Deric Bownds

The "I" Illusion

(Podcast version here)

This talk mulls over how/why human's construct these things we call a self or an "I" . We need to start with a very brief and superficial 'user's guide' to the brain, to our mindstuff. For this purpose we will chunk the material into four areas:



Although everything connects, different general areas of the brain are most important in regulating interactions with:

1) our physical world (sensing and acting),

2) our social world (largely unconscious emotions and body language). These first two are centered in the present)

3) our past and future (the self conscious self, with it linguistic narrative mind that lets us talk both to ourselves and to others.) 

The components appear in this sequence in our evolutionary history (the most simple animals have mainly I. , mammals show major development of II, and only humans show major development of III.).


They appear in this sequence also in the development of our individual brains.



In our adult brains these operations reflect operations whose center of gravity, with respect just to the cerebral cortex, is in the back and center, interior middle, and front of the brain. From the back to the front of the brain, we move from the recent past to future, what's there? (sensory), what do I care? (temporal, limbic), what do I do about it? (motor, frontal).



These parts all talk to each other, but the largest effects of taking out a chunk of brain in the occipital lobe is on vision, a lesion in motor cortex impairs movement, etc. 

I'm chunking these for our own feeble narrative brains to get a grip, this is a vast oversimplification. Actually, everything connects. 

These operations have an intelligence which dwarfs our meager abilities to comprehend them using language. We can, however, from experiments and intuition get some sense of the vast undermind on which our conscious awareness is spread like a thin veneer.1 

One of the things it does it generate the illusion of our having an "I" and conscious will..... but, we'll get there. 

I want to start out with some mind teasers.... simple experiments that give us pause about our common sense perception of how we see and act in the world. 

We all assume pretty much that we act or move when we think we do, and that what we are conscious of seeing or sensing is what is really out there. Right?...Wrong!  


In a well known experiment by Benjamin Libet the subject is instructed: "Flex your finger to push the button when you feel like it, and tell us where the hand on the rapidly moving clock is when you decide to do that." The time at which an EEG signal indicating brain activation for movement occurs is set as zero time, the report of awareness of intention to push the button is about 350 msec (0.35 seconds) later, and the actual EKG, the voltage in the finger muscle doing the push, happens about 200 msec later than that. 

We seem to be 'late for consciousness'. The brain has already started on our acting earlier than our consciousness of it. We usually assume that the experience of consciously willing an action and the causation of the action by our conscious minds are the same thing. However, they are entirely distinct, and the tendency to confuse them is the source of the illusion of conscious will.  


This drawing is a way of putting it. Something inside is generating the first preparations for the actual movement, and also generating our thinking we are starting the movement. Our experience is the apparent causal path.2 

What's the point of this delay....What's the point of our even being conscious if everything is ready to go before we know about it. We do become aware before it happens and can veto it. Most of the time it is OK and to be efficient we really ought to get going with it fast and now wait for consciousness, but it case the movement ought to be suppressed, like socking someone, we can inhibit it at the last minute. 

By the time we are aware of willing a movement it is well under way, but we get to cancel or edit it. 

It may be that we, that is, our conscious selves, don't so much have 'free will', as we do 'free won't.'  

So, I've made two points about acting...  


Have we abolished "free will" ..... not exactly (and, see further below)....[Sept. 2019: More recent work now questions these conclusions. The question of free will is far from solved. More recent experiments, have suggested that the brain signals noted in Libet's original experiment ~500 msec before a movement was made may not be the actual neural initiator of the movement. An artificial intelligence classifier comparing control brain noise in subjects not instructed to move shows divergence from noise in those instructed to move about 150 milliseconds before the movement, the time people reported making the decision to move in Libet's experiment.].

-The point is that the consequences of our actions are programmed back into the automatic startup of the next action as an anticipation. This information is presented back to the underground processing that is preparing the next instant of action that we will retroactively `intend.' Our brain thus works in an expanded present that contains the moments antecedent to our awareness of thoughts and actions and that also persists as their consequences are integrated into the ongoing cycle. Professional athletes do better, as in returning a tennis serve, not because their reaction times are any faster, but because their trained anticipation machinery can usually accurately guess from the initial arm movements of an opponents serve way before the ball is hit, where the ball is going to end up, and start preparing their response then. 

