Hierarchical Brain

An explanation of the human brain

First published 1st February 2024. This is version 1.5 published 2nd March 2024.
Three pages are not yet published: sleep, memory and an index.
Copyright © 2024 Email info@hierarchicalbrain.com

Warning - the conclusions of this website may be disturbing for some people without a stable mental disposition or with a religious conviction.

I am my self symbol schema

One of the major conclusions of this set of web pages is that what I call “I” or “my self”, which is probably the same as what some people call “mind” or “soul”, is actually a schema, a model in my brain of me and my brain processes, that I call my self symbol schema. This page summarises how I came to this conclusion and reviews the implications.

This page also tells how a psychologist, a philosopher, a neuroscientist and a polymath have each published a book that gives an account of the existence of a self-model, but none of them jump the final hurdle to say that the self-model is actually “the self”, they all say that the self is an illusion, or words to that effect.

This page is part of level 6 of my seven hierarchical levels of description because it depends on the existence of symbol schemas, and, most particularly, the self symbol schema. It is at the same level as self-awareness although in many ways it depends on it, but a number of other high-level functions such as consciousness depend on this, so are at level 7.

Contents of this page
The story so far - a brief summary of my conclusions up to this point.
The obvious question - the obvious question that arises having reviewed the story so far.
The obvious answer - the obvious answer to the obvious question.
How I reached this conclusion - a summary of how I came to this conclusion.
Others who have almost reached the same conclusion - a review of the arguments of others who have almost reached the same conclusion.
My self is real - my reasoning for why my self is real, not an illusion.
The implications - a discussion on the implications of my conclusion.
Conclusions - including an argument for why a schema is required for consciousness.
References - references and footnotes.

The story so far

The obvious question

The obvious answer

How I reached this conclusion

Others who have almost reached the same conclusion

My self is real, I am not an illusion

The implications


References For information on references, see structure of this website - references

  1. ^ Fundamental Neuroscience ed. Squire, Bloom, Spitzer, du Lac, Ghosh and Berg - Academic Press, Elsevier, Third edition 2008 or see GoogleScholar.
    Chapter 53 “Consciousness” - Koch
    Page 1223, second paragraph:
    “Note that it is not yet generally accepted that consciousness is an appropriate subject of scientific inquiry. A number of neuroscience textbooks provide extended details about brains over hundreds of pages yet leave out what it feels like to be the owner of such an awake brain, a remarkable omission.”'
  2. ^ ^ Rethinking Consciousness - Graziano 2019 Norton & Company USA - or see GoogleScholar.
    This basis of this book is that self-awareness is created by the brain creating a model of the process of attention, which is (at least part of) a model of self, but it does not make the final leap to say that this model is the self, the very soul of a person.
  3. ^ The Consciousness Instinct - Gazzaniga published by Farrer, Straus and Giroux 2018
    Review of The Consciousness Instinct
    Although this book is an interesting review of the history of consciousness research, the basic premise of the book, succinctly stated in the title, provides no advantage or explanation at all. It contains good summaries of the explanatory gap, emergence and layers of explanation, but there is almost nothing about a model of the self.
  4. ^ The attention schema theory: a mechanistic account of subjective awareness - Webb and Graziano 2015
    doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00500 downloadable here or see GoogleScholar.
    From the abstract on page 1: “The theory begins with attention, the process by which signals compete for the brain’s limited computing resources. This internal signal competition is partly under a bottom-up influence and partly under top-down control. We propose that the top-down control of attention is improved when the brain has access to a simplified model of attention itself. The brain therefore constructs a schematic model of the process of attention, the 'attention schema', in much the same way that it constructs a schematic model of the body, the 'body schema'. The content of this internal model leads a brain to conclude that it has a subjective experience.”
  5. ^ ^ How emotions are made - The secret life of the brain - Lisa Feldman Barrett 2017 Pan Books (UK) or see GoogleScholar.
    This book, as the title suggests, is mostly about the construction of emotions, but it touches on many other areas, and does discuss the representation of the self.
    Page 191 in chapter 9 entitled “Mastering your emotions”, third paragraph:

