Discover more from Erik Torenberg
There is no Self
Storytelling as behavioral change
Note: We just released our fourth episode of Moment of Zen. We talk about Peter Zeihan and Francis Fukuyama, Europe vs America, reforming institutions vs building new ones, and why we’re doing the show in the first place. If you haven’t reviewed our podcast, please do!
Another housekeeping note: I’m hiring someone to work on the below with me. I’ll secure the experts and this person will turn their stories into a readable product. Apply by emailing me your product vision/plan. More broadly, I’m excited about media and will be launching more media projects this quarter.
In a recent piece, we talked about you should kill your identity. In this piece we’ll make that action easier by claiming that the self is an illusion, referencing The Self Delusion” by Gregory Berns.
The idea of one singular self, as Yuval Harari has explained, is a myth. The very word “Individual” means something that can’t be divided. It echoes the idea that, sure, we have all kinds of external influences — neighbors, parents, environment — but deep down we all have a single indivisible self, which is my authentic identity, and the way to make decisions in life is to let go of external disturbances and listen to my self.
And yet, when we look inside we don’t find a single authentic self, we find a cacophony of different conflicting voices, none of which is a true self. The true self is an illusion.
Most people think of themselves in terms of their past, their present, and their future. But the future hasn’t happened yet, the present is happening right now, and as for the past, paraphrasing Mark Twain, what we think we know just ain’t so.
One model for how to think about the brain is as a computer. And, like a computer, brain storage is limited. Most people don’t have what we call a vertical recording of their life, they don’t have a camera's that’s been running since they were born that they can just replay at will. That’s not how the brain works. What happens instead is that we capture snapshots or highlight reels as they occur, as a way to compress memories. But those snapshots contain gaps between them; those memories are incomplete. if all you have are snapshots, then the brain has to do extra work to fill in the gaps. So what the brain does is invent stories about how those snapshots are connected and what they mean.
That’s what makes humans unique: we tell stories. It’s a hugely powerful way of storing information and making sense of the world given our limited capacity to retain memories. The benefit is it allows us to store lots of information. The drawback is that those narratives are often wildly inaccurate. Our memories are deeply flawed.
Zooming out: everything in our head comes from one of two sources, either hearing about it it from someone else, or experiencing it yourself. Unfortunately, the brain is not very good at keeping track of the provenance of those sources of information. It's very easy to jumble up one's own experiences with things that someone has told you with something you personally experienced. The brain doesn’t tag properly. It doesn’t self-correct. As we’ve discussed, it often picks whatever narrative is most self-serving and then it convinces itself it’s accurate.
The delusion of a self is that there's not a single true narrative, there's not a single perception of yourself. Which means the self is malleable. There's both pros and cons to that fact. It can be liberating to realize that we have agency around our story. People often feel tied to their past selves, but it’s empowering to know that their relationship with their past self is arbitrary, that their memory is faulty, and that the stories they tell themselves about their past are malleable. A friend told me he used to have the narrative that he had a terrible childhood and blamed his parents for it. He now tells himself the opposite narrative, which feels just as true as the other narrative, and it’s much more empowering. For some people, the negativity is so overbearing that they can’t honestly tell themselves the opposite, but for many people this isn’t the case. Compared to the billions of people who’ve ever lived, our lives are unimaginably better off.
The past self can be overbearing at times. But having a better sense of the self, or the lack thereof, can help us see the past self in a new light. If you look at an old picture of yourself, it should feel like you're looking at a completely different person. In every way, even on a cellular level, we are physically not the person that we were then. And it really kind of is just a story of us that's holding it all together, even though that story is constantly changing, and we get to influence it .
So our way of making sense of the world, including our own lives, is based on the narratives that we've heard throughout our life. And those narratives come from the narrative structures we’ve been exposed to. The ones we heard when we’re a child are particularly powerful, because when we're children, our brains are empty vessels for knowledge. And the memories that we develop in our youth have been significantly degraded, so they’re constantly being rewritten. They're very plastic, and they're revised every time a child recalls them. They're influenced by the context in which they're being remembered. And so there's this tendency, essentially, to create false memories, if you will, because they're not true anymore, just like I did in the example mentioned above about my friends parents.
Loni's’s tweet summarizes this piece well:
We think we know who we are, but it's actually not that clear at all. We have an idea of who we are. Our self is mostly a story we're constantly telling ourselves about ourselves. And if that's true, then it means our sense of self is a kind of delusion. And it means that our story is not written in stone. We can change it by telling a different story.