Anticipation holds the answer. Predictions ease our passage into the moment. In some sense we are conscious ahead of time. We do not notice the large gaps (.1, .2 sec.) in our awareness because our brains move seamlessly from a state of intelligent forecast to a state of confirmed sensory expectation.3 

-Many experiments show that we have an undermind of autopilots that form during our development as we are learning to carry out complex sequential tasks unconsciously, acquiring a repertoire of learned routines, like riding a bike......autopilots have their usefulness and limitations. There advantage is that one doesn't have to reinvent the wheel each time a complex action sequence is required. They become a disadvantage if a stereotyped action is not appropriate to the actual situation. 

Now, I need to briefly make a parallel story about the undermind that regulates our sensing as well as our acting. 

I've just talked about a delay in the time it takes us to be conscious of things that are already going on in our brains. This can be illustrated another simple way:  


Here the instruction is to push the button in response to a light coming on. The button push occurs about 200 msec after the light comes on. If the instruction is: "slow down your response by the tiniest possible amount," then approximately 700 msec passes before the button push. There is a quantum jump of 500 msec, waiting for consciousness to develop, if a conscious rather than unconscious response is requested. 

So, we add to our developing summary the fact that sensing can be faster than consciousness. 


-What's the point of this half second delay for consciousness? There is one: our unconscious undermind can shape what we think we are perceiving out there in the real world. 

Now, I'm going to try some demonstrations, which worked with a live audience and slides, but on the web? we'll see...........follow the instructions: 






Here I am showing an irrelvant and random picture, called a distractor in the tradition of psychology experiments, showing the wonders of the creations of the divine, to occupy your attention for a period of time before I ask you: 

What card (hopefully you have moved it up out off your browsers viewing window as instructed) did you see shown for a brief interval? Please recall what kind of card was it, it's suit, its color. 

Was it an ace of spades or an ace of hearts?

Actually it was an impossible card, a red ace of spades. Did you report that you saw the impossible card? 

Our undermind knows the history of our development, our learning to sense and name things, the ace of spades is black, the ace of hearts is red. The actual experiments do demonstrate that if someone flashes a red ace of spade in front of people they are more likely to see one of the two choices they are already familiar with. We compare the information that comes with our library of images, and frequently assume that the stored image is the correct one. 

Let's try another experiment. Play the following youtube video, which has been updated from its original version by its maker. 


If you are like most people, when you were instructed to look for a particular activity, you actually did not see some other significant things going on.

During the delay required for our conscious perception the brain can do some very spooky things, suppressing awareness of things that are there, or making us think we see things that really aren't there. We can do editing of what comes in before we are willing to admit it as our experienced perception. Again, a vast basement or undermind working to determine what gets through to the overlay of our conscious thoughts. 

So, we have another point to add to our summary, sensing can be of what we think ought to be there, rather than what actually is there.


Now, I would like to try another trick.

I want you to pick one of the six playing cards below that you are going to remember, the magic is that I'm going to tell you which card that one is.




Yes, this is yet another `distractor' picture, of the gentleman who described the impersonal mechanisms that led evolution to give us the sensing devices we are fooling with now......., and now I'll ask you to scroll on down further to look at the five cards instead of six and ask if the card you picked is missing.......

OK? let's do it one more time., pick the card you are going to remember, then quickly scroll the cards off the screen to look at the picture following. After you have looked at the picture for a few seconds, continue to scroll down to see the five cards displayed, and ask again: Is the card you picked now missing?

Actually NONE of the original cards are in the second set, but the new five card array is of the same type, for example face cards, low cards, whatever. The trick capitalizes on the visual brain's laziness (or efficiency, if you prefer). It seems that the mentally selected on is missing, because we actually encoded something like 'lots of royal cards including my mentally selected king of hearts.'. This is another case of attentional blindness sort of like the gorilla example.

