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Who am I? What am I?

A look at the mind-body problem from a personal perspective.

I’ve often wondered “Who am I?’  Or better yet, “What am I”  Or even “Where am I”


Is my mind a thing separate from my body?  Or is it part of my body somewhere in my brain?  What is the substance of “me?”

Surely many great intellects have pondered this question.  Indeed, it’s that old mind-body problem.  (Also see mind, Daniel Dennett, Michael Gazzaniga, and Douglas Hofstadter.)

Well, it seems fairly certain that where “I” am is in my head somewhere.  Why?  Because I know that my consciousness can be affected by physical things happening to my head, like by getting conked on the cranium.  I also know that impaired mental functions and personality changes have been demonstrated to be cerebral anomalies; that is, brain dysfunctions such as Parkinson's, dementia, and strokes.  Personality, emotion, mood, memory... the things that make up “me”... all can be affected by trauma, illness, drugs, diet, and even age.  Brain surgery also can show the physical link between a skull’s gray-matter and the mind.  So my consciousness most certainly is between my ears, somewhere in the brain.

And, since “I” can be absent in a dreamless sleep or under anesthesia or during amnesia, even though my brain is still working, I have to wonder what happened to “me.”  When I am unconscious, “I” seem to be missing.  Time can pass without me living through it.  Since “I” can disappear and reemerge without my brain disappearing and reappearing, with no loss of bodily mass of any kind, it must be that “I” am not any kind of brain matter... or any kind of substance at all.  My mind does not seem to be physical.  In other words, “I” am not a “what.”  Yet, I know there is something worldly about my consciousness because physical stuff, like illicit drugs, alcohol, and medicines, can have noticeable affects on my thinking and awareness. 

So I am in my head, but not any physical part of my head.  Then how can “I” be not material, yet be affected by material things?  Perhaps a clue lies in the fact that the focal awareness I call “me” is always in “now,” constantly moving in time.  My conscious existence rides on an instant that has no duration.  What I was a moment ago is no longer me, but merely a memory... and often not even that.  I am in temporal motion on the arrow of time.  Apparently, if time stopped, I would stop.


It looks like “I” exist in only one dimension... time.  Like a story being told by a movie, I am a sequence of events.  The physical components of a movie, the frames or projector or screen, are not the story, just like my brain, or any part of it, is not the thinking “me.”  Also, none of the several frames of the movie are the story, just like no prior or future moments in my life are “me.”  It’s the continuous process of projecting consecutive movie frames on a screen that gives existence to the intangible story.  In fact, the story only exists in time as an artifact of the physical process of movie showing.  Likewise, my consciousness derives duration from electrical activity in my brain.  In other word, stop the movie and the story stops.  Stop my brain activity and I stop.

So, “I” am not substance, either physical or spiritual.  “I” am a process, an action, a happening, a series of mental events.  “I” exist like a song being sung, like a story being told.  I am the integrating of sensations with experiences.  “I” am the action of instinct and intent.  “I” am perceiving and introspecting.  I am NOT an entity that thinks, remembers, designs, plans, imagines – I am those actions themselves... moment after moment.  “I” am not a human being... but am being human.  My mind does not move in space, but rather along the arrow of time.  The awareness I call “me” is verb instead of noun.

I am a procession of actions that incrementally construct my perspective of reality with me at the center of it.  That is, the objects and events surrounding my body's travel through time create a self-centered focus... an illusion of substance I call ego, mind, self... me. 

So it seems to me to talk about the mind-body problem makes as much sense as talking about the hour-clock problem, or the travel-car problem.

In summary,

I am a persistent artifact

arisen from brain activity

that mediates sensations and experiences

creating a self-centered reality

that will vanish

when I stop being.