Who am I? That’s a difficult question. An easier one would be “what am I made of,” to which I may reply with a list of eleven elements which make up a body, a sentient structure which has three times more cells than there are stars in the Milky Way. But even this is a difficult question, seeing as my cells are constantly splitting and dying, and can live on without me if they are to be transported into another’s body.
Let us then abandon this question and return to the first. “Who am I?” or “what is the self?” I know I am a thing that thinks, and that I exist while I am thinking. The thinking part of my existence may be called the Mind, which can be split into two parts: the conscious mind and the subconscious mind. The conscious mind gets a lot of recognition for being the self, seeing as it is the source of everything that a person can control and be aware of in their mind, but the subconscious mind tends to be almost entirely overlooked in this matter. I think that the self lies more subconscious than anyone is willing to admit. The conscious mind can change day by day and moment by moment, but the subconscious mind is much more slow to change, and remains relatively constant. External interaction (experiences with people/environment/things) has a great effect on the conscious mind, and memories of these events will help create both a conscious and subconscious reaction to anything associated to that experience again. Conscious reactions are usually logic-based, whereas subconscious reactions are usually feelings triggered by association with a past experience. That would make PTSD an intensely negative form of subconscious reaction. Intense stress is one of the only things that can cause long-lasting or permeant significant change to the subconscious mind in a relatively short period of time.
Stress and negative experiences also affect memories, particularly repressed or forgotten ones. Memories are often repressed or altered if they are extremely traumatic to the person. When the memory is repressed, it is hidden away from the conscious mind by the subconscious mind, and the conscious mind goes on as if nothing has happened, even though the subconscious mind knows full well what went down. Memory alteration occurs when aspects of a memory is altered by the mind. This is usually a product of low level repression, and usually takes the form of nostalgia. The guy who hated High School may recall the torturous four years a decade later and say that it wasn’t so bad because he had lost the specifics of the negative emotions and experiences that he had hoped to forget, (and had moved past years ago) and would therefore be unable to recall properly what his High School experience had actually been like. When recalling the experience he will only have an handful of memories to draw conclusions from (most of the ones kept being not-so-bad ones), so he would most likely think of High School as a place where only not-so-bad, or even good memories were made. Hence the alteration of memory resulting in nostalgia.
Since the subconscious holds on to many memories that the conscious mind throws away, and since it stays so consistent over time, I might say that it is the glue that holds the self together. If the conscious mind changes for a short period of time, it may affect the memories being produced, causing a slight change in the unconscious mind, but the reactions of the unconscious mind affect the conscious mind much more than the other way around. Still, the unconscious mind is hardly recognized for this influence.
This entire thing has been rather focussed on the immaterial, and now I’m just itching to talk about brains. Throughout this document I have referred to the conscious and unconscious mind as if they were cooperative, yet separate beings. This has been inspired by an interesting epilepsy treatment which involves the severance of the corpus callosum. The corpus callosum is the largest of the bundles of axons, or commissures, that connect the left and right hemispheres of the brain, and help them communicate and stay on the same page. Since the severing of the corpus callosum appeared to have little to no effect on the cats and monkeys which had been tested on, neurosurgeons got the idea to use it to ease the suffering of patients with severe epilepsy. Read More