So, another point to add, sensing is lazy, i.e. efficient

There is a class of amazing experiments in which a small monitoring device is attached to the cornea, which measures the darting around of the eye, called saccades, as a subject looks at a page of text. The subject doesn't know that only the portion of the text to which the saccade has brought the fovea, the center of focus, is illuminated. As soon as the eye darts to, has the fovea look at, another part of the text, only that small part is illuminated. So, an observer watching this sees only tiny spots of text rapidly appearing and disappearing on the screen of which he can make no sense. The experimental subject reports seeing a whole intact page.

The takehome is that we have an extraordinary unconscious synthesis going on all the time, ruthless and efficient, generating our perception of what is out there.

Why did this machinery work out this way... for efficiency...most of what we do is run by autopilots that compose the world we take to be out there, conscious attention can be reserved for what is or might become an issue.

An example of an automatic sensing and acting autopilot with which you are probably familiar works in driving a car. How many times have you become lost in thought while driving, and then suddenly realized that you have been completely unaware of driving the past five or ten blocks? Your autopilot car driving undermind was doing the driving, and could probably be trusted to give a 'news flash' if something unexpected or dangerous, like a red light or a child running into the street, made it necessary to return attention to the driving.

Now, I want to move on to note a few things about topic II., our emotional minds.



Our emotional brain constitutes our value giving machinery, the 'what's it to me?' decision between sensing and acting.

Think of the number of times you have looked at the face of a stranger and instantly liked or disliked them. Why is this? Sometimes, if you stop to think about it, can you can recall a similar face from your childhood that you either avoided or approached, stored in your unconscious memory and influencing your reactions to similar faces you now encounter.

We attach an emotional tag, or valence, to almost everything we perceive, even sounds, as in nonsense words, that have no meaning... those with more vowels, like lamujuva are slightly pleasing, some with more consonants, like rakachaka, are faintly unpleasant.

We have a Manichean undermind, like the Persian religious sect of the 3rd century, that divides most aspects of the world into either good or evil. Our brains persist, usually beneath our conscious awareness, in putting a good or bad label of what we sense. Is it something to go for or to avoid?

The emotional filters that derive from our development are a distinct brain system of memories, and can be distinguished from our explicit memory, knowing about, recall. Some patients with damage to the hippocampus (a brain structure important in forming explicit memories of events) cannot remember anyone they meet, but they begin, without knowing why, to avoid caretakers that are unpleasant to them and to approach caretakers that are friendly and open. That emotional memory requires another small part of the brain called the amygdala, and interestingly, patients with damage to this amygdala, but an intact hippocampus, can sometimes remember the objective facts about a situation, but not the emotional reaction that went with it.

Some very elegant experiments by LeDoux and others have shown that emotional reactions can be mediated brain circuits that are different from our self conscious "thinking about" circuits, and that these emotional value circuits can act faster than our thinking brain.4

If a shadow suddenly looms in your upper right visual field, or if you see a long thin wavy shape on the ground to your right you are likely to jump aside well before you are able to consciously decide whether an object is falling on you from above, or whether the shape on the ground is a snake or a piece of rope.

So, what we end up with, in addition to our acting and sensing underminds, is an emoting undermind that can act during the 0.5 seconds it takes for consciousness to develop, it can add a negative or positive tint to our perceptions outside of our awareness.

Now, the material so far has been background for talking about our self conscious selves, our self conscious thinking minds, our "I" - topic III. in the list I have been showing. You can see where I'm headed, which is to say that our sense of having an agency, of making choices, is a product of the same sort of background unconscious brains processes we've just covered. What we think is the "I" doing things really isn't.

Our conscious self is sort of an after the fact news flash of what our evolved mind thinks it relevant for us to know. It is a product of our brain operations, not a source.

