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Sentient embodiment
Sentient embodiment

Sentient embodiment

So what is it like to be a person? You look down and see your hands, your legs and torso. “Well, I’m a body that I can move it to do whatever I want.” Okay cool, but is that really all you are? Do you not perhaps extend with your social media presence? If someone sees a photo of you on Instagram and forms their own perception of you, is that idea you? If it isn’t, who is it? Here’s my theory on what exactly people feel they are and why.

Being in a vessel

So here’s some hard truth for you. The absolute core of human awareness (the thing that thinks and experiences) is not the whole body. You can still think, feel and operate as a person even after losing a limb, or even four. Both philosophers and neuroscientists agree that sentience is at most the brain (some say it is a part of the brain or even immaterial and interacting via the brain). So this means no matter how you cut the cake, you (the subject of experience) are a thing in a human body.

It is certainly true that you wouldn’t quite be you if you didn’t have a body (there’s a multi-disciplinary theory dedicated to this). However, theoretically, if every organ in your body except the brain were replaced with a machine one by one, you would still be a living, thinking person capable of meeting any reasonable conditions to that effect. So therefore the body (excluding the brain) is not a necessary condition for being a person.

You are in a vessel. It can be said you operate your body, which then, in turn, operates in the external world. In a way, your body is the intermediary between your will and exercising that will. But we all know that unless you’ve done tonnes of dissociative drugs, it certainly feels like you are your body, and not a thing inside it giving orders all day. So here’s the thing:

Dynamic identification

For most of us, we mostly identify as a human body. What I mean by this is we usually act and think as though we are a body. You think “I’m hungry so I need to eat something”, not “My stomach is sending low-fuel signals and thus I must activate my leg muscles to go get food”. This definition of identification (which I think is a good one) comes with some interesting consequences.

If you’ve ever driven a car you’ll know that a very similar thing applies. While driving you operate as the car, not as its operator. You think “I have to pass this truck so I should switch lanes”, not “I see a truck and in order to make the car pass it, I must shift gears and turn the steering wheel to switch lanes.” It happens automatically. For all intents and purposes, while you’re consciously driving, you are the car. At that moment you identify directly as the car, not the human driving it.

This is especially evident if you’ve ever been distracted while driving. E.g. if you’re fidgeting with the radio, trying to shift 20MHz up to get to the local pop station, you’ll quickly see driving becomes much more difficult. At that moment you certainly feel much more like a human driver than the car itself. That’s because you’re focussed inside the car, not as it.

Science backs me up!

There’s a famous experiment in perceptual psychology called the Rubber Hand Illusion (cool pop-science video about it). One version of the experiment has the subject place their hand on a table but is unable to see it due to a separator. The subject is then shown a video of a rubber hand that looks similar to their own. Subsequently, both the subject’s real hand and the rubber hand are stroked with a brush at exactly the same time, place and speed. This has the effect of tricking the subject into thinking the rubber hand belongs to their body because the perception from their hand corresponds to what their eyes see. Without warning the rubber hand is then hit with a hammer. Most subjects report feeling actual pain when this happens, even though their real hand is completely untouched.

In this experiment the subject is consciously perceiving the rubber hand as their own due to feeling the brushing and their eyes confirming it on the screen. In another version of the experiment the rubber hand is attached to a motor which is controlled by a computer. The computer processes input from a camera pointed at the subject’s real hand and mimics the subject’s hand’s simple movement to millisecond precision. Moving your hand and seeing the rubber hand move at perceptably the same time and the same way truly reenforces identification with the hand. This is what I would call sufficient perceived control.

So when the rubber hand is hit with a hammer, the subject identifies as having the hand and naturally responds appropriately (a quick interjection). If you’ve ever accidentally bumped into something while manuveauring a car, you’ll know that you usually feel an almost pseudo-pain when it happens. A lot of people (including me) even say “owch” when the car bumps into something. That’s not because of the future financial cost. It’s because at that moment they identify as the car and so their brain responds as it usually does when its body part gets harmed.

More examples of extracorporeal identification

Extracorporeal identification = Identifying as something other than your human body.

  • Your personal online social media presence. The way people treat your Facebook profile has a direct impact on how you feel, but you aren’t superficially your Facebook account. Since you have direct and total control over your profile your brain subconsciously identifies as it and so any harsh words directed to it proxies over to you.
  • Anonymous online presence. If you’re not convinced by the last point, the same holds for social sites typically anonymity-centred (e.g. reddit & 4chan). Even if no one knows who “dickastley420” is, the owner of the account is still affected by what people write about the user handle.
  • Your reflection in a mirror. That human in the mirror isn’t superficially you, however since it moves exactly as you do, you are exercising sufficient control over it and so identify as it.
  • Playing a musical instrument. Any guitar player can attest that having a string snap hurts.
  • Typing on a keyboard. Touch typists like me know that when you’re in a state of flow typing out a document while only looking at the screen, you can easily forget you’re even typing at all.
  • A million and one other examples.

So if you thought being a person meant being a human, think again. As it turns out you can be just about anything you like.

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