Finding the Self: A Neuroscientific Approach to a Philosophical Question

As the nine of us filed into the classroom, the professors smiled and asked, “What makes you, you?” And so began our three weeks journey to define and find the self. I will let you in on the outcome– we couldn’t agree on a single idea. And that’s okay!

During session one, I took Neuroscience of Personal Identity — a course I’ve been waiting for two years to take. It uses philosophical theories of identity to study/critique neuroscientific investigations on the Self. The point is to stay critical when reading about new scientific findings and to understand the limitations of the different disciplines. Many of the students were either neuroscience or psychology majors, which made the philosophy portion of the course a little difficult. Despite some intellectual challenges, it felt extremely rewarding to have finished the course.

Philosophical concept of bodily experience vs neuroscience concept

The class was small, made up of just nine students. Through all of our group work and class time, I got to know each person and our faculty a little better. We were put outside of our comfort zones during the very first week when we were asked to wander around the cities and interview some locals about the concept of identity. The task itself was easy, but you can imagine how it might be difficult to approach people and ask them questions like, “When do you cease to exist? What defines you?” My group pulled our nerves together and actually ended up having really insightful and beautiful conversations with strangers.

Exploring with classmates

We had two field studies as part of the class, and my favorite one was visiting the Center for Subjectivity Research at the University of Copenhagen. There, we met a philosopher who works alongside neuroscientists and psychologists to study something called, “Spatial Consciousness and Bodily Experiences”.

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Overall, I am so glad to have gotten the chance to take this class. I learned so much in just three weeks!

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