All of the material I have covered so far we might reasonably expect to be going on in higher mammalian brains... but self reflective consciousness may be confined to humans, and to a very limited extent the great apes.... One way of putting it is that there is evidence that social mammals have a sense of `body-ness' or `mine-ness' but virtually no evidence that they experience a sense of `I-ness ', reflect on past or future, or attribute minds to other animals.....

Animals appear to exhibit an episodic intelligence, living on the cusp of the present, looking into events, not reflecting back on them, accessing memory as guide to action, but not necessarily in a human style self conscious way. "Animals do not see into a moment, rather they look out from it. Subjectively, the animal brain would always be facing forward, focused not on where the latest shift in viewpoint has come from, but where it is heading. Rather than feeling like an observer or a passenger, an animal would have a feeling of simply being the vehicle, of doing the journey. This suggests that even our feeling of being there during a moment, observing, supervising, and taking decisions, is a habit grafted onto consciousness." (There is extensive debate on these topics, but they are not a topic for this talk).

The self system acts as yet another sort of undermind, in parallel to the acting, sensing, and emoting underminds I have touched on so far.

This self system is constantly testing what might be threatening, setting the threshold at which we are willing to let information enter our conscious awareness.

One simple experiment is to briefly flash words, with increasing durations of the flash, until a subject reports identifying them. Neutral words (Cat) are usually named much sooner than threatening words (Death). Recognition and consciousness are not the same thing. The threatening word is recognized, but self-defense system raises the upper threshold to keep it out of consciousness longer.

This self system sets how willing we are to rely on delicate hunches, or dubious or unconscious information.5

Another simple experiment also shows this. Access to information (for example, being able to recall previously shown pictures) improves if subjects feel 'safe' as in "just enjoy guessing, this isn't part of a test" or, "which scene do you prefer" (rather than recognize).

When self esteem is at stake (as in a test or trial) access to information just beneath consciousness seems to be disabled or dismissed.

Another experiment shows this, a subject is given the instruction "indicate whether you see a weak flash of light" Reporting with an eye blink is more accurate than with a finger press, and verbal report is least reliable. If the subject is asked to "indicate by both blinking and verbal reporting" , the blink response can be correct while the verbal report denies see the flash.

Verbalizing is most tied to self and normal consciousness, suggesting that the more the self is involved, the more cautious consciousness has to be, for fear of getting it wrong.

So, these are examples of a thinking undermind, a self filter, also working during the 0.5 sec during which information is being massaged before entering consciousness. We've touched now on underminds of acting/sensing/emoting/selfing on top of which our consciousness awareness rests like thin veneer.

There is another way to summarize this, by thinking in terms of epochs of acting/sensing/feeling/thinking, except that these epochs are occurring over thousandths of a second. This is a figure from my book on The Biology of Mind.

Think of yourself as being a msec watcher or manager, the epochs of sensing, feeling, thought, and action that occur in the second or less after some new input is leading to a behavior.

If you slow down and get quiet enough to move upstream and watch, before normally automatic routines cut in, you can see more of them.....this is what the buddhists call 'mindfulness', attending to experience at a low level of interpretation,...things seems a bit more clear and objective...assumptions or interpretations which have previously been dissolved surreptitiously in perception now become visible in their own right. They operate, if they still continue to do so, 'downstream' of the moment of conscious perception, on the surface, rather than upstream, invisibly.6

The amazing thing about a human brain is that while it generates a self from the "bottom up" that self consciousness can turn around and decisively influence the brain's operations in a "top down" way. We get into a sort of `which comes first, the chicken or the egg' kind of question. One of the most amazing demonstrations of this comes from comparing the treatment of obsessive compulsive disorder (such as obsessive hand washing behaviors, or other repetitive cautionary activities) with conventional drug therapies and cognitive therapy. When patients, on feeling the urge to start the behavior, were successful in using a self instruction like "That's not me, that's a part of my brain that's not working" brain imaging experiments showed the same changes in their brain activity as was caused by the drug treatment. You couldn't ask for a more direct demonstration of the efficacy and usefulness of having our human style of consciousness.

