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It’s as if the ghost is controlling the machine

August 14, 2009

Ever since I heard Dave speaking on identities, specifically in the context of understanding the behavior of customers, employees etc, I’ve been fascinated by the the concept. Maintaining multiple identities seem to be such a natural process for us, that it happens without us knowing about it. This phenomenon certainly has profound impact in all areas of human interaction, specifically in change management, leadership, marketing and communications, employee engagement … and the list goes on.

I wanted to share with you a really interesting post by Jonah Lehrer, on Identity Delusions . I’ve included key bits I found interesting, but it really is worthwhile to read the entire post as he shares the story of a really interesting case study that shows just how fragile the emergent construct of identity is.

” … This reminds me of that marvelous Virginia Woolf quote, in which she described the self as our sole “theme, recurring, half remembered, half foreseen.” The quote captures the mysterious nature of identity, emerging from some alchemical concoction of memory, emotion and sensation. The self feels like a singular thing – I am me – and yet it comes from no single brain area and depends on a vast network of neurons, distributed across the brain. This means that we are not a place: we are a process. As Daniel Dennett wrote, our mind is made up “of multiple channels in which specialist circuits try, in parallel pandemoniums, to do their various things, creating Multiple Drafts as they go.”

Given the fundamental role of the self in human experience, it’s sobering how little we know about it. (The fact that we call it an emergent property is a sign that nobody really understands what the self is or where it comes from.) For the most part, we’re forced to marvel at its effects via attention, as the self chooses which sensations to pay attention to. These sensory cells then show increased sensitivity and enhanced firing, making them more likely to enter the narrow stream of consciousness. (This is known as selective attention or executive attention. Here’s an excellent review of the subject.) Think, for a moment, about how profoundly strange this is: the self, a fragile figment produced by all these different mental processes, is causing very real changes in neural activity. An emergent property is altering the electrical cells from which it emerged. (Douglas Hofstadter has always been very eloquent on this paradox.) It’s as if the ghost is controlling the machine. “

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