I Contain Multitudes
October 25, 2008 1:00 PM   Subscribe

First Person Plural. "An evolving approach to the science of pleasure suggests that each of us contains multiple selves—all with different desires, and all fighting for control. If this is right, the pursuit of happiness becomes even trickier. Can one self bind another self if the two want different things? Are you always better off when a Good Self wins? And should outsiders, such as employers and policy makers, get into the fray?" [Via]
posted by homunculus (27 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
As the philosopher Jerry Fodor once put it, “If, in short, there is a community of computers living in my head, there had also better be somebody who is in charge; and, by God, it had better be me.”

I quite liked this quote. The question of where the self begins is fascinating - good find!
posted by Solon and Thanks at 1:08 PM on October 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

Imagine a long, terrible dental procedure. You are rigid in the chair, hands clenched, soaked with sweat—and then the dentist leans over and says,
"My name is Steve."
posted by Mblue at 1:32 PM on October 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

I wonder if there's anything to this?

So do I!
posted by SaintCynr at 1:44 PM on October 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

And it provides a useful framework for thinking about the increasingly popular position that people would be better off if governments and businesses helped them inhibit certain gut feelings and emotional reactions.

I don't understand this statement; is this actually a right-wing article about the brain?
posted by SteelyDuran at 1:50 PM on October 25, 2008

I don't understand this statement; is this actually a right-wing article about the brain?

Depends, eh?
posted by Mblue at 1:59 PM on October 25, 2008

The writer Adam Gopnik wrote about his young daughter’s imaginary companion, Charlie Ravioli, a hip New Yorker whose defining quality was that he was always too busy to play with her.

What a weird kid.

Interesting article. I know I've had the most success dealing with my own attitude and personality problems when I look at myself as distinct people. I'm just not sure how that's supposed to be a more scientifically sound definition of the self than it used to be, as the article suggests.
posted by jinjo at 2:00 PM on October 25, 2008

SteelyDuran: here's a relevant quote from the link:

"For instance, many people fail to save enough money for the future; they find it too confusing or onerous to choose a retirement plan. Thaler and Sunstein suggest that the default be switched so that employees would automatically be enrolled in a savings plan, and would have to take action to opt out."

He says this theory is called “libertarian paternalism” - I don't know if you can necessarily attach it to any specific political side, as it were. He examines it in depth on page three.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 2:03 PM on October 25, 2008

My name is Legion.
posted by namespan at 2:11 PM on October 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

And I am funky.
posted by Dumsnill at 2:16 PM on October 25, 2008 [4 favorites]

I couldn't get past the idea that there is a "science of pleasure". Why didn't they tell me about this when I was struggling to finish all of those physics and chemistry classes?
posted by twoleftfeet at 2:30 PM on October 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

Depends, eh?

Yes, it absolutely does. I guess I just got spooked when he described the position as "increasingly popular." The first thing I thought was: Oh no, now he's going to take me on the long scenic route just to sell me on it.
posted by SteelyDuran at 2:33 PM on October 25, 2008

Not that this isn't an interesting article, I think that calling the different aspects of our personalities separate "selves" sounds more like a gimmick designed to call attention to the research than anything. If they were claiming that we all had different facets of our personalities that come to the fore-front in different situations, we'd all say "duh," so instead they're saying we have "OMG different selves!" It's framing for science.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. Anything that gets more dollars devoted to scientific research is okay in my book.
posted by Caduceus at 2:44 PM on October 25, 2008 [2 favorites]

I knew all along that Herman's Head had it right.
posted by LucretiusJones at 2:56 PM on October 25, 2008

Hmm. Paging Don Draper and/or Dick Whitman.
posted by jetsetsc at 3:17 PM on October 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

Caduceus, framing it as different "selves" makes more sense when contemplating "self-binding" than "facets" does, IMO. Current-I takes action to prevent Next-I from easily carrying out some activity. Compare that with "Current-facet takes action to prevent Next-facet" - but we're the same person, just different facets... Seems to me that conceptually, "selves" gets across the idea of the internal landscape (battle?) more accurately.
posted by birdsquared at 4:06 PM on October 25, 2008

A stimulating post, homunculus. Probably over-stimulating for me, now that I've written my comment and it's a yard long. My apology for that.

