An equilibrium between our multiple selves

You might naively imagine that you are one person, the same entity from day to day. To the 18th-century philosopher David Hume, however, the idea of a permanent «I» was a fiction. Our mind, Hume wrote, «is nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement.» According to this way of thinking, the self that inhabits your body today is only similar to, not identical with, the self that is going to inhabit your body tomorrow. And the self that will inhabit your body decades hence? A virtual stranger.

La idea es que esta «percepción fluctuante» es la responsable de que lo que hoy nos parece válido pierda a nuestros ojos su valor en otro momento. El artículo especula que estas fluctuaciones no son sinó la evidencia del desplazamiento en el control de nuestras acciones de la parte «emocional» a la «racional»:

Further evidence for the fragmented self comes from neuroscience. Brain scans show that the emotional part of the brain, the limbic system, is especially active when the prospect of immediate gratification presents itself. But choice among longer-term options triggers more activity in the «reasoning» part of the brain, located (suitably enough) higher up in the cortex. Now suppose you’re tempted by a diet-violating Twinkie. Which part of your brain -the shortsighted emotional part or the farsighted reasoning part- gets to be the decider? There may be no built-in hierarchy here, just two autonomous brain modules in competition. That is why you might find yourself eating the Twinkie even while knowing it’s bad for you.

The short-run self cares only about the present. It is perfectly happy to indulge today and offload the costs onto future selves. For example, recent studies show that teenage smokers do not underestimate the risk of getting lung cancer as an adult (if anything, they tend to overestimate it); they simply don’t mind making the future self suffer for the pleasure of the moment. The long-run self may deplore this ruinous behavior, but its prudent resolutions are continually ignored. Yet it can enforce its will indirectly by shaping the environment to constrain some short-run selves from exploiting others by, say, putting a time lock on the refrigerator.

Al respecto de esta «batalla» interior, Merlin Mann (43 folders) comentaba:

«…the ways that the “smart” or “correct” or “chaste” part of our mind can potentially help keep the “dumb” or “weak” or “compulsive” part from screwing up…

…I’ve started to think that many life hacks, represent crude external bridges between these competing factions in our minds. By creating external systems (“put the briefcase in front of the door!”) we provide compensatory mental muscles for the “dumb” part of our minds that is the default boss for so much of our day (or at least my day, anyhow)…

…Just a theory, but it might help explain something about the ways many of us struggle to always make the right thing the easy thing (I think that’s a Jeff Veen quote)…»

Es decir, que esos pequeños trucos que usamos para recordar cosas, para mantener nuestros propósitos, para enfocar nuestras prioridades, para reservar un tiempo para nosotros mismos, son herramientas que nos ayudan a mantener el equilibrio entre nuestros «yo»s antagónicos: el impulsivo y el racional.

Es muy importante recordar, como comenta el artículo del Times, que no debemos dejarnos seducir por la idea de que el yo racional es el óptimo. Alejarnos del equilibrio supone un peligro en cualquiera de los casos, ya que un control extremo es el que subyace bajo la dependencia al trabajo o la anorexia.

También apunta:

If the goal is to promote freedom, though, there is an interesting argument favoring the long-run self. A distinctive quality of humans, as the third earl of Shaftesbury observed three centuries ago, is that we do not simply have desires; we also have feelings about our desires. Take the unhappy heroin addict: he gives himself an injection because he desires the drug, but he also has a desire to be rid of this desire. The philosopher Harry Frankfurt has given such «second order» desires a central role in his analysis of free will: we act freely, he submits, when we act on a desire that we actually desire to have, one that we endorse as our own. Beings that do not reflect on the desirability of their desires -like animals and infants and, perhaps, our short-run selves- are what Frankfurt calls «wantons»

People have fashioned a wide range of techniques for keeping their inner wantons under control -like buying a pint of ice cream instead of the more economical quart because they know they would end up consuming the latter in one sitting. The problem is that private self-binding schemes are easily subverted when someone can make a buck off your weakness of will.

There are certainly more exalted ways to achieve mastery over unwelcome impulses. Thinkers of an existentialist kidney, like Jean-Paul Sartre, used to insist that each of us is free to redefine his character through an act of radical choice. For the religiously inclined, an access of divine grace might be what is needed to stiffen the will.

But what if you are one of those people who rely on more mundane stratagems, like self-binding, the general problem you face (as put by the political theorist Jon Elster) is this: For a given uphill goal and a given strength of will, does there exist a path, however circuitous, that will get you to the top of the hill? By adding a new path here and there, it is more likely that the answer will be yes. «

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