On Identity

I have a tendency to fall into repetitive patterns of thought. They possess me and make me hopeless, agitated and resentful. But these thought loops are not permanent. They only last for as long as I am giving them my attention.

During the depressive phases of my life I loved to sleep long hours and multiple times a day. I didn’t understand it completely back then, but now I see how waking up afresh acts as a reset button for the thought-loops, even if for a short while. But if waking up can act as a trigger to detach myself from the thoughts, can I also do it without going through excessive naps?

Turns out that meditation is exactly the tool for this - simply sitting down and politely bringing my attention back from the thought-stream to some simple activity like breathing - acts like reps to strengthen the ‘I am not my stream of thought’ muscle of my brain. But if I am not the thoughts, then who am I?

Attaching my identity to anything that I can observe does not seem very coherent. An obvious example is ‘Am I this chair?’. I certainly use the chair by sitting on it, but I am a separate entity from it as I clearly perceive this chair’s separate existence.

I can take this further by asking ‘Am I this body?’. I clearly use (and abuse) my body to do activities I want to, but ultimately it is separate in the sense that I can observe it. And anyway the body is made up of bazillions of cells and atoms that keep cycling out and getting replaced with new ones, quite similar to the Ship of Theseus.

Well, by the same line of reasoning I am not my thoughts either. I can observe my thoughts, use them to further what I want, or abuse them to make myself miserable. And lo and behold, with practice I can even shut thoughts off voluntarily, even if for a few seconds. But if I am not the chair, not the body, and not the thoughts - then who am I?

I must certainly be something, because I am aware of so many observations and perceptions. I am aware of being alive. And I definitely feel like I have some control over my own processes, even if it’s very hard to tame my body and mind to do what I would like.

Moods and emotional impulses often challenge the feeling of control though, hence I initially used the word possess to describe the thought loops. When a bad emotional impulse takes over, it is completely in charge of my thought process and even my identity. The anger would make the inner narrator say ‘I want to punch him’ or ‘I want to rant on twitter about this’ even if the real I would regret it in an hour or a day. But I definitely do have a pocket of space to intervene in the small pocket between impulse and action.

Ah but now arises a great question - is the very concept of I-ness just a thought in my head? Did I even orignate that thought, or did it pop up because of societal conditioning? Even if I did not originate this thought, somebody else must have done it centuries ago and made it part of the societal conditioning. So where do thoughts first originate from?

Thoughts are usually in the form of the inner narrator speaking something out in words and language. And language is the fancy tool to communicate (quite ineffectively) images from one head to another. So let’s consider thoughts more broadly as images.

Images here doesn’t necessarily refer to ‘what we see using eyes’, instead it is used here in the sense of general narrative-structure we create - consisting of objects, subjects and activities. Aha, it’s exactly like dreams - which are …drum roll… IMAGinations. Maybe if I explore dreams further I can understand where thoughts come from.

Modern understanding of why we dream points to memory and deeper integration of the scratchpad of input we receive during the day. The brain takes in the new data, integrates it with the pre-existing structures of thought, to form a narrative or storyline that it plays back to the observer. It’s like a dumb indie VR game that I daily play, where the story often makes little logical sense once I wake up.

I am no neurologist but I have heard that the region of the brain that handles logic shuts down during dreaming. Anyhow, the whole dream shenanigan the brain plays with me makes me double down on the idea that I am not a logical compute machine which somehow generates novel thoughts out of nothing. Instead maybe I am the perception - pattern recognition - integration loop in my brain.

If my brain is extremely adept at taking in new information through the senses, matching it against pre-existing patterns and structures and updating those very structures over time to deal with completely new territory of information - then is self-awareness a natural and inevitable property of this brain? Were humans bound by laws of nature to eventually observe that ‘Oh I exist’ and update their internal structures to accomodate this new self-aware stimuli? Sounds quite plausible to me.

But this says nothing about the experience I have of being an awareness - of being alive. That experience feels much more real and grounded than a mere figment of my thought stream. And anyway I can talk about that experience because I’m human, but is that awareness and aliveness feeling also present in other organisms? Even if a doggo brain can’t look back on itself and say ‘Aha I am a woof woof boi’, does that mean he does not have this aliveness inside? I would wager he does.

So what really distinguishes my identity from a doggo, or another human? My identity isn’t an inanimate object, or this inanimate body or the inanimate thoughts. Whatever it is, other organisms also have it in the exact same way. So who really am I?