concepts like, in the case of Alex, concepts of color and shape and how to utilize these concepts in unfamiliar, unrehearsed situations. Using Social Modeling Theory to teach abstract concepts has been demonstrated to work on birds and humans, and probably by now, been demonstrated on non-human primates also.

Jul. 16 2007 04:25 PM

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