The self: Clues from the brain

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Can we find a way of thinking about the self that is compatible with modern neuroscience? I think we can. First of all, we have to recognize that "the self" is not the same as "the conscious self," since much of who we are as individuals takes place out of conscious awareness. Second, we have to accept that some aspects of the self, especially the unconscious aspects, occur in and can be studied in other species, allowing us to relate these aspects of the self to detailed brain mechanisms. Finally, it also helps to think of the self in terms of memory. Obviously, much of who we are is based on memories learned through personal experience, including both conscious or explicit memories and unconscious or implicit memories. This is particularly important since much progress has been made in relating memory to the cells and synapses of the brain. By viewing the self as a network of memories the effort to relate the self to the brain can build on this progress. Emphasizing memory and experience does not take away from the fact that our genetic history also contributes to who we are. In fact, genes and experience, or nature and nurture, are, in the end, not different things, but different ways of doing the same thing - wiring the synapses of our brain. In many ways, the self is synaptic. This synaptic view of the self is not meant as a challenge to other views, such as spiritual, cultural, or psychological views. It is instead, just a way of understanding how these other aspects of who we are relate, deep down, to the brain.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)295-304
Number of pages10
JournalAnnals of the New York Academy of Sciences
StatePublished - 2003


  • Brain
  • Consciousness
  • Genes
  • Learning
  • Memory
  • Neurons
  • Personality
  • Self
  • Synapses
  • Unconscious

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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