About time there's a "science of pleasure". Whoo hoo! I'd like a science of motivation and determination while we're at it.

At first I agreed with Caduceus about the hype of calling it selves, not aspects of self. But maybe there is some sense to "Bad Self", Long Term Self", "Short Term Self". Transactional analysts delineate Inner Child, Inner Adult and Inner Parent, which I think are constructive, meaningful terms. I don't agree with the author, Paul Bloom, that the Inner Parent or Inner Adult are more true than the Inner Child, when he says, the long-term, sober self is a truer self, because it tries to bind the short-term, drunk self. The long-term, sober self is the adult.

The author's agenda seems at core to be how to achieve self-control, discipline and at some point in the article confounds the ideas of "binding" and governance. This bothers me because the definition of fascism is from the Latin fasces, to bind together in a bundle. He gets on a binding jag, which feels, to me, very uncomfortable. Not hurting oneself or others can be based on empathy or wisdom, not binding.

There are other ways to motivate than parentally in "self binding" or “libertarian paternalism”, which, to me, sounds like having an Inner Fascist (what transactional analysts would call the Inner Pig Parent). The author considers the Inner Parent as "the better self", I don't. Not everything about the Inner Child is about addiction, tantrums, there is also joy, vitality, laughter, fun, libido.

I wonder why the Buddhist blog of your via linked to this article, which is not Buddhist at all in any aspect. The Buddhist concept of Self and Other is based on interdependent origination: any phenomenon exists only because of the existence of other phenomena in an incredibly complex web of cause and effect covering time past, time present and time future.

Been thinking about the compartmentalization of the mind for quite some time now. A few decades in fact after studying the Buddhist definition of a human being: the five skandhas and a name, ie, form, feeling, perceptions, concepts/volition, consciousness + a person's name.

I'd been troubled by the problem of renowned spiritual teachers sexually molesting their disciples. How could a person who was a known meditator, considered spiritually advanced, commit such a manipulation? How did they handle the moral dilemma?

Then I read Oliver Sacks' book, The Man who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, which showed how important of the brain are compartmentalized. This compartmentalization probably occurred over the millennia as a genetic survival strategy, in case of head trauma, "an autonomy of the function of a particular kind of intelligence from others". Later I read that there are specific parts of the brain associated with oceanic bliss, meditative highs and a sense of the divine, it then made sense to me that a person might be spiritually evolved but emotionally or socially unevolved.

Frames Of Mind: The Theory Of Multiple Intelligences by Howard Gardner, helps to explain how and why different people seem to learn in different ways and possess different skills and talents. Gardner's main thesis throughout the text is that there is not one thing called intelligence, but rather several different types of intelligence that work together (or, sometimes, play together) inside each person's overall intellectual development and structure.

Gardner proposes the following list of intelligences, alerting the reader that while this list is broad and encompasses much of human intelligence, it is not an exhaustive list.

Linguistic Intelligence
Musical Intelligence
Logical-Mathematical Intelligence
Spatial Intelligence
Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence
Personal Intelligence

My own theory (not hierarchical but in a round with overlapping): Essential Elements of a Human Being, a palette from which everyone paints their reality, with people having strengths and weaknesses in their own unique pattern.. Many of the headings co/inter relate: Communication/connection l Physical Health l Survival Force l Sexuality l Emotions l Intellect l Creativity l Social Life l Music/Math l Laughter l Spirituality l Practicality l Finances/accumulation
posted by nickyskye at 4:18 PM on October 25, 2008 [10 favorites]

About time there's a "science of pleasure".

Here's more, via MindHacks: The pleasure seekers

I wonder why the Buddhist blog of your via linked to this article, which is not Buddhist at all in any aspect.

