How many of you think more clearly once you’ve had your morning coffee?  (Raise your hand.)

How many of you have experienced some type of sugar high that caused you to feel happier or more productive?  (I have ten arms raised.)

How many of you have taken drugs sometime in the past and gotten high in general?  (I don’t really want to know.)

My point here is that food, drinks, and chemicals have the tremendous ability to affect our moods and thoughts in a way that we normally don’t question.  It’s common knowledge and taken for granted.  But if you stop to think about it – isn’t the SELF that we refer to – our CONSCIOUSNESS – our SOUL – that which helps us think and feel?  Isn’t our SELF supposed to be the part of our being that determines whether we are happy or sad, whether we’re motivated or feeling blah, whether we choose to zig instead of zag?

Most of us believe that we are not simply our physical bodies or even our brains.  We are not just biological robots, there seems to be a sentient force inside of us that is separate from the exterior.

But if that is true, how is it possible that our intangible self is subject to hallucinations or even violent thoughts after taking tangible items like drugs?  How is it that our moods can be manipulated by something as mundane as caffeine or sugar?  Why is my grouchy self a mushy lovebug after imbibing the right drink

There is an anti-depressant called Abilify that can cause a person to impulsively and addictively gamble, eat, shop, or have sex.  As a financial planner, I was stunned to learn that a formerly money savvy client had gotten into extreme credit card debt after starting this medication.  I did not realize that something as elementary as a drug could cause one to involuntarily indulge in such specific behaviors for which one had little predisposition initially.  But Abilify and similar drugs have the scary ability to increase dopamine in the brain which in turn magnifies or stimulates its motivation and reward receptors, causing impulsive and extreme behaviors.  It appears it’s not a long slide from Abilify to Addictify!

Arguments Against the Self

In ‘The Man Who Wasn’t There – Tales from the Edge of the Self,’ an award winning book by science journalist Anil Ananthaswamy, the changing or disassociation of self with the body or societal norms is described through disorders like schizophrenia, autism, dementia, and epilepsy.  The book’s main purpose is to examine the concept of self and how it changes or even seems to disappear when certain biological or chemical factors affect the body and mind.  For example, he talks about Cotard’s syndrome (also called Walking Corpse), a rare and baffling condition where the afflicted feels he or she is already dead.  They believe that they no longer exist, and they are often severely depressed or disturbed as a result.

Mr. Ananthaswamy makes a distinction between the BODY Self and NARRATIVE Self.  The Body Self would be one where the person is associating themselves with their physical body, and the Narrative Self involves one’s memories or identity or more cognitive variables.  The Body Self would be affected by a disorder like Cotard’s and the Narrative Self would be impacted by something like Alzheimer’s.  The Narrative Self might also be disturbed through schizophrenia, where ideas that arise in one’s mind as part of the normal thinking process are thought to be separate and distinct, as if third-party voices are talking instead.  This leads to paranoia and the person feeling that they are being controlled by someone else.  When in reality, the issue is that they are simply not recognizing themselves as the creator or narrator of their own thoughts. 

(I always have my Tiger Mom’s voice in my head, controlling my actions, but I believe that’s another disorder discussion for another day.)

Mr. Ananthaswamy shows how some people can have their Body Self affected, but not their Narrative Self, or vice-versa.  The interesting takeaway is that biological and chemical disturbances can cause the loss of what we call the self in numerous ways.

The Man Who Wasn’t There is an illuminating read for those who have ever wondered how connected consciousness might be to the body and brain.  For me, it was compelling support for the possibility that there is no separate soul or self, that we are just complex configurations of neurons and protons and croutons, and our decisions or personalities are merely constructs of our biology and nothing more.

Arguments for the Self

Of course, there are always situations where the river flows the other way, i.e. the self seems to be directing the body instead of the body controlling the self.  There have been studies done on monks who are able to slow down their breathing rate to shocking low levels through meditation.  The Guinness record for longest time to hold one’s breath is 22 minutes.  Athletes constantly use willpower to push through blinding pain and perform astonishing feats.  There have even been reports of mothers being able to lift a car off their child through sheer determination and force of love.  And of course there have been reports of near-death experiences where the brain was declared clinically dead but the patient was later able to report the events that occurred during that time.

For this and other reasons there is also a part of me that simply can’t shake the idea of a ME or a FREE WILL that is separate from the physical body or any food, drink, or disease.  It’s the ME that I deem responsible for all of my moral choices. I am not able to understand those who argue against free will and imply that a criminal may be just an artificially programmed human lemon and not wholly accountable for his crimes.  That’s just too hard to swallow.

I believe this SELF is the one that still exists even if the Body Self or Narrative Self is affected.  And I believe it can be summed up in one word – INTENTION.  In addition to the Body Self and Narrative Self, I would argue that there is something called the Intention Self, the one that has to do with our ethics and intended choices.  And if there is an intelligent or planned design to the Universe, then I believe it would be the INTENTION Self that really counts in the end.

I liken the cosmic courts to the ones we have here on Earth.  If a person is not capable of determining their own actions, if they did not know what they were doing when they committed a crime because they were fully or partly insane, I would think that the universe would not hold that soul accountable. Their negative actions would not count against their positive karmic credit score.

So for someone suffering from dementia who accidentally lights a house on fire, that would obviously be different from the actions of an arsonist who wants to expressly cause damage.  Both in this world, and the one after.  Taking it to a subtle degree further, if the person suffering from dementia is also grouchy and selfish and does nothing to help others, perhaps that doesn’t count against them either, as long as the prickly personality is due to involuntary reasons beyond their control.  (Yes ladies, hopefully this includes crying and yelling from PMS and menopause!)  It would only count when someone’s deliberate negative intentions give rise to their negative actions.
This would potentially mean that differences in our behavior due to environment, culture, biology, or upbringing would not be weighed on the cosmic scales of justice.  What would be measured is how we played the cards we were dealt to the best of our rational ability.  In cases of patients with Cotard’s or dementia or multiple personalities due to child abuse, there may not be much Intention Self left if the Body and Narrative Self are completely distorted, but whatever lucid part remains, and is operating from a place of free will and ethics, is what might ultimately get judged.  Theoretically.

Convoluted Conclusions

It’s a stretch I know, to hypothesize all of this.  The theist in me can’t let go of the idea of an Intention Self, but the atheist in me starts kicking in once things become too convoluted.  It seems extremely unnecessary for the universe to create any kind of self distortion in the first place – mental or physical – if the goal of a sentient being is to right their karmic wrongs and achieve enlightenment.  What point is there to put obstacles such as schizophrenia in the way, and inflict such suffering on the unaware, if its not serving any existential purpose?  How are simple things like food and drink and drugs so able to manipulate us?  Why am I nicer to people after a Reese’s?

I don’t know.  Oftentimes I think the stories we try to weave to explain an “intelligent design” are too far-fetched to be true.  If things don’t make sense, maybe the most obvious reason is because there is no logic – it’s all random.  Sometimes the simplest answer is the one that is real.  So perhaps the atheists and scientists are right – it’s our biology and chemistry that controls and makes us.  Maybe there simply ISN’T a conscious self.  As we can see, science certainly has given us enough reasons to at least CONSIDER this a possibility.

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Preeti Gupta

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