The Self: The greatest trick your mind never played

by Michael Davidson

The 23 February 2013 special issue of the New Scientist featured a series of short articles entitled “The Self: the greatest trick your mind ever played“. These provide various arguments as to why ‘the self’ – ie ‘you’ – is deluded into thinking it exists when in fact it doesn’t.the self

The first thing to note is that of the seven small articles, two are by the philosopher Jan Westerhoff and three are written or partially written by “New Scientist consultants”. Two other authors are named but their credentials are undisclosed. I will only comment here on Westerhoff’s articles.

Westerhoff briefly reviews some of the philosophical arguments that tell us that ‘the self’ is an illusion. Either ‘the self’ is like
1) a continuous thread which “runs through every single moment of our lives, providing a core and a unity for them.” or
2) it is just “the continuity of overlapping mental events” – somewhat like a rope which has no single fibre running the length of the rope but still holds together as a rope.

The argument against the first model is that what we normally consider to be ‘the self’ undergoes numerous changes through our lives – such as “being happy or sad, being able to speak Chinese, preferring cherries to strawberries, even being conscious.” The continuous self, then, is “so far removed from everything constituting us that its absence would scarcely be noticeable.”

The argument against the rope model is that there is no constant part therein that we can identify with.

Since these two models are flawed we are urged to conclude that a continuing ‘self’ is really an illusion. The simpler course is to think of better models. The fact that our moods, tastes, abilities etc change through our lives does not seem to be a great strike against a simple entity – attribute – ability model. The puzzle – if it be a puzzle – of how an entity can change its attributes and remain the same entity has come down to us from the ancient Greeks as the paradox of the ‘Ship of Theseus’. The idea is that as the various planks that make up the ship are replaced because of decay, it is possible eventually that no part of the original ship remains. Is it then the same ship? Such paradoxes are thus not confined to ‘the self’.

Westerhoff states that even if there is no continuing self perhaps there is a self in the here and now – ie the self is where all the senses come together.

But this apparency of the unity of conscious experience can be disrupted as seen in an experiment which is described but not referenced. This experiment was first reported by Kolers & von Gruneau (1). In it two coloured dots (one red, one green) are displayed on a screen in quick succession in different locations. According to the article the dot appears to move steadily between the two locations and change colour somewhere between. This immediately presents a paradox, since the apparent spot cannot change colour before it arrives at the second location. The apparency of motion caused by a succession of closely related images is called the ‘beta phenomenon’ and is the fortunate basis of the multi-billion dollar movie industry.

The colour changing illusion is not seen by everyone. I personally do not see it and psychologist Nelson Cowan (2) reports that he sees the moving object as colourless.

But this experiment is apparently seen of great significance in destroying the idea that ‘the self’ is the confluence of the senses whereby we get a whole view of the world – what Aristotle termed ‘the common sense’. There are innumerable other optical illusions which show that our perceptions are modulated by our sensory apparatus but these don’t evidently have the same significance. It is no surprise that the senses can be deceived by sufficiently unusual and specifically engineered events but this does not mean that our perceptions are always wrong. Indeed if they were not usually good enough we would have no criteria for determining when they deceive and human beings would have been winnowed by natural selection millennia ago. We usually can recognise illusions as illusions.

A third aspect of ‘the self’ which needs to be explained (away) is the apparency of conscious will, ie that we are agents – “the thinker of our thoughts and the doer of our deeds.” The empirical finding on which this argument relies is an experiment by Wegner & Wheatley in 1999 (3). Approx 50 volunteers were asked to move a cursor around a screen by controlling a mouse and stop the cursor on one of about 50 small images. The mouse was shared with an accomplice of the experimenters via an ouija board arrangement, and unbeknownst to the volunteer the accomplice was instructed to force a stop on particular objects at particular times. The volunteers were asked to stop on the same particular objects and then to rate how much they were actually involved in causing the stop (between 0% = ‘I allowed the stop to happen’ to 100% = ‘I intended to make the stop’). What was variable was the interval of time from the forced stop and the moment when the object was named to the volunteer. When the object name was presented between 1 and 5 seconds before the stop, the volunteers rated their intentions at 60%+-5% as opposed to when the word was presented 30 secs before or 1 sec afterwards (45% +-5%). The result is significant at the 5% level, though 45% and 60% indicates the participants weren’t particularly certain either way. The Westerhoff article however gives no hint of this uncertainty, implying a much more definite result than is in fact the case.

Wegner & Wheatley concluded that conscious will is only an apparency – similar to magic in that the magician presents an apparent causal sequence whilst the real sequence is something else. People do what they do not through conscious will but as the result of various genetic, unconscious, neural, cognitive, emotional, social and possibly other causes. This (according to Wegner & Wheatley) is the ‘core assumption‘ of psychological science. Evidently the conclusion follows from the assumption rather than the empirical facts.