She sees some similarities, and wishes Bloom would read Nagarjuna.

O'Brien also writes the excellent Mahablog, btw.
posted by homunculus at 4:50 PM on October 25, 2008 [2 favorites]

"Thaler and Sunstein suggest that the default be switched so that employees would automatically be enrolled in a savings plan, and would have to take action to opt out."

My country, New Zealand, introduced a workpace retirement savings scheme run along exactly this principle about a year ago. It has been so successful (as measured by the number of people who do not opt out) that it is overloading the tax department, who administer it.

nickyskye: the author does say "The long-term, contemplative self should not always win." Perhaps there is a third self who is the arbiter, deciding when to allow the long-term self to bind the others.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 5:31 PM on October 25, 2008

"can one self bind another self" -- I read this as "blind"
posted by vronsky at 6:37 PM on October 25, 2008

The self is a fiction. We are mutable; moreso than we imagine.
posted by Eideteker at 7:04 PM on October 25, 2008

The way it seems is that there is a narrator who is thoughtful and poses questions like "why do I always fuck around on metafilter even though I have better things to do and really, when it comes right down to it, it isn't even that fun?"

The idea that we have of willpower where it is a battle of wills and the stronger one wins out and if it's the long term wise sacrificing one that wins you have will power and if it's the short term pleasure/comfort seeking one that wins you don't have as much willpower makes sense like the sun revolving around the earth makes sense, but I think there is a better relationship.

Willpower isn't like arm wrestling. Animals don't really seem to make decisions. Animals have behavior but they don't seem to make choices in the same way that people make choices. And mostly... people don't make choices either, I mean every day I make a fair number of choices but mostly I am not choosing anything. And when I'm not choosing things, that narrator isn't even around. It's not that he lost. He didn't even show up.

I don't think to myself "should I go to work today?" "should I take a shower?" "should I brush my teeth?" "should I close the refrigerator door after it's open?" "should I bring an umbrella?" "where should I look for the umbrella?" "should I make myself a cup of coffee?"

So when you think "why do I do the things I do?" you're probably fingering the wrong guy.
posted by I Foody at 9:21 PM on October 25, 2008 [2 favorites]

This is why I have such a hard time swallowing transhumanism, I'm just not convinced that an inorganic, artificial intelligence will ever be able to approximate human consciousness--and, as consciousness is influenced by human physiology, neither do I believe a human being can ever be machine-rational. Nor is it something to which I personally would ever aspire. We have too much fun together, my selves and I.
posted by Restless Day at 5:19 AM on October 26, 2008

people would be better off if governments and businesses helped them inhibit certain gut feelings and emotional reactions.

I don't understand this statement; is this actually a right-wing article about the brain?

Since when is it exclusively right-wing governments that want "inhibited" citizens?
posted by regicide is good for you at 9:24 AM on October 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

Ok, I haven't read the article yet, but on a related note, I remember one night when I was lying in bed, and had *almost* fallen asleep, when I noticed that I was more than one person in my head... At that point, I was quite convinced that my "right brain" was talking to my "left brain".

I quite distinctly remember saying, "Vamier #1, meet Vamier #2." Though, of course, I replaced Vamier with my real name. ;)

I also remember saying, "We can't tell anyone about this, they'll think we're crazy!" And I continued talking to myselves for a while before going to sleep. Weird, and I've never had an experience like that since.
posted by Vamier at 5:37 AM on October 27, 2008

Alright, yeah, I read the article. Very nice, and gives myselves a few things to think about. ;)

BTW, has anyone else had the dual-person experience like I described in my last post? I tend to think that I was simply near the edge of consciousness and my "single" controlling entity was out of the loop, allowing more than one "personality" to show through.
posted by Vamier at 7:17 AM on October 27, 2008

Vamier, my "single" controlling entity was out of the loop, allowing more than one "personality" to show through

Imo, there isn't a single controlling entity, so much as an integrated entity, like a flexible, osmotic, organic Lego sculpture with shifting pieces.

has anyone else had the dual-person experience like I described in my last post?