    “So in my view, the self is a plain, ordinary concept just like 'Tree', 'Things That Protect You From Stinging Insects', and 'Fear'. ...If the self is a concept, then you construct instances of your self by simulation. ...How does your brain keep track of all the varied instances of your 'Self'...? Because one part has remained constant: you’ve always had a body. Every concept you have ever learned includes the state of your body (as interoceptive predictions) at the time of learning. Some concepts involve a lot of interoception, such as 'Sadness', and others have less, such as 'Plastic Wrap', but they’re always in relation to the same body. So every category you construct - about objects in the world, other people, purely mental concepts like 'Justice', and so on - contains a little bit of you. This is the rudimentary mental basis of your sense of self. ...I speculate that your self is constructed anew in every moment by the same predictive, core systems that construct emotions, including our familiar pair of networks (interoceptive and control), among others, as they categorize the continuous stream of sensation from your body and the world.”
    Page 190 last paragraph:
    “Buddhism considers the self to be a fiction and the primary cause of human suffering. ... To a Buddhist, a self is worse than a passing physical illness. It is an enduring affliction. My scientific definition of the self is inspired by the workings of the brain yet is sympathetic to the Buddhist view. The self is part of social reality. It’s not exactly a fiction, but neither is it objectively real in nature like a neutron.”
    And page 191, last paragraph:
    “The fiction of the self, paralleling the Buddhist idea, is that you have some enduring essence that makes you who you are. You do not. I speculate that your self is constructed anew in every moment by the same predictive, core systems that construct emotions...”
  6. ^ Ibid. How emotions are made - The secret life of the brain
    Online notes that accompany the book, second paragraph relating to “Self as a concept”: “... the self is a concept in the same way that anger is a concept: a population of highly variable instances, each one tied to the immediate context or circumstance. The self concept, in a given moment, is the self.
  7. ^ ^ Being No One: The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity - Thomas Metzinger 2003 or see GoogleScholar.
    Page 299, second paragraph, under the heading “What Is a Phenomenal Self-Model? [(PSM)]”: “The content of the PSM is the content of the conscious self: your current bodily sensations, your present emotional situation, plus all the contents of your phenomenally experienced cognitive processing. They are constituents of your PSM. Intuitively, and in a certain metaphorical sense, one could even say that you are the content of your PSM. All those properties of yourself, to which you can now direct your attention, form the content of your current PSM.”
  8. ^ ^ Precis: Being No One - Thomas Metzinger 2003
    downloadable here or see GoogleScholar.
    Page 3, fourth and fifth paragraphs, under the heading “1.2. The Phenomenal Self”: “First, it is important to understand the central ontological claim put forward by SMT [Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity]: No such things as selves exist in the world. For all scientific and philosophical purposes, the notion of a self - as a theoretical entity - can be safely eliminated. What we have been calling 'the' self in the past is not a substance, an unchangeable essence or a thing (i.e., an 'individual' in the sense of philosophical metaphysics), but a very special kind of representational content: The content of a self-model that cannot be recognized as a model by the system using it.
    The dynamic content of the phenomenal self-model (hereafter: 'PSM'...) is the content of the conscious self: Your current bodily sensations, your present emotional situation plus all the contents of your phenomenally experienced cognitive processing. They are constituents of your PSM. All those properties of your experiential self, to which you can now direct your attention, form the content of your current PSM. This PSM is not a thing, but an integrated process. Intuitively, and in a certain metaphorical sense, one could say that you are the content of your PSM. A perhaps better way of making the central point intuitively accessible could be by saying that we are systems that constantly confuse themselves with the content of their PSM. At least for all conscious beings so far known to us it is true that they neither have nor are a self. Biological organisms exist, but an organism is not a self. Some organisms possess conscious self-models, but such self-models certainly are not selves - they are only complex brain states. However, if an organism operates under a transparent self-model, then it possesses a phenomenal self. The phenomenal property of selfhood as such is a representational construct: an internal and dynamic representation of the organism as a whole to which the transparency constraint applies. It truly is a phenomenal property in terms of being an appearance only.”
  9. ^ The Ego Tunnel: the science of the mind and the myth of the self - Thomas Metzinger 2009 or see GoogleScholar.
    Page 4: “'Phenomenal' is used ..., in the philosophical sense, as pertaining to what is known purely experientially, through the way in which things subjectively appear to you.”
  10. ^ Mental Models: Towards a Cognitive Science of Language, Inference, and Consciousness - Philip Johnson-Laird Cambridge University Press 1983 or see GoogleScholar.
    This book has some helpful and prescient statements about the nature of mental models, and how we can understand them, but also has a lot of less useful detail on the possible methods of processing of logic and language. The general conclusion is that brains do not contain logic or language processing modules, but that they build models of the world and manipulate them to emulate the world. It proposes that there are different types of representations for language, objects in the world and images, and that many common relational concepts are innate. It is non-committal on whether meaning is in the mind or resides in the world and has no useful information on how meaning is represented.
  11. ^ The Nature of Explanation - Kenneth Craik Cambridge University Press 1943 or see GoogleScholar.
  12. ^ Being You - A new science of consciousness - Anil Seth Faber & Faber London 2021
    Page 147, start of chapter entitled “Expect Yourself”: “It may seem as though the self - your self - is the 'thing' that does the perceiving. But this is not how things are. The self is another perception, another controlled hallucination, though of a very special kind.”