The conditions of the experiment are such that the volunteer thinks that the experimenter’s accomplices are volunteers like himself. It is not known how he views the other person: as a competitor, a team player, a spectator etc. The times where the accomplice did not manage to force the stop on the particular object chosen at the desired time (which seemed to be between 22% and 47% for any one participant) were excluded from the analysis. So there are a number of question marks as to what this experiment means. The philosopher Eddy Nahmias (4) comments “When all is said and done, Wegner has offered no evidence or arguments against this proposal: certain brain processes have the property of being consciously represented to the agent as mental states we describe as beliefs, desires, intentions and actions (for instance, my brain is currently going through the processes which I experience as something like ‘I think this proposal makes sense’. Type out the words, ‘This proposal makes sense.’ and so on). How is it that these brain processes have these experiential properties is currently a mystery… But if these processes did not have their representational properties then they would not have the causal powers they have.” I comment further in chapter 12 of my e-book “Rethinking the Mind”.

In a separate article “When are you? – you are being tricked into thinking you live in the present” Westerhoff describes an experiment by Eagleman & Sejnowski (5). Five participants sat in front of a computer screen on which a small ring moved around a large circle at one revolution per second. When the ring was in a certain position of its trajectory (9 o’clock) a white disk was flashed at the 9’oclock position +- 7° and the subjects were asked to indicate whether the flash was above or below the ring when it was perceived. In this way an estimate of how much the flash was displaced from the perceived position of the ring at the time of the flash could be made. Each participant saw the flash when the ring was displaced by around 5°. When the direction of travel of the ring was reversed at the time of the flash the percept was displaced by a similar amount in the new direction of travel. By changing the time at which the reversal takes place upto 80 millisecs after the flash the perceived position of the flash can be manipulated. This indicates that “the percept attributed to the time of the flash is a function of the events that happen in the ~80 millisecs after the flash.”

According to Westerhoff “All this is slightly worrying if we hold on to the common-sense view that our selves are placed in the present. If the moment of time we are supposed to be inhabiting turns out to be a mere construction, the same is likely to be true of the self existing in that present.” This seems to be a drastic conclusion for the sake of 80 millisecs. High class athletes find it difficult to react to the starting gun in less than 180 millsecs but athletes are not considered to be zombies as a result. Similarly the apparent fact that our present moment is stretched over 80 millisecs does not entail that there is no ‘self’.

The whole approach seems to be an example of what Francis Bacon (1561-1626) identified as the human habit of accepting data that agrees with one’s own prejudices or those of the philosophical schools and rejecting data that disagrees. This was demonstrated in an experiment (6) in which 24 proponents and 24 opponents of capital punishment were shown the results of two studies that showed evidence for and against capital punishment as a deterrent.   Since the studies were fictional (unbeknownst to the 48 students) they could be ‘engineered’ to produce positive or negative findings from exactly equivalent protocols, and could be presented in either order to eliminate the effects of sequence.   Needless to say, the subjects felt that the studies confirming their view were more scientifically valid than those opposing.   Furthermore they were more convinced that their view was correct after reviewing both pieces of evidence than before, regardless of the order in which the two studies were viewed (p < 0.001).

This series of short articles in the New Scientist hold to a materialist philosophy as the starting point. Since materialist notions fail to find any reason why there should be a ‘self’ then the ‘self’ must be denied as an illusion or delusion. All forms of materialism have philosophical difficulties, as do all forms of non-materialism, such as dualism. What is required is a neutral approach that takes the empirical data and forms theories of limited applicability and from there predict and control phenomena in that area to gradually widen the theories.

Assuming the answer to the mind-body problem in advance (materialism) and limiting the search to only the empirical data that seems to confirm this philosophical view is not only self-confirming but anti-science.


1. Kolers PA & von Gruneau M (1976) Shaper and Colour in Apparent Motion Vision Research vol 16 p 329-335.

2. Cowan N (1995) Attention and Memory an Integrated Framework OUP p237

3. Wegner D & Wheatley T (1999) Apparent Mental Causation Source of the experience of Will American Psychologist vol 54 no 7 p 480-492 available at

4. Nahmias E(2002) When Consciousness matters Philosophical Psychology vol 15(4) p527-554

5. Eagleman DM & Sejnowski TJ (2000) Motion Integration and Postdiction in Visual Awareness Science vol 287 p2036

6. Lord CG, Ross L & Lepper MR (1979) Biased assimilation and attitude polarisation: The effects of prior theories on subsequently considered evidence Journal of Personality & Social Psychology vol 37 p2098-2109 available at

2 thoughts on “The Self: The greatest trick your mind never played

    • Hi Barbara
      Thanks for your interest and comment.
      I am reasonably familiar with Buddhist teachings, for which I have great respect. I feel that they are open to interpretation as to exactly what is meant by ‘no self’. “What” and “who” are certainly different in meaning, so the self is not a ‘what’. My beef in this article is not with Buddhist teachings but with philosophical arguments masquerading as science.

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