Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Illusion of Self

We think of ourselves as separate beings isolated from the rest of the world, with our skin forming the barrier between inside and outside. This sense of separateness runs deep within the human psyche, guiding our thinking about such fundamental issues as being, life, and (particularly) death. Among Westerners, the notion of isolation extends outward to embrace humanity and exclude the nonhuman world; in this conception, humans exist outside, usually above, nature. The end result of all this externalization is billions of “skin-encapsulated egos,” each of us consumed by thoughts of furthering our own ends and protecting ourselves from the outside world.

But what if we are not separate at all? What if we are fully immersed into the ebb and flow of everything around us? Would such knowledge change how we think and act? I’m not certain about the answer to the third question, but there’s now little doubt about the first two. Scientific insights over the past several decades mirror much older insights derived from a variety of wisdom traditions. Despite its near ubiquity, we can state with confidence that the notion of a separate self is largely illusory.

The most obvious challenge to the concept of separateness is our need to consume air, water, and food. At what point did your last breathe, sip, or bite cease to be part of the outside world and become you? The truth is that we constantly exchange matter with the outside world, replacing every atom in our bodies every seven years or so. And your metabolism is intimately linked to Earth’s metabolism. Energized by sunlight, life converts inanimate rock into nutrients, which then pass through plants, plant-eaters, and animal-eaters before being decomposed and returned to the inanimate Earth. Humans fit into this amazing planet-scale metabolic system as major consumers of plants and animals. Isolation from any aspect of this metabolic flow translates to death.

If all that isn’t enough to dampen your sense of separateness, how about the fact that the body you identify with consists not of one lifeform but many? Your mouth alone contains more than 700 distinct kinds of bacteria. Carving out a variety of roles over every square millimeter of tongue, teeth, and gums, many of these microbial partners serve as armed guards, improving health by fighting disease-causing bacteria. Others can cause dental cavities if you don’t brush. Your skin and eyelashes are equally loaded with bacteria (no matter how long you shower) and your gut has a bevy of bacterial sidekicks (on the order of another 500 varieties) that are essential to converting food to useable nutrients. Although this still leaves several bacteria-free regions in a healthy body (e.g., brain, spinal cord, blood stream, etc.), current estimates indicate that, of the 10 trillion cells that compose your physical self, 9 out of 10 are not human cells. This means that your body is home to more lifeforms than there are people on Earth, or stars in the Milky Way galaxy.

If your bias is to count genes instead of cells, the truth of the matter becomes even more stark. You house about 30,000 human genes, versus about 100 times as many bacterial genes. In short, depending on how you make the calculation, you are somewhere around 1-10% human, and 90-99% nonhuman (1). A large-scale, five-year research effort called the human microbiome project (HMP) is currently underway (2). Five main body areas are being targeted in the HMP -- skin, mouth, nasal cavity/lungs, vagina, and gut -- but the goal is to indentify and characterize all the microbes inhabiting the human body. If you’re immediately inclined to regard these multifarious bacterial hitchhikers as freeloaders, or even parasites, keep in mind that these trillions of microbes are indispensible to your health, helping to regulate not only your physical well being—digesting food, processing vitamins, keeping out bad bacteria, etc—but perhaps your mental and emotional vigor as well.

And just in case you attempt to cling to some kind of special status for your human cells, it turns out that even they are likely the result of ancient evolutionary mergers with bacteria. Each of your human cells contains a “mitochondrion,” a membrane-enclosed “organelle” that is responsible for generating most of the cell’s energy, as well as such activities as cell signaling, growth, and death. Hundreds of millions of years ago, mitochondria evolved from certain types of bacteria that were engulfed by other bacterial forms. A mutually beneficial relationship developed between the host cells and the newly incorporated bacteria and this successful partnership was passed on to all animal cells, including our own. A similar merger occurred in the evolution of another cell structure called chloroplasts, which are big players in plants and other photosynthesizing lifeforms.

So, if you continually exchange matter with the outside world, if your body is completely renewed every few years, if you are walking colony of trillions of lifeforms, and if your human cells still incorporate bacterial ancestry, exactly what is this self that you view as separate? You are not an isolated being. You’re an ecosystem, a complex, self-regenerating amalgam of lifeforms that interact communally to form a larger whole. Metaphorically, to think of your body as a machine, as current bias would hold, is inaccurate at best and destructive at worst. You’re far more akin to a whirlpool, a brief, ever-shifting concentration of energy in a vast river that’s been flowing for billions of years.

