Now that my ladder’s gone, I must lie down where all ladders start, In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart. — W.B. Yeats.
Some say there exists a core self―a fundamental essence or default personality lurking within us. I would argue that humans exhibit a natural proclivity and front-loaded disposition towards certain behaviors or thought processes; but the idea of an unmitigated, essentialist-imbued persona is not empirically defensible when comprehensively considered. Instead, acknowledging that our identity is composed of a genetic and experiential amalgam is not only intellectually honest, but it allows for the possibility of adaptive malleability. Rather than obsessing over discovering our true selves, thinking of consciousness as a flexible platform for navigating psychosocial terrain suggests that we are beings in process. Fluctuation of circumstance and variations of subjective experience are not optional, they’re inevitable. If the emergence of consciousness is based on integrative information processing (i.e., parallel processing), any definition of the self will always be vulnerable to vicissitudes despite the sensation of continuity. It’s not that streams of continuity don’t exist in consciousness, it’s just that no primary thread of subjectivity is consistent. The brain, in its attempt to sort through competing neuronal data streams, will converge on an optimum range of experience (a user-friendly operating template) that “adjusts” based on environmental circumstances. These shifts in perception are often subtle and occur on a subconscious level that allows for the persistence of memory and our sense of pragmatic identity to remain intact―albeit as a functional illusion.
Aggregate concepts of self and volition, or the lack of, owe their historical roots to Eastern philosophy. However, the idea of a “true self” in the field of psychology was initially proposed by the English psychiatrist Donald Winnicott. As the doctor suggests, one’s true self is defined in relation to one’s (preverbal) instinctual sense and capacity for spontaneity prior to the influence of social variables or categorical descriptions. In contrast, the philosopher Michael Foucault referred to the self as an ephemeral construct based on repeated subjectification. According to Foucault, expectations of self and others are manifestations of gender formations, complex interpersonal relations, and socially-influenced “selection pressures.”
Whatever can be provisionally agreed upon as “the real you,” it must invariably be understood as an ongoing process without an exact location.
*Painting by KwangHo Shin.