Not exactly, but related. When I was a kid I decided that the me, who people pleased, was false and not an identity I honored. Sitting in the public library as a runaway 15 year old, reading e.e. cummings, I thought about all the things I wanted to be, perhaps I could create a new name for myself, a name for my true self. Maybe the sea or else a cloud. Ah, elsa cloud. So for 2 years of the hardest and most difficult years of my life, during which my father was dying of cancer and I was a homeless runaway, that was the name I told some people was my name, elsa cloud.

During that time I would have deliberate discussions between what I considered my true elsa cloud self and the people pleaser false persona [birthname]. But at some point it didn't feel healthy to try and create those compartments, so delineated and opposing.

The brain's compartments, imo, in a basically healthy, sane person are permeable, interconnected, interdependent, integrated. The aspects of the self or the various different personas we use or become in life, eg the public persona, the private, the personal, the inner child, inner adult, inner parent are all connected but can manifest as an expression of the whole depending on the circumstance.

When there is over compartmentalization due to trauma or an intense emotional experience, over-compartmentalization becomes dangerous, a kind of splitting off of what cannot be integrated and then is in danger of projective identification. I think this happens with chronic abusers, for example. They cannot own their suffering and project the badness onto The Other, punishing The Other for the shame-blame-rage that is in their own mind.

There seems to me healthy compartmentalization, a natural expression of the brain's need to protect itself, roles the mind experiences in various types of communication and then there is unhealthy compartmentalization, which arises as a defense mechanism due to trauma or psychological illness.
posted by nickyskye at 10:48 AM on October 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

The beginning of this article brought an Oscar Levant quote to mind:

"Happiness isn't something you experience, it's something you rememember."

One of myselves tells that to other myselves when ever one of them might be feeling down about any particular thing, such as when I'm telling present me that he has to make certain sacrifices so that future me can live well in the future. "Sure you feel miserable now because you're saving 30% of your paycheck and can't go galavanting around town like you used to. You might feel down now as you don't really remember how 'meh' the whole time was." I tell myself the above quote and think about how I'll look back on these days as the best of my life. I tell myselves that older people are happier.

You can either play now and pay later, or pay now and play later. I played through most of my early/mid twenties but have since turned things around in the hopes that far-off someday to be me will not be forced to work through retirement. I guess this is my way of self-binding.

I'm also reminded of another quote my grandfather told me twenty years ago, "You can’t stop the birds from flying over your head but you don't have to let them build nests in your hair." To him it was a statement on the nature of sinful thoughts to find their way into your head and the ability to refuse to act on them.

I see that transactional analysis has already made it's way into this thread, so I'll just add in an observation from Neuro-linguistic Programming that relates to the ability of the other self to subvert previous attempts at self-binding. It deals with how the change in behavior should always be phrased in a positive manner, not a negative one. "I will stop smoking" becomes "I will exercise more and focus on becoming a healthier person". The mind doesn't really deal well with these negative statements ('don't think of a blue elephant!") and so being focused on smoking cessation has the unintended effect of focusing the mind on the act of smoking itself, whereas a focus on personal health and exercise will have a more positive result.. This should be familiar to those who subscribe to the Law of Attraction in that 'what you resists, persists'.

Neuroscience and evolutionary psychology (for lack of a better all-encompasing term) are a bit of a guilty pleasure of mine. To those interested in looking further into this subject I would recommend Robert Ornstien's book. He calls these compartmentalized consciousnesses 'simpletons' because of the way in which they are usually occupied with one task or role in the self and are quite stupid on their own. It's an interesting introductory coursebook for those who might find VS Ramachandran or Pinker a bit too heavy. The illustrations alone are worth the price of the book alone!
posted by daHIFI at 12:12 PM on October 27, 2008 [2 favorites]

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