    Page 153, fourth paragraph: “...the experience of being a unified self can come undone all too easily. The sense of personal identity, built on the narrative self, can erode or disappear entirely in dementia and in severe cases of amnesia, and it can be warped and distorted in cases of delirium”
    Review of “Being You” in The Guardian newspaper - Gaia Vince, published 25th August 2021, 16th paragraph: “The self, then, is another perception, a controlled hallucination built up from an assemblage of perceptual best-guesses, prior beliefs and memories.”
  13. ^ Ibid. Being You - A new science of consciousness
    Pages 149-150 in chapter 8 “Expect yourself”: “The idea that the self is somehow indivisible, immutable, transcendental, 'sui generis' [unique], is baked into the Cartesian ideal of the immaterial soul that still carries a deep psychological resonance, especially in Western societies. ... Kant, in his 'Critique of Pure Reason', argued that the concept of the self as a 'simple substance' is wrong, and Hume talked about the self as a 'bundle' of perceptions. Much more recently, the German philosopher Thomas Metzinger wrote a very brilliant book called 'Being No One' - a powerful deconstruction of the singular self. Buddhists have long argued that there is no such thing as a permanent self and through meditation have attempted to reach entirely selfless states of consciousness.”
  14. ^ Godel, Escher, Bach - Douglas Hofstadter Penguin Books UK 1979 or see GoogleScholar.
    This fascinating book, despite its title, is mostly about the functioning of the brain, although it covers many other subjects as well.
    Pages 385 to 387 under the heading “Subsystems”:
    “There is no reason to expect that 'I', or 'the self', should not be represented by a symbol. In fact, the symbol for the self is probably the most complex of all symbols in the brain. ...it functions almost as an independent 'subbrain', equipped with its own repertoire of symbols which can trigger each other internally. ...'Subsystem' is just another name for an overgrown symbol, one which has gotten so complicated that it has many subsymbols which interact among themselves. Thus, there is no strict level distinction between symbols and subsystems. ...the border is fuzzy.
    Page 387 to 388 under the heading “The self-system and consciousness”, first paragraph: “A very important side effect of the self-subsystem is that it can play the role of 'soul', in the following sense: in communicating constantly with the rest of the subsystems and systems in the brain, it keep track of what symbols are active, and in what way. This means that it has to have symbols for mental activity - in other words, symbols for symbols, and symbols for the actions of symbols. ...this way of describing awareness - as the monitoring of brain activity by a subsystem of the brain itself - seems to resemble the nearly indescribable sensation which we know and call 'consciousness'. ...it seems that the only way one could make sense of the world surrounding a localized animate object is to understand the role of that object in relation to the other objects around it. This necessitates the existence of a self-symbol;”
  15. ^ I am a strange loop - Douglas Hofstadter 2007 Basic Books or see GoogleScholar.
    Page 95, under the heading “Where the Buck Seems to Stop”: “The thesis of this book is that in a non-embryonic, non-infantile human brain, there is a special type of abstract structure or pattern... that gives rise to what feels like a self.”
    Page 180, under the heading “A Pearl Necklace I Am Not”: “The strange loop making up an 'I' is no more a pinpointable, extractable physical object than an audio feedback loop is a tangible object possessing a mass and a diameter. Such a loop may exist 'inside' an auditorium, but the fact that it is physically localized doesn’t mean that one can pick it up and heft it, let alone measure such things as its temperature and thickness! An 'I' loop, like an audio feedback loop, is an abstraction - but an abstraction that seems immensely real, almost physically palpable, to beings like us...”
    Page 181, under the heading “I Am My Brain’s Most Complex Symbol”: “Accordingly, the 'I' symbol, like all symbols in our brain, starts out pretty small and simple, but it grows and grows and grows, eventually becoming the most important abstract structure residing in our brains. But where is it in our brains? It is not in some small localized spot; it is spread out all over, because it has to include so much about so much.”
    Pages 182-3, under the heading “The Slow Buildup of a Self”: “We begin life with the most elementary sorts of feedback about ourselves, which stimulate us to formulate categories for our most obvious body parts, and building on this basic pedestal, we soon develop a sense for our bodies as flexible physical objects.”
    Page 188, under heading “...But Am I Real?”: “And so I ask you, dear reader, are temperature and pressure real things, or are they just 'façons de parler' [ways of speaking]? Is a rainbow a real thing, or is it nonexistent?... And thus it is with this notion of 'I'. Because it encapsulates so neatly and so efficiently for us what we perceive to be truly important aspects of causality in the world, we cannot help attributing reality to our 'I' and to those of other people - indeed, the highest possible level of reality.”
    Page 315, under the heading “Double or Nothing”: “Ultimately, the 'I' is a hallucination, and yet, paradoxically, it is the most precious thing we own.”: A review of “I am a strange loop” by Hofstadter - Tom Siegfried 2012, 12th paragraph:
    “But consciousness is more than just an ordinary feedback loop. It’s a strange loop, which Hofstadter describes as a loop capable of perceiving patterns in its environment and assigning common symbolic meanings to sufficiently similar patterns. ... Floods of raw sensory data trigger perceptions that fall into categories designated by 'symbols that stand for abstract regularities in the world,' Hofstadter asserts. Human brains create vast repertoires of these symbols, conferring the 'power to represent phenomena of unlimited complexity and thus to twist back and to engulf themselves via a strange loop.' Consciousness itself occurs when a system with such ability creates a higher-level symbol, a symbol for the ability to create symbols. That symbol is the self. The I. Consciousness. 'You and I are mirages that perceive themselves,' Hofstadter writes. This self-generated symbol of the self operates only on the level of symbols. It has no access to the workings of nerve cells and neurotransmitters, the microscopic electrochemical machinery of neurobiological life.”

Page last uploaded Sat Mar 2 05:22:41 2024 MST