The idea of getting in touch with one’s true self has become a joke, mostly because people who pledged to do so back in the 1980s were too earnest, and, well, out of touch.

Still, the joke runs deeper than laughing at old fads. There’s something fundamentally slapstick about even the most thoughtful search for a true self. No sooner do you pounce on the place where you think your true self’s buck stops than you realize the buck must stop somewhere else.

What would you find if you burrowed around inside your mind, looking for your true self? A soul? A little equipment operator who runs your body, perhaps? Does this equipment operator have a body, too? If not, how does it work? If so, what runs it? Does it have an operator’s operator inside it? And, then, what runs the operator’s operator? Where do the nested Russian dolls of your self end? And who wants to know? Who’s the true self behind the part of you searching for your true self? Trying to get to the end of the queue is like trying to eat your own mouth.

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup

So, maybe your true self isn’t inside at all. Scramble all the way back out and look up in the sky for your true self, a god controlling you like a marionette. But, then, who controls the god? Whether you look inside or out, the true self isn’t there. The search is a great, mysterious shell game.

There’s a new way of looking at the self that conforms more to what the scientific evidence suggests. We know we evolved, and that our fellow creatures, which also evolved, nevertheless don’t seem to engage in searches for their true selves. Flies fly without every wondering why, without ever looking inside for the true source of their flight. Introspection, the ability to picture a true self, seems pretty much new with humans. Even with us, though, it doesn’t consume our day. Watching TV, maintaining liver function, or simply breathing — we have plenty of self-perpetuating habits that don’t depend on self-awareness. Still, there’s no family of words that roll off our tongues as readily as first-person singulars. “I,” “me,” “my” — we speak of these things with great authority. In light of evolution, however, what do these words mean?

To answer this question, it’s worth noticing that we humans evolved into word users, creatures with vocabularies so large that we can weave words into intricate mind’s-eye pictures of our world, and even worlds beyond. On the slightest verbal suggestion, you can picture a pink rhino with a candy-cane horn even though you’ve never seen one. You can visit your childhood home, your current house, or a future abode; you can picture your past, present, and future. You can mix the real and the make-believe, picturing, for example, a pink rhino from your childhood, which means that what you envision can diverge more or less from what is real. You can combine pictures into stories — mental movies, in effect. From what science can tell, this capacity is by far at its most developed in humans, and it’s due to our symbolic, or language, capacity.

Moreover, you can picture and tell stories about yourself. The search for the self is less slapstick if regarded not as burrowing around for a master operator but as developing mind’s-eye pictures of and stories about yourself from different vantage points. As such, there are four basic kinds of self-nesses — four I’s that make up a mind:

I0(I to the zeroth power): This is life’s basic state, behavior without self-examination, self-awareness, self-consciousness, or self-reflection. It’s the closest we get to how the rest of life lives. We call it acting instinctively or intuitively, or putting behavior on autopilot. In humans, I0 behavior can be either innate or learned. Sleeping, wound healing, breathing, and blood circulating are innate examples of operating in an I0 state. Walking, driving, using a spoon, and watching TV are learned activities that typically become second nature. In these states, the self is simply assumed. We lose ourselves into the activity at hand. We act like input-output devices. It is in this state that we become one with all of life. (Anything to the zeroth power equals one.)

I0 is very efficient, though it’s dangerous when something bad for us becomes second nature. I0 is a state wonderfully devoid of self-consciousness, but it’s also a state troublingly bereft of self-awareness. We’re glad gentlefolk have made their habits second nature. We regret that evildoers have done so.

I1(I to the first power): This is basic introspection, the capacity to picture yourself behaving and to tell stories about that:

• “I’m a plumber.”

• “I’m a married woman.”

• “I’m an up-and-coming author.”

• “I’m a good Christian.”

• “I meant to do that.”

The first-person pronoun emerges with this state. All sorts of descriptions and explanations of your self arise naturally and automatically with this capacity. I1 is, you could say, the uniquely human innate ability to construct unexamined narratives on demand about who we are, what we’re for, and what we’re against.

Why on demand? Most of the time, we just cruise along in an I0 state, our I1 narratives about who we are residing in the vague background, unconscious, simply assumed. They rise to our conscious attention only when we face demands — when we are confused, challenged, doubtful, or wondering. Then the stories about who we are might arise to consciousness as reminders or guides in our decision making. Whenever we get a little disoriented, we access our I1 descriptions to help us remember what to do and what we’re for, but also what we’re against. We are defined both by what we do and don’t

• “I don’t eat onions.”

• “I don’t do windows.”

• “I don’t fool around.”

We say what we need to hear in order to keep ourselves on track.

