The Loom

Where Is Your I?

Back in the 1600s, when neurology was born, it wasn’t scientists who were looking at brains. The word scientist didn’t exist. Instead, those visionary folks would have called themselves natural philosophers. As I researched this chapter of scientific history for my book Soul Made Flesh, I was struck by the way philosophers–and philosophical questions–are now making their way back into the scientific study of the brain. Last year in Discover I wrote about the work of the philosopher/neuroscientist Joshua Greene, who studies how we make moral judgments. But it turns out that neuroscientists are tackling an even deeper philosophical question: what is the self? They may not have the whole answer, but they’ve found some very interesting pieces of it. I’ve written an article on the neurobiology of the self, which appears in the November issue of Scientific American.


  1. #1 Gyan
    October 26, 2005

    The article seems to treat the ‘sense of self’ as the self, whereas they are distinct concepts. The self should be understood as the experiant, i.e. that to which perception binds. The ‘sense of self’ is the putative boundary of the self in terms of ownership of action and of conscious representation. Those cute parlour tricks where you think it’s your hand touching your nose, whereas it’s actually someone else’s hand, showcase anomalies in the ‘sense of self’. I don’t think neuroscience is anywhere close to tackling the self itself.

  2. #2 Robin
    October 30, 2005

    Great article. Surprised to not see a mention of Antonio Damasio and his work (or any of the work on mirror neurons). Will definitely have to go pick up this issue!

  3. #3 David Harmon
    November 13, 2005

    Robin: His SciAm article mentions the mirror neurons, via the work of Sarah-Jane Blakemore at University College London.

    The whole discussion is interesting; Personally, I’d like to see some studies connecting the “sense of self” issue to social norms, i.e., the European/Asian cultural differences. It would also be nice to see some cross-species comparisions of the neurology; I’m especially interested in the language-using apes (i.e. Koko), and in dogs (because of their adaptations to human society).

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