Now I finally want to mention topic IV., our "I" illusion, the illusion of agency or conscious will.

If you have any doubt about who/what is running the show, a terribly simple exercise dispels it. Decide you are going to close your eyes, relax, pay attention only your breathing and have no thoughts, i.e. do a form of meditation. OK, if you were running this show this should be no problem, decide to have no thoughts, have no thoughts! Well, I would be very surprised if most on you, and you've probably all tried this, didn't find it exceptionally difficult to banish thoughts. They just keep popping up from somewhere. `It', the brain, is generating them in spite of you conscious best intentions. That is what it is designed to do, regardless of whether "you" want it to or not.

We are building a picture of the brain as a self constructor and defender (that goes about its job as automatically as a beaver builds a dam or a spider spins a web), and we have to face the data that show beyond doubt that this self construction is essentially an after the fact confabulation (like the sensory perceptions I've been showing you) whose accuracy must continually be updated. We see interesting evidence for such a confabulator in cases where it can go awry. 7

Dramatic changes in what we take to be a self is are seen in cases of brain damage, but amazing alterations can occur in ordinary experience also.

Some stroke patients with damage to the right parietal lobe display a condition called anosognosia, and will deny the existence of the left side of their body. "Oh, that's not my leg, it must belong to someone else." This is the alien arm or alien hand syndrome, like Dr. Strangelove.

The idea is that the language center in our left brain, which is not damaged, is making up the best cover story it can to preserve the sense of an intact self. There is evidence that the left hemisphere generates the story line, and the right hemisphere checks it out. When the right hemisphere checking mechanism is disabled by a stroke, the left hemisphere just wings it, patching together whatever cover story is needed to preserve its sense of a self.

Loss of a sense of self agency can also occur in hypnosis (as in "just sense your arm...your arm is getting heavy...etc.") In the seances and Ouija board sessions popular in the late 19th century, things seemed to happen without the experience of conscious willing, but careful observation showed mysterious movements were in fact generated by those present, even if unconsciously.

We can inappropriately project agency, imagining others responsible for what we in fact are causing, as in the story of Hans, The Clever Horse, whose arithmetic skills derived from subtle clues given by the trainer when he arrived at an appropriate answer.

There are examples of virtual agency, such as spirit possession, or the Dr. Jekyll/Hyde phenomena, .. losing authorship of one's actions to an imagined agent.

There are a number of clinical conditions in which a `self' seems to vanish while other faculties persist:

In Epileptic automatisms, absence seizures, or automatism (frequently involving temporal lobe) a patient becomes a "zombie" , still moves, senses, is wakeful, but shows no sense of self or interaction, blank face, eyes, no emotion, might walk out of building, down, street, on recovery have no recall of intervening time. So, there are contents of mind relevant to moving in a world of objects, but not normal consciousness. One patient in persistent vegetative state with signs of wakefulness had normal MRI activation of inferior temporal cortex on seeing faces, so the brain was processing facial sensory signals in the absence of consciousness of them.

Akinetic mutism: frequently from damage to anterior cingulate, internal and upper regions of frontal lobe. Blank facial expression, neutral passivity, vacuity, body able to move but generally in indifferent repose. One patient who recovered had no recall of any particular experience during period of silence, no emotions, no fear or anxiety, no desire to communicate, vague recall of being asked questions in the few days preceding her recovery. No sense of self and surroundings.

Loss of core self in advanced stages of Alzheimer's disease: ....narrowing of scope of consciousness until all sense of autobiographical self disappears, wakefulness and elementary responding to objects and people with no sense of knowing or recognition

So, how do we think about our subjective experience of having conscious will? What about the analogy to the dashboard of a car with its indicators, or a ship's compass? Does a compass steer the ship? In some sense it does, because the pilot makes reference to the compass in determining whether adjustments should be made to the ship's course... an idea is that conscious will is like the mind's compass, the result of an interpretive system, a course sensing mechanisms that notes our thoughts and actions and responds with "I willed this" when the two correspond appropriately.

