"Self" and Ego
“Self” and Ego
The consciousness that we each feel is experienced by our strong sense of self, and by our thinking self – the ego. It becomes important to make this distinction between our sense of self and our thinking self. Our sense of self is non-verbal and comes from our vision-based (non-verbal) cognition. It is more fundamental than our thinking self or ego.
Gerald Edelman, author of Wider Than the Sky, speaks of a primary consciousness which is the state of being mentally aware of things in the world, and a higher order consciousness which is the ability to be aware that we are aware. Being aware is our right brain sense of “self”. Animals are “aware”. Being aware that we are aware is our left brain sense of self or “ego”.
There are 2 components to our consciousness and self-identity: a non-verbal awareness and sense of self that is based upon the sense of vision, and a thinking awareness and sense of self (ego) that is verbal and based upon speech and hearing. They are distinct, but also closely bonded with one another.
If we introspect about our consciousness, we find that it is filled with a stream of thoughts that comes to us as an internal voice – as if in a conversation with our self. This left brain, or verbal aspect of our consciousness, is quite easily recognized. We can almost hear ourselves think. Our thinking self, or the “ego”, is easily identified through introspection. It is so pervasive in our consciousness that it makes it difficult to be aware of the other aspects of our consciousness.
Our right brain sense of awareness is also part of our consciousness, however, it is often less obvious. Some people are able to discern the difference between the right brain awareness and the left brain thinking; whereas for many others their consciousness is so continuously filled with a stream of verbal thoughts that they are unable to appreciate the right brain awareness. A personal example of right brain awareness: when I am hiking in nature, or even driving on a highway, I am often simply appreciating and just being with the environment - no thoughts. I can even attain such a right-brain state with another person in the car, provided we are not in conversation. If I am asked: “What are you thinking?” My reply is: “I am not thinking about anything?”, because I have essentially shut down my left brain thinking and I am just “being” with my right brain awareness. This is similar to being in a meditative state. I have found that some people cannot understand how a person cannot be thinking about anything; they are unable to experience that state because their consciousness is continually filled with thoughts. They cannot shut down their left brain thoughts.
The right brain is based upon the sense of vision and uses parallel processing. The vision-based parallel processing of the right brain enables simultaneous processing and assimilation of many pieces of information – very similar to processing a picture (i.e., vision). The right brain is sometimes called the “silent brain” because it does not have verbal thoughts. The right brain does not have verbal processing capability; therefore, it does not have thoughts. However, right brain feelings can stimulate left brain thoughts. The awareness contributions of the right brain are equally part of the self along with those of the left brain. In fact, I hypothesize that the right brain sense of self is more fundamental to our being than is the left brain sense of self.
The right brain can simultaneously process information from several different senses and create a holistic image or gestalt of a situation. We continually have a general awareness of our environment. For example you may be sitting in a chair in a living room with beige walls, a painting overhead, and a fire in a fireplace. You are very aware of all of these elements in your surroundings, but you are not thinking about any of them because you are reading or in conversation with someone. Your general sense of your environment comes from the right brain.
Likewise, when we say that we “understand” something or have an “intuition”, this comes from the right brain. Such understanding or intuition comes about because the right brain has processed information from several different sources (i.e. several different senses or several different facts or deductive thoughts) and has come to a conclusion about something. Each of us has had the experience of toiling over a problem and after thinking about the problem and looking at it from every conceivable viewpoint (all left brain activities); the answer just “comes” like a bolt of lightning. The answer can come to us when we are least expecting it – perhaps in the middle of the night, when showering, or having our morning coffee. The right brain has assimilated the information (from our left brain deductions) and given us the answer. Our feelings and emotions are also non-verbal aspects of our self and are experienced by our right brain. Feelings and emotions exist independent of any words. The holism, understanding, orientation, awareness, intuition and feelings of the right brain are a strong part of our general awareness and sense of “self”. No words.
Right brain awareness, consciousness, and sense of self are attained during meditative states. The Buddhist teachings of “no mind” refer to the state of essentially shutting down the left brain thinking and ego, and just being with the right brain consciousness. In this state of mind, the original mind or true “self” is said to be attained. These teachings very accurately identify the right brain sense of awareness and sense of self. The deepest part of our “self” is contained in our vision based brain.
Because our minds can be overwhelmed by thinking and words, it is more difficult to access the right brain consciousness. As result, the vision-based awareness housed in the right brain has been labeled “unconscious” – including by such scholars as Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. At one level, this could simply be considered a semantic issue. However, I suggest that the act of “thinking” should not be the differentiator between conscious and unconscious.
In fact, I suggest that the right brain sense of “self” and its contribution to our awareness is a stronger and more fundamental part of who we are as living beings than is our thinking left brain. (Supportive arguments are provided later.) Relegating the right brain awareness contributions to the realm of “unconscious” leads to the impression that they are less important than our thinking self. The general awareness and sense of “self” that come from the sense of vision should be considered a strong part of our consciousness. In fact, the right brain contributions towards creativity and understanding further suggest that it has leadership roles.
We can be aware that our consciousness and our concept of self are comprised of 2 portions: a right brain sense of “self” that is non-verbal and based upon vision-derived cognition, and a left brain thinking self that is verbal-based. On a daily basis, our sense of self and our thinking self (ego) are so in tune with one another that we don’t generally recognize them as being different from one another.