Self as a Function of the Senses

Today I found an interesting article by Olaf Blanke and Christine Mohr about OBE (out-of-body), heautoscopic (seeing one’s own body at a distance), and autoscopic (sees one’s own body as though from outside of one’s body) phenomena. Here are some excerpts:

The self is experienced as distinct from other human conspecifics and may be described as an enduring entity (i.e. the feeling that we are the same person across time) to which certain mental events and actions are ascribed (i.e. the feeling that we are the authors of our thoughts and actions) and which is distinct from the environment. The self has fascinated mankind from time immemorial and its many concepts have been influenced by theology, philosophy, psychology, but also by clinical observations from neurology and psychiatry. More recently, cognitive neuroscience has started elucidating some of the cognitive and neural mechanisms of isolated aspects of self processing such as agency, ownership, perspective taking, self-other distinction, and spatial unity between self and body.

More from the article, concerning the role of proprioception and equalibrioception (through the vestibular organs) in AP or autoscopic phenomena:

These data point to the importance of non-visual, body related, mechanisms in AP, such as proprioceptive and or kinaesthetic processing as already argued by Sollier…

Another sensory system, which has been linked to AP, is the vestibular system that conveys sensations of the body’s orientation in three-dimensional space to the brain.

Thus, Blanke et al. proposed that AP result from a disintegration in personal space (due to conflicting tactil, proprioceptive, kinesthetic, and visual information) and a second disintegration between personal and extrapersonal space (due to conflicting visual and vestibular information).

Most people take the consciousness that they think of as “self” to be something apart from the senses. Blanke’s article is all about the fact that the consciousness that we think of as “self” is a function of the senses, although some senses apart from the usual five or even Gautama’s six are involved, and that when those sense mechanisms go wrong the sense of self can be confusing and even disturbing to the individual.

My take would be that continuity in the sense of self is a function of the realization of a subtle hypnogogic state. That understanding is I think consistent with Gautama’s assertion that consciousness only exists in connection with sense organ and sense object; the sense of a continuity of self is really an experience of the continuity of breath, disguised by a facility in the transition between senses that comes along with the continuity of breath.

Gautama explained the continuity in the sense of self with an analogy to a wildfire: the wildfire appears to jump between trees without fuel, but in reality it still burns only in connection with fuel. I might add that the illusion of the existence of fire without fuel is especially convincing when the air is moving, as it does in a large wildfire, so that the plasmas or particles that fuel the fire in the air appear distinct from the trees themselves.

To me, what matters is the experience of the relaxed activity of the movement of breath, and as a part of that experience the distinction of the senses. We all do this automatically, but it helps to assume a posture of stretch associated with calm occasionally, and to recognize that what we normally experience physically as a continuity of self is really a construct of what I would call the nine senses.

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