At the beginning of my book Mind-Body Problems, I describe one of my earliest childhood memories:
I am walking near a river on a hot summer day. My left hand grips a fishing rod, my right a can of worms. One friend walks in front of me, another behind. We’re headed to a spot on the river where we can catch perch, bullheads and large-mouth bass. Weeds bordering the path block my view of the river, but I can smell its dank breath and feel its chill on my skin. The seething of cicadas builds to a crescendo.
I stop short. I’m me, I say. My friends don’t react, so I say, louder, I’m me. The friend before me glances over his shoulder and keeps walking, the friend behind pushes me. I resume walking, still thinking, I’m me, I’m me. I feel lonely, scared, exhilarated, bewildered.
That moment was when I first became self-conscious, aware of myself as something weird, distinct from the rest of the world, demanding explanation. Or so I came to believe when I recalled the incident in subsequent decades. I never really talked about it, because it was hard to describe. It meant a lot to me, but I doubted it would mean much to anyone else. Then I learned that others have had similar experiences.
One is Rebecca Goldstein, the philosopher and novelist, whom I profiled in Mind-Body Problems. Before interviewing Goldstein, I read her novel 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, and I came upon a passage in which the hero, Cass, a psychologist, recalls a recurrent “metaphysical seizure” or “vertigo” that struck him in childhood. Lying in bed, he was overcome by the improbability that he was just himself and no one else.
“The more he tried to get a fix on the fact of being Cass here,” Goldstein writes, “the more the whole idea of it just got away from him.” Even as an adult, Cass kept asking himself, “How can it be that, of all things, one is this thing, so that one can say, astonishingly, ‘Here I am’”?
This passage popped off the page at me. Cass was expressing how I felt as a boy muttering, I’m me. When I asked Goldstein if Cass’s experience was inspired by her own, she confirmed that it was. Lying in bed as a girl she would wonder, “What is it about me that makes me me… What makes me this and not that?” Goldstein suspected that people who are “truly bothered by philosophical problems” are more likely to have experienced this feeling.
I suspect she’s right. Several readers of Mind-Body Problems have written to tell me about their moments of self-consciousness. Here’s an account from Laura, an artist and writer, of what she calls her “Aha moment”:
When I was in 6th grade, I was taking one of my long solitary walks to get out of my crowded family of six children and two parents. I had decided when I was four years old that I was going to be a writer "like my Grandfather," who was charismatic, exciting and handsome, smoked cigars and smuggled me into Tijuana to bet on the horses. I had no idea what a writer was. More accurately, I probably meant, "I want to be a larger than life adventurer like my Grandfather." However, now, at age eleven, I'd begun to understand both story and writers, and as I was looking up at the top of a tree, I thought, "She looked up at the top of the tree." I felt a wash of some primordial excitement, an "aha" so vast I could not contain it. To this day I can sometimes glimpse the outline of leaves against the sky and feel a kind of shiver of recognition: that was the moment I became me.
After that, I had two distinct selves. The Laura I had always been and the newly born Laura who observed this ordinary Laura. Like you, I can neither fully explain nor understand the why of this. It's just like being in-love: you just know you are in-love. While I had always had an internal life, I was now aware of my internal life. I observed myself observing myself, if you will.
I also heard from David Berman, a philosopher at Trinity College Dublin, who said that as a child he had an experience like mine:
My family was living in an apartment, on a floor with four apartments near by. The doors opened near each other with a common area. Now outside and near our door was a box, in which our milkman put the bottles of milk we ordered. As I remember, it was in the early evening one day, when, for some reason, there were quite a number of people in the common area, grown-ups and children and they were talking and making a huge noise and din, their voices all merging together so that I could not make out them individually. I was not involved, but was standing on top of our milk box (which probably indicates that I was… seven or eight, since the box was not that big or substantial). And all of a sudden… I thought: It is amazing, I exist…
I never forgot this experience. But though it has always stayed with me, it was only when I was involved in philosophy, which I started when I was in my second year at University, so when I was nineteen, that, at some stage, I thought that my early experience was probably a philosophical experience.
Berman told me that other mind-body thinkers have described similar experiences. One is psychiatrist/guru Carl Jung. In a 1959 BBC show, the interviewer asks Jung (just over three minutes into the interview): “Can I take you back to your own childhood? Do you remember the occasion when you first felt consciousness of your individual self?” Jung replies:
That was in my eleventh year. On my way to school, I stepped out of a mist. It was just as if I had been in a mist, walking in a mist, and then I stepped out of it and then I knew, I am. I am what I am. And then I thought, But what have I been before? And then I found that I had been in a mist, not knowing to differentiate myself from things. I was just one thing among many things.
The interviewer asked if something had triggered the feeling, such as a quarrel with his parents, and Jung replied: “As far as I can remember, nothing had happened before that would explain this sudden coming to consciousness.”
Berman has found hints of similar experiences in the writings of Descartes (“I think, therefore I am”), William Hamilton, John McTaggart, G.E. Moore and Saul Kripke. Berman referred me to a paper by Kripke, “The First Person,” based on a lecture he gave in 2006. The paper focuses, as Kripke puts in, on “the perplexities some philosophers have felt concerning the simple first person pronoun ‘I’.”
Kripke cites Descartes, Hume, Moore and Wittgenstein, among others. Kripke does not describe a personal episode of self-awareness, but he certainly seems obsessed with the strangeness of the self, his and others. An alternative title for Kripke’s talk could be, “When I Say ‘I’, What Do I Mean?”
Berman calls his experience of self-consciousness, and Jung’s, “dualistic,” because you feel a sharp division between yourself and the rest of the world. Other mind-body thinkers, Berman says, seem to have had “monistic” experiences, in which divisions dissolve and you feel a profound sense of oneness. They include Spinoza, Hume, F.H. Bradley and William James.
Monistic experiences get most of the attention, because they are usually accompanied by bliss and spiritual exaltation rather than anxiety and alienation. Enlightenment, the goal of Buddhists and other spiritual seekers, is supposedly monistic. But I prefer my humble dualistic experience. It has left me with an abiding sense that the world is utterly weird, and the weirdest thing of all is that I’m here feeling the weirdness. It’s an unsettling feeling, but I cherish it.
Comment from Karl Dahlke: I have often thought Charles Schultz was more of a genius than people realize. When I was young I received the sound track to the Broadway play "You're a Good Man Charlie Brown” and soon had it memorized. I recently bought the disc, (the original, not the sub-par remake). Track #6 is Dr. Lucy. Charlie Brown is depressed, and Lucy is trying to help him, and near the end she finally says that, despite all his faults and shortcomings, he is unique in the universe. "I'm me!" he blurts out, just as you did. It seems to be a revelation, almost an exhilaration. Here is the track:
http://www.eklhad.net/Peanuts-GoodMan-06DrLucy.mp3. Also Neil Diamond in his well known song, “I Am I Said": "I am"... I said/To no one there/And no one heard at all/Not even the chair./"I am"... I cried."/I am"... said I./And I am lost and I can't/Even say why.