The question is, why bother having this mechanism, having the experience of conscious will at all? Why wouldn't being a zombie work just as well (the zombie question is a cottage industry for philosophers of mind, and I really don't want to go there). Conscious will is a signal with many of the qualities of an emotion, one that reverberates through the mind and body to indicate when we sense having authored an action. It is the `somatic marker' of authorship.8 The notion of conscious will as the emotion of authorship is a way of moving beyond the standards ways of thinking about free will and determinism. The feeling that we are doing things serves as a basis for what we attempt to accomplish and how we judge ourselves to be morally right or wrong. 9

Free will is not an effective theory of psychology because it is not the same kind of thing as a psychological mechanism, the only way you can approach it as you get into the levers and pulleys of behavior is to add a coin flipper or some vitalistic non physical ingredient, and that's not very satisfying.

But the important point is that we have the experience of having free will, and it must be there for something, even if it is not an adequate theory of behavior causation.

Here we get back to the emotion of authorship.... perhaps we have conscious will because it helps us to appreciate and remember what we are doing, the experience of will marks our actions for us, its embodied quality our actions from those of other agents in our environment, this is a point argued by a Harvard psychologist, Daniel Wegner, in his book on Conscious Will.10

We have evolved emotions of anger, sadness, fear, happiness related to survival. We can think of the emotion of agency, or conscious will, as the same sort of evolved emotion, obviously a useful capability in sorting out our physical and social world.

The authorship emotion, an emotion that authenticates the action's owner as the self, is something we would miss if it were gone... it would not be very satisfying to go through life causing things, making discoveries, helping people, whatever.. if we had no personal recognition of those achievements.

And, this view doesn't really need to conflict with notions of responsibility and morality, because what people intend and consciously will is a basis for how the moral rightness or wrongness of an act judged. This is why mental competence is an issue in criminal trials.

So, just as in theater, art, used car sales ...and in the scientific analysis of conscious things seem is more important than what they are. It seems to us that we have selves, have conscious will, have minds, are agents. While it is sobering and ultimately accurate to call all this an illusion, it is incorrect to call the illusion a trivial one. The illusions piled on top of apparent mental causation are the building blocks of human psychology and social life. And, if you look at the consequences of this illusion, our dominance as a species on this planet, you can see an obvious evolutionary rationale. 

1. The word undermind is used by Guy Claxton, in his engaging book "Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind, How Intelligence Increases When You Think Less." (New York: Harper Perennial, 1999), which describes studies showing brain operations going on outside of our normal awareness.

2. This drawing is copied from Wegner, D.M., 2002. The Illusion of Conscious Will. Cambridge:MIT Press.

3. More thorough discussions of the implications of the class of experiments similar to Lebet's are found in McCrone, J., 1999. Going Inside : A Tour Round a Single Moment of Consciousness. London:Faber & Faber Ltd (from which this and the previous paragraph are taken).; and also Cotterill, R., 1999. Enchanted Looms - Conscious Networks in Brains and Computers. New York:Cambridge University Press.

4. See LeDoux, J., 1996. The Emotional Brain - They Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life. New York:Simon & Schuster.

5. Many examples of experiments showing these effects are given in the Claxton book.

6. Claxton, G. 1999. Moving The Cursor Of Consciousness : Cognitive Science and Human Welfare. J.Consciousness Studies 6: 219-222.

7. See Dennett, D.C., 1991. Consciousness Explained. Boston:Little,Brown & Company, for a discussion of the construction of selves. .

8. The embodiment of emotions, and the construction of the conscious self are discussed in Damasio, A.R., 1994. Descarte's error: emotion, reason, and the human brain. New York, N.Y.:G.P. Putnam's Sons; and Damasio, A.R. 1999. The Feeling of What Happens. New York: Harcourt Brace.

9. On conscious will as the emotion of authorship, see the last chapter of Wegner, D.M., 2002. The Illusion of Conscious Will. Cambridge:MIT Press.

10. Wegner, 2002, cited above.

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