Why do we think we have unchanging selves?

Extract from Chapter 1: The Self I Don’t Believe In

There are several reasons, I believe, why it seems natural for us to assume that the self is static and permanent when in fact it is not. The first of these is that we’re simply not very good at detecting change. Imagine this: you walk into a university building to be interviewed as part of a psychology experiment. At the reception desk a young man takes the consent form that you hand to him, and tells you you’ll need to receive an information packet and then go to another room to be questioned. He ducks behind the counter, picks up the packet, hands it to you, and gives you directions. It’s just an ordinary encounter. Nothing unusual. You glance at the information you’ve been handed and go on your way. The bizarre thing is that the person who ducked beneath the counter and the person who stood up to hand you the form were different people! They looked completely unlike each other. They were different heights, had different hairstyles, and wore different clothing in different colors. They spoke in different voices. And you didn’t notice—or at least the vast majority of people don’t notice. This was a psychology experiment that was carried out by Dan Simons and Christopher Chabris at Harvard University.

In an earlier experiment, Simons had another experimenter stop passers-by on a university campus to ask for directions. In the middle of the exchange, two men carrying a door would rudely walk between the two people. Afterwards, the passers-by were asked if they’d noticed anything unusual. Half did not notice that the person they’d been talking to had been switched for another person who had a different appearance, build, and voice, and who was wearing different clothes. That’s a lot of change not to see. But these experiments, which illustrate what’s called “change blindness,” have been repeated in many different forms, and change blindness is our default method of perception, or of non-perception.

There are web sites you can visit that give you the opportunity to test your ability to notice change. Typically, two photographs alternate, with a brief moment of blankness between them. There are what you might expect to be obvious differences between the two photographs—in a scene of an aircraft at an airport, for example, a building has been photoshopped from one version of the image—but it can take many, many attempts to see the change. Once you see the change, it seems obvious. But right up until the point where the difference comes to your attention, you’d swear the two photographs were identical. And remember, unlike in the college campus studies mentioned above, you know that changes are taking place and you’re actively looking for them. The change is there, and it almost seems as if our brains resist seeing it.

A large part of the explanation for change blindness is due to the fact that the brain can only deal with so much information at one time. In the reception area where the participants largely failed to notice one receptionist being replaced by another, there was a lot going on. There was furniture. There were signs, the sound of the air conditioning, the exchange of pieces of paper, verbal instructions to process, textures and colors on every surface, smells—and of course part of your brain is already taken up with thinking about things like, “Am I on time? Will I enjoy this interview? When will I get paid? Did he say the waiting room was the second door on the left or on the right? I wish I’d been listening more closely. I never pay attention.” The average person can only keep around seven things in conscious awareness at one time, and only about four things in visual short term memory. We’re so busy selecting the few things that are absolutely crucial to the task we’re involved in that there’s not much attention left for other things—like noticing that the person staffing the reception desk is now taller, dressed in different clothes, and has different facial features. The most famous change blindness experiment involved showing a video of a basketball game. Participants were asked to count how many times one team’s members passed the ball to each other. The participants were so busily involved in this task that they failed to notice someone in a gorilla costume walk slowly across the basketball court, right between the players! This experiment highlights more than any other the limited processing capability of the human brain.

The point here is that if we don’t even notice that a person we’ve been talking to has been replaced by someone else, or can’t notice a missing building as we repeatedly switch back and forth between two photographs, how are we going to notice that our selves are changing? Just as we look at two different receptionists, one after another, and think they are the same person because we detect no change, so we see different “selves” emerging one after another within ourselves, and assume that this is the same person. Even though there has been change, we assume that the self is unchanging. Moment by moment, our perceptions, thoughts, moods, and emotions are changing, reconfiguring, and creating a new self. Continue the process of change—accompanied by change blindness—for years or decades, and we start to assume that there has in fact been no change, or that the change has been purely superficial. Thus we may think that there is an unchanging core to ourselves that has experienced the changes to our perceptions, thoughts, emotions, etc.

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