Modern neuroscience dictates the ‘self’ as intrinsically linked to our neural activity. But is the ‘self’ not a more fluid and dynamic entity, distributed and reflected through our daily connections, actions and interactions?
What responsibilities must we have to our ‘selves’? How do we expect fulfilling these responsibilities to affect our individual lives, and society at large? These are difficult but important questions to consider in the world today.
“The belief that we can see the mind in the living brain, can observe the passions and its desires that seemingly underlie normal and pathological beliefs, emotions, and behaviours, has been a key element in the claim that neuroscience can produce useful information about the government of human beings, the conduct of their conduct in the everyday world”
(Rose and Abi- Rached 2013 p. 13).
From ultrasounds and brain-imaging to the mapping of the human genome, technological progress in the sciences has brought us more and more microscopic images of ourselves as human beings. And in parallel, humanity has been given increasingly detailed levels of responsibility over ourselves and our health.
Consider the common example of health and fitness tracking apps with which we have seen the rise of the ‘quantified self’. Even for those who have not adopted this trend, it’s common enough for us to calculate the caloric intake versus physical output, and other factors of our overall wellbeing. With the rise of products making these kinds of measurements accessible and automated to us on an individual basis, suddenly scientific specifications of health and pathology become readily available for the general public. The responsibility to stay fit, eat right, and exercise regularly is seen as more individual than ever before.
Now, it seems, we have both the individual responsibility as well as the tools necessary for managing the ‘self’. We are both able to observe and act upon the brain.
As Rose and Abi-Rached explains, this doesn’t mean that that sense of ‘self’– or ‘personhood– is becoming ‘brainhood’. Instead, what it means is that processes that were once seemingly invisible are becoming mapped out onto non-conscious processes. This doesn’t mean that our ‘self’ equates to the brain, and nothing more or less. Rather, it suggests that the brain is a catalyst for the production of the experiential self, because we can now understand our non-conscious processes like we have not yet been able to before.
Rose and Abi-Rached refer to mindfulness in particular as emerging at the intersection of neuroscience and spirituality, and as operating under the notion that:
“Your brain is amazing; it is flexible; it can be trained, developed, improved, optimised: learn to use it well for your own benefit and for that of your society, perhaps even for the world. It is not that you have become your brain, or that you are identical with your brain, but you can act on your brain, even if that brain is not directly available to consciousness, and in so acting, you can improve yourself--not as brain, but as person”
(Rose and Abi-Rached, 2013 p. 222).
The difference between the brain, the self and the mind is an ancient area of scientific study and philosophical reflection. With the increasing dependence and ubiquity of technology in our lives, we will only continue to question it more.
Samantha Rosenthal is a digital anthropologist and part of the VINAYA Lab with an MSc in Digital Anthropology from UCL. She is an American living in London and wine enthusiast.