Life is an activity and passion in search of a narrative.
-- Paul Ricoeur
My granddaughter Alex, who was then not yet two, had begun to speak in sentences. On a visit to Brooklyn, where Alex lived with our son and his wife, we were shown a free-standing play kitchen that my daughter-in-law had recently picked up at a stoop sale, along with a complete set of scaled-down cookware and utensils. “I cook,” Alex proudly announced, as she puttered about in her little kitchen, literally whipping up recipes out of thin air. “I cook!” This was not simply a statement about cooking but rather cooking with a personal pronoun attached to it. By expressing herself in the first-person singular, our granddaughter had begun to tell a story about herself, weaving a narrative that for a while unfolded in the present tense only. Eventually it would encompass memory and reflection as well. In time this running narrative would become the foundation of a fully inhabited self.
But who or what actually inhabits this entity we refer to so familiarly as “I?” Mystics, philosophers and, most recently, neuroscientists have puzzled over this question. Virginia Wolff broke new ground as a novelist by getting inside the heads of her characters and weaving her narratives from the jumble of thoughts and impressions by which we apprehend the world. In To the Lighthouse or Mrs. Dalloway, there is no omniscient narrator to render judgment or to impose order on unruly circumstance. And yet Wolff believed there is a strange sort of alchemy at work that enables a coherent self to emerge spontaneously from the prima materia of disconnected thoughts and emotions that form our consciousness. In its most rudimentary form, this process can be seen in a small child’s narrative impulse in attaching a personal pronoun to simple declarations of engagement with the world.
If the self is merely disparate thoughts and emotions strung together like beads on a necklace, what ties them together? The 18th-century philosopher David Hume was among the first to ponder this question and was unable to find a connecting thread. He disputed the notion that a fixed self could be derived from the “perpetual flux” of perceptions that play through the mind. He wrote: “If any impression gives rise to the idea of self, that impression must continue invariably the same, through the whole course of our lives; since self is supposed to exist after that manner. But there is no impression constant and invariable. Pain and pleasure, grief and joy, passions and sensations succeed each other, and never all exist at the same time. It cannot therefore be from any of these impressions, or from any other, that the idea of self is derived; and consequently there is no such idea.”
As it turns out, Hume’s philosophical ruminations anticipated by several centuries conclusions that neuroscientists have reached through careful experimentation. There is no single locus in the brain that serves as a command and control center, they have found, only a collection of semi-autonomous regions that are loosely yoked together. Not only are we not of one mind, we don’t really even have one brain. The two hemispheres of our brain function nearly independently, linked only by a band of nerve tissue that transmits signals back and forth so our left hand knows what the right hand is doing. The self is generally regarded as an elaborate fiction whose main purpose is to allow us to function as a single organism.
And yet if we are, in fact, not one self but many, how do you explain the narrative drive that caused my granddaughter to attach a personal pronoun to the disconnected thoughts and sensations that vied for her attention? Almost from the time we begin to speak, we tell stories about ourselves, and where there are stories we naturally conclude there must be a storyteller. Perhaps our mistake is in assuming that just because we tell the story, we are its author. Perhaps we exist in a larger narrative framework in which we are merely characters whose thoughts and impressions are the means by which the story is told. Virginia Wolff thought she detected a pattern hidden behind the “cotton wool” of everyday life that led her to believe that the whole world is a work of art. “Hamlet or a Beethoven quartet is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world,” she wrote. “But there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.”
Jonah Lehrer, Proust Was a Neuroscientist
David Hume, “Of Personal Identity” in A Treatise of Human Nature
Virginia Wolff, “A Sketch of the Past"