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The Grammar of Consciousness: I vs. Me


Long ago, in elementary school English grammar, many of us learned about the first person singular: I, me, my, mine. (And then went on to all the others… )

In a long and interesting (paywalled) article about theories of consciousness, we learn about efforts to distinguish between “I” and “me.” In one experiment, a neuroscientist, Catherine Tallon-Baudry has tried to distinguish:

This time, they homed in on the distinction between “I” and “me”. Tallon-Baudry says “I” captures the most basic aspect of self – the aspect that comes before thought, the unified entity that does the thinking. It is fundamentally different from the kind of reflection about “me” that implies monitoring different bodily functions without that sense of unity.

To see if they could show that the brain treats those two concepts differently too, Tallon-Baudryʼs team asked people who were having their brain scanned to fixate on a point and then let their mind wander. Every now and then, they were interrupted and asked whether – at that precise moment – they were thinking about “me” or “I”, which they had been trained to recognise. Depending on which they reported, the HEP occurred in different parts of the brain: a region near the front for “me” thoughts and one further back for “I” thoughts. This showed for the first time that the brain does indeed discern between the two concepts.

Laura Spinney, “Consciousness isn’t just the brain: The body shapes your sense of self” at New Scientist

It shouldn’t be a big surprise if the brain distinguishes between the two concepts because subject (I, the person who makes things happen) and object (me, the person who experiences something) are more or less fundamental ideas.

The mystery of consciousness includes our constant awareness of both of these statuses, I and me.

You may also like: Why would philosophers deny that consciousness is real? Because, says computer scientist Bernardo Kastrup, the materialism they are committed to makes no sense and that’s the best they can do.

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The Grammar of Consciousness: I vs. Me