Friday, August 10, 2007

'What am I?' (by guest blogger Keith Frankish)

Eric's recent post about subjective time set me thinking about how strange and different the mental life of children can be. Here's a little example from my own experience. When I was a young child, around the age of four, I discovered that I could put myself into a rather odd state of mind simply by repeating to myself the question 'What am I?'. This had two effects. First, it generated a strong sense that I was not the boy Keith – the boy whose body I was associated with. The sense wasn't simply of a dissociation between mind and body; rather it was the sense of being a different person from Keith, in mind as well as body. It was as if I were someone who inhabited Keith's body and normally let him speak and act for me, but who was nonetheless quite distinct from Keith and didn’t wholly approve of him. The second effect was to generate a mild form of out-of-body experience. I felt as if I were slightly behind and above Keith's body, almost outside it, but not wholly separate. (Of course, I am describing all this in an adult vocabulary, but I'm trying to capture what it felt like, as far as I can remember it.)

I used to find this experience interesting rather than scary, and I would induce it quite often. I'm not sure how I interpreted the feelings it generated, though I do remember that I was puzzled enough to ask my mother what I was -- what I was -- to which of course I got the true but unsatisfactory response that I was a little boy. As the years passed, the experience become weaker and it became harder and harder for me to induce it, and by adolescence I completely lost the knack.

What was going on? I don't think it was merely a problem with the indexical 'I'. The sense of distinctness was too real to be the product of semantic confusion, and I didn't have similar problems with other indexicals (I wasn't given to asking where was here, for example). Perhaps it was a side-effect of the acquisition of full-blown theory of mind -– which we know happens between three and four. With theory of mind in place, we are able to think, not only about the thoughts of others, but also about our own thoughts, and to a child this might easily generate a sense of puzzlement. 'If I am thinking about someone's mind,' a child might reason, 'then I must be separate from that person, especially if I disapprove of their thoughts and feelings' (as I said, I didn't wholly approve of Keith). In an imaginative child, this puzzlement might also generate some phenomenology of dissociation. One attraction of this account is that it would explain why I eventually lost the ability to induce the dissociative state, since the fallacy in the reasoning behind it would in time have become apparent.

I'd be interested to know if others can recall having similar experiences or if anyone knows of research that has been done on this topic.


william harryman said...

I had similar experiences as a child.

My understanding of it now suggests that you were simply separating from the young egoic mind and entering what Integral Psychology calls the Witness -- or more commonly in Western psychology, the observer self.

This is the goal of Buddhist practice at first, to be able to separate from the egoic consciousness enough to see that we are not the limited little ego -- we are Buddha Nature.

There was actually an Eastern teacher (whose name escapes me at the moment) who gave his students the mantra: Who Am I? as a way to get them out of egoic consciousness.

That's my two cents.

Integral Options Cafe

Anonymous said...

Hi wh

Thanks for your comments -- that's fascinating and I'd be interested to know more. My background is in Western analytic philosophy, but I'm always keen to hear about connections with other perspectives, and I'd like to learn some basic mediation techniques myself. Can you recommend anything I could read on Buddhist philosophy of mind?

Best, Keith

Anonymous said...

Hi Keith,

Certainly the poets have also touched on this phenomena. Wordsworth in Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood" says in the first stanza:

There was a time when meadow,grove and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparell'd in celestial light.
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore:--
Turn whersoe'er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

He says in a later stanza:

Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower,
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;

Much of Western thought seems to imply that in adulthood we can never recapture such "primal sympathy." I wonder if that really is the case?

Anonymous said...

That would be Ramana Maharshi. His 'who am I' method of inquiry is a way of steadily dismissing the imposters that clamour for election until one becomes established in the basic ground of being/consciousness. Keith's distanceing from himself as a child would be different from the Buddhist self-luminous cognition which holds that there is nothing outside the mind itself to know it.

william harryman said...

There's a good book by Arthur Deikman (The Observing Self) that offers parallels between Eastern ideas and Western psychotherapy. As for meditation, I might start with Jon Kabat-Zinn's Wherever You Go, There You Are, a very accessible introduction to mindfulness meditation.

Thanks to o.m. for remember Ramana Maharshi's name for me. What s/he said about Buddhism is true (in the absolute sense, but we begin with relative experience) -- the early stages of meditation practice are designed (depending on the school) to break the identification with egoic mind -- the first stage of which is to access the observing self.

ANY introductory book on meditation is a good palce to start though. Once you begin sitting, watching the mind at work can be fascinating.


Anonymous said...

Belated thanks to Jim, o.m, and Bill for their comments and suggestions. I will follow up the references.

Best, Keith