I received the following question from a reader:
Is the self really a meme? .... The self can exist without culture. Animals [can] have a representation of self in their nervous systems.
This is an excellent question!
Representations of Self
The correspondent is correct that animals represent themselves in their brains. A cat can survey the distance between furniture and window, visibly prepare to make the jump, then execute it flawlessly. Somewhere inside the cat there was a model that comprised all the elements of that jump.
Some people may not appreciate how wonderful it is that cats can do this. Yet I remember, with the clarity of a photograph, a moment twenty years ago when I watched a cat jump. A realization hit me: if a cat uses mental representations, then what about a mouse? What about an insect? A clam? At what level of complexity does representation come in? And what can representation and modeling teach us about the evolution of mental mechanisms and software?
The minds of humans appear more complex than those of mice or cats. For example, we not only have models of our body and other elements in the environment but we also have models of those models. We can close our eyes and imagine a jump between two ledges that exist only in our imagination. In so doing we feel little or no reference to anything physical.
In such imaginings we can also imagine that which is obviously false. We can imagine being able to “jump tall buildings in a single bound” (as the fictional Superman is able to do).
Is there an evolutionary advantage to this kind of mental activity? Daydreaming about super strength might seem like a waste of time. Nonetheless, holding in mind a false model of the self can be useful, as it allows us to ask “what if” questions for far-future planning. “What if I worked up to running 15 miles a day? Would I live longer?” To the best of my knowledge there are no non-human animals that are capable of this kind of thought.
It is, in fact, a bit misleading to call this “a false model”. It might be better to call it a speculative model. At least, it is speculative provided we remember that it is imaginary. If, on the other hand, we start believing that our own models are real, then it is worth being reminded that they are not.
The “self meme” I mentioned earlier is wrapped up in this process of speculation about what could be. The ability to do this is not, in my view, hard-wired. In my opinion, the idea of modeling false selves arose alongside language, which was itself a set of memetic accretions. (I do not dispute that our genome has altered to favour language skills.)
At this point, let us make the following observation:
The more accurate a model, the more useful it can be.
This may seem self-evident, but it is not hard-wired into us. To some extent we discover it for ourselves, but as we are raised we are repeatedly taught to think more “clearly” to take advantage of the fact that a higher-resolution model will serve us better. But is this actually a case of thinking more clearly?
Ideally, yes. In practice, not always. The higher the resolution of a model, the easier it is to mix it up with reality. This can backfire on us.
For example, you may become so familiar with a good friend that you can simulate conversations with him or her in your head. You know them so well that you can model them with great fidelity. The drawback to this is that in real life, when face to face with your friend, you can end up talking to the model rather than the real person. (This can create a feedback loop of self-fulfilling expectations, but that's a matter for another article.)
This confusion can also happen with our models of ourselves. We can form images of what we are and end up treating them like reality. Consider the woman who says, “I am a Republican!” or the man who says, “I eat rare meat like a real man!” Meme-based models such as “Republican” and “real man” can turn into illusions if a person believes they are real things.
To generalize the foregoing, let me make two observations:
We can be seduced into treating imaginary objects like real objects.
The way humans treat models of self can be considered a meme.
We are taught attitudes towards our selves, such as “You are special!” But while these can be useful within the context of our culture, they are objectively false. You are not really all that special, nor are you separate from all reality in the way that most people have been taught into believing.
The idea that these illusions about self could be true can be called “the self meme”. That is to say, at some point in the history of humanity we began believing that our models were really us and we started teaching that misconception to our children.
At the core of the self meme is the idea that what we are taught about ourselves can be just as valid as what we observe of our own accord. This may be a convenient idea, but it is, ultimately, false.