I1 is beneficial when it helps us persist against resistance worth overcoming. (“Darn it, I’m a good person. I can try harder!”) It’s dangerous when it makes us persist against resistance worth surrendering to. (“Darn it, I am a good Nazi soldier. I can try harder to defeat the enemy!”) I1 stories keep us on track, either in a groove or in a rut, depending on which track we’re on. We’re glad Martin Luther King was so strongly in an I1 state. We’re sorry Hitler was.

I2 (I squared): We behave (I0). We can tell stories about our behavior (I1), and we can tell stories about the storyteller (I2). Whereas in an I1 state I might say, “I’m a people person,” in an I2 state I might say, “I like to think that I’m a people person,” as if talking about that storytelling guy I am that likes to think certain things. Whereas in an I1 state I might say, “I’m going to be a success,” in an I2 state I might say, “I keep telling myself I’m going to be a success.” At I1 we tell unexamined stories. At I2 we are aware that we are telling stories.

Seeing ourselves telling stories generally increases the distance between us and the stories, thereby reducing the stories’ credibility enough that we face a choice about whether the stories are useful, or should be changed for other stories. Noticing the storyteller enables us to see that we are storytellers interpreting reality, not simply reporting it. From I2 I might say, “I have a tendency to be overoptimistic,” which is as if to call into question my optimistic interpretations of reality.

I2 is the source of whatever flexibility we have to jump track when we decide we’re on the wrong track. However, it’s not always enough flexibility to actually succeed in jumping. There are times when we see ourselves telling counterproductive stories about ourselves but can’t stop telling those stories anyway. But I2 raises the possibility of jumping. It raises doubt, which can be a great thing if you’re telling bad stories (“I’m a good Nazi soldier”) or a bad thing if you’re telling good stories (“I’m responsible for these children”). We’re glad Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t spend more time in an I2 state. We wish Hitler had spent more time in one.

I?(I to the infinite power, or I-ons, as in, “I on and on and on and on”): For every story that can be told, another story can be told about the storyteller. Just as you can picture yourself picturing yourself behaving (I2), you can continue picturing yourself picturing yourself picturing yourself to the limits of your ability to keep track (which are mercifully low). I-ons is the state in which you recognize that there is no true self, that for every interpretation you make of who you are, another interpretation can be made of the interpreter of that interpretation. I-ons is simply the recognition that no matter how far out I go to get more perspective on myself, there is always another vantage point further out, which means there’s no final certainty about who I am after all.

The I-ons state can bring on permanent disorientation, or it can resign you more comfortably to life’s uncertainty. It would be lovely to find a true self, an omniscient gut or god that always knows the right thing to do, but since we can’t, we can get with the program, choose our grooves, monitor them to make sure they don’t become ruts, and then just cruise in them. We don’t tend to spend much time in an I-ons state, because it’s fairly disorienting, and we have things to do. We need to stay on track. Besides, more layers are simply more than a mind can handle.


A few comments:

• “That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.” This popular phrase illustrates the I-levels and the moves we make between them. The first half (“That’s my story”) is spoken in an I2 state. It stands outside the story. If it were in the story, it would say, “This is my story.” The second half (“and I’m sticking with it”) is spoken from the I1 state. It’s spoken as though one is popping out of one’s routine story for the briefest moment and then popping right back into it. It’s an ironic statement because it recognizes that it’s just a story but then commits to it anyway — a very human and humble gesture: “I know I’m just guessing, and still I’m going to stick with my guess.”

• In searching for a true self, one always gets trapped with the nested-Russian-doll problem. With the four I’s story, there is a kind of nesting, too, but it’s different; the layers are impressions, thoughts that could be thought, no more necessarily solid than pink rhinos with candy-cane horns. They are self-impressions from different levels, conceptions of the self, not real, in-the-world selves.

• I-level chauvinists abound. I0 chauvinists say, “Stop thinking, and just be.” I1 chauvinists say, “Live a purpose-driven life.” I2 chauvinists say, “Doubt everything.” I? chauvinists say, “You can’t know anything with certainty, so don’t even try.” Despite all this advice, few of us dwell at one level alone. The trick is to become multilevelheaded, taking advantage of the benefits and avoiding the costs of each I-level. Introspective intelligence is like mastering golf, knowing which I-ron is best for which shot. Cultivate good habits, not bad ones (I0). Tell unexamined
stories that grow you in the right directions, and not the wrong ones (I1). Examine your counterproductive stories but not your productive ones (I2). And remember that there’s no true self to tell you for sure what’s good and what’s bad (I?).

Four I’s: first there’s unconscious being,

Then there’s me with my stories agreeing,

then I’m catching me at it

which reduces dogmatics,

next, a bigger schematic that’s freeing.