We’ve only begun to fathom the implications of this profound notion, but it’s one that deserves to be disseminated and discussed widely. I think that the dissolution of our separate selves can help us see the world in new, more accurate, and even sustainable ways. What do you think?

Notes and References
1) A quick search will reveal many sources online that cite similar numbers, but I recommend a wonderful TED talk on bacteria by Princeton University microbiologist Bonnie Bassler: http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/bonnie_bassler_on_how_bacteria_communicate.html

2) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_microbiome_project

3) This is called endosymbiosis theory. For more information, check out: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mitochondrion

All images courtesy of the public commons website Wikimedia.


  1. Excellent points.

    "Hundreds of millions of years ago, mitochondria evolved from certain types of bacteria that were engulfed by other bacterial forms."

    Weren't they engulfed by eukaryotic cells? Or do we know whether cellular nuclei evolved before or after mitochondria? (In either case, calling the basal neomurans that the main portion of eukaryotic cells evolved from "bacterial" might be contentious, no?)

    "I think that the dissolution of our separate selves can help us see the world in new, more accurate, and even sustainable ways."

    The concept of self probably too ingrained in our wiring (and our language) to ignore completely. (Even this essay uses words like "you" and "your" and "being".) But it can be productive to try and see past it.

    1. I really enjoyed this article. My take on what he refers to as "separate" self is as follows.

      The author is referring to the self that is the inner monologue, the "I" that we have developed and maintained over the years. To simply omit the words "you", "your" etc would be a tad difficult to say the least!

      I think the basis for the argument would be to use those words existentially, rather than to identify with them personally. The illusion of self is pretty strong, but once you see past it in the expanse of infinite silence of the universe, it is truly amazing.


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  3. Thanks for the comments Mike. First, to my knowledge (keeping in mind that I'm a vertebrate paleontologist), mitochondria are thought to have first evolved within prokaryotes rather than eukaryotes (see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mitochondrion), so the assertion of bacterial origins seems accurate.

    Second, I agree wholeheartedly that the notion of a separate self is far too ingrained to be discarded entirely. Nor would I consider this a step forward. The key is to see ourselves as wholes and parts, to get a sense that we are both emergent selves and also amalgams of other life forms that embed us fully into the nonhuman world.

  4. You write Mr. Scott!

    Everyday do we ask what mean evolution? Is it arrested?...Never!
    It is, probably, a continuos synergy with nonhuman world?
    Afterword we are part of Earth's metabolism.


  5. Interestingly, you mentioned in the post that bacteria are excluded from the Central Nervous System. Although I completely agree in considering the human body as an echosystem lacking a real boundary from the "external" world, I think the "self" concept cannot dissolve completely, being it one of the most important elements of that symbolic system called "human mind". The "self", here considered a symbol useful in the elaboration of complex social interactions, probably evolved very early in human evolution (if not before hominid origin), becaming a deeply nested element of human mind. The dissolution of the "self" probably would imply the dissolution of the complex pattern of neural elaborations that produces every human beings.
    So, I agree in thinking that "the dissolution of our separate selves can help us see the world in new, more accurate, and even sustainable ways", but, at the same time, how deep and complete the dissolution of "self" could be, if the mind doing that dissolution was build by the "self concept" itself (horrible play of words)?

  6. I agree Andrea. As noted above in my response to Mike, I am not advocating that we discard our sense of self (which would never happen anyway). Rather we need to see ourselves both as parts and wholes, as individuals selves and collective selves. To get there, we must disolve the boundary (at least temporarily) between self and other, and realize that we are not separate and isolated from the rest of the world, but fully embedded within it on both micro and macro scales. Thanks for your comment.

  7. But what about the human soul ? If you do not have a soul how would you explain self-counsciousness ?

  8. Esset, a fantastic book on the subject is Consciousness Explained, by Daniel Dennet.

  9. Very interesting read! When I try to discuss these very same ideas with well-educated friends, I invariably get heated, threatened resistence. The attraction of the notion of an individual, unique self - particularly in the West - is so strong that even most Buddhists reject it. At least the Western ones that I know do. And as far as I know, the Buddhist concept of anatta (the lack of inherent selfness in phenomena) is the first expression of this insight. Or at least one of the first.

  10. @ esset: As far as I know, no one has ever detected a soul or soul-substance. Neurobiology does a pretty good job of describing how self-consciousness arises out of the body's 5 senses interacting with the environment. There's a lot about this on the internet. It should be easy to google up. Best regards..