Consciousness Blog 10 December 2010

Writing in the Journal of Consumer Research, authors Shalini Bahl (iAM Business Consulting) and George R. Milne (University of Massachusetts) describe how consumers conduct an inner dialogue between their different selves.

Say the authors: "In our analysis of relationships between two selves with different worldviews and consumption preferences, we discovered a unique relationship in which one self offers a non-judgmental acceptance of another self's opposing views and behavior, and in doing so brings peace and equanimity in a situation involving opposing preferences". They also posit a 'meta'-self which constructs an impartial view out of the dialectic between different component selves with their opposing agendas.

It is stretching things too far, though, to call these different mental agendas 'selves'. Without doubt there is lively competition in the brain between differing drives, goals and needs, going on all the time at an unconscious level, and also without question this competition is sometimes (but only sometimes) conducted at a conscious level. n that case the outcome adopted by the conscious brain will influence or even determine an actual course of action on the part of the social agent. Only one self is required for all of this, however. The possession of multiple selves is usually regarded as dysfunctional if not pathological.

Talking to oneself, which is what Bahl and Milne are studying, is popularly said to be 'the first sign of madness'. But in reality we all do it all the time, and it's interesting that talking to oneself, whether silently or out loud, plays such a prominent part in this minute-to-minute process of making plans and the functioning of the social agent. Repeating something out loud – or to a lesser extent silently – makes it rememberable for a longer period than just reading it. While playing a game involving other people, one doesn't hesitate to give oneself instructions, advice and reproof and it doesn't seem to matter that others can clearly hear everything you say. Many people, when they are on their own, admit to keeping up a running commentary to themselves on their mental and physical activities.

This all seems to fit somehow with Jaynes's classic idea that the left brain is used to receiving verbal input, and it's tempting to suppose that when a person talks to herself, it's the right brain talking to the left brain. 'Oh you idiot – look what you've done!' That's not to say that the internal dialectic is entirely conducted between the two hemispheres, only that inter-hemispherical communication probably plays a large part in it. So, if you wish, two selves, but it stops there!

Background: Jaynes's account of pre-historic moral structures in the human brain, in what he refers to as 'bi-cameral' man, places the origin of moral imperatives and guidance in the right side of the brain, whence the subjective, felt self of the left side of the brain hears voices which guide and instruct it. He presents a panoply of evidence drawn from literature, history and brain studies in support of his thesis. Important threads of Jaynes's argument rest on the functional bi-lateralisation of the brain, something that probably happened between 100,000 and 300,000 years ago (it is disputed) and was associated with the development of more sophisticated forms of language, initially, perhaps, sign language. This is not disputed, and anatomically it is a fact that the areas of the brain that deal with the production of speech both internally and externally, and the underlying areas that deal with the formation of concepts and symbolic representation (essential to language) are differentially distributed over the two hemispheres. It is also a matter of fact that in a normally right-handed person the right side of the brain deals in the realities of the nervous system whereas the left side of the brain accommodates the social agent and the self of which we are aware. Some of the evidence for this results from study of pathological conditions of the brain. See Jaynes, J (1990) The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Houghton Mifflin, New York.

See Chapter Eight of Agent Human: The Con Of Consciousness; The Illusion Of Individuality.


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