In the past, if someone was to ask me “are you good at describing your emotions” or “are you good at introspecting” my answer would be a resounding yes. I have always felt like I have a profound understanding of my feelings, desires and true nature, even when some aspects are hidden from everyone else. But more recently I have come to question this, wondering whether I actually understand myself in a non-trivial way and whether there is even anything to meaningfully “understand”. 

More often these days I conclude that there isn’t a unified self that one can come to understand by introspecting and trying to grok one’s subconscious feelings and desires. The continuous and unified concept of “self” is a useful thing to discuss and refer to in many contexts, however, when it comes to understanding “oneself” (or someone else, I think), the “one” seems to become inaccurate. Inside a human brain is a hodgepodge of signals, conflicting subgoals, and different subsystems based on different modes of thinking – it’s all very far from an ideal unified and efficient system with a singular set of beliefs. The emergent rational mode of thought is the simplest to analyze – this is a matter of pure logic and reason. However, our other patterns of thought – what may be referred to as “emotions”, “feelings”, “instinct” and “intuition” are not only not optimized for rationality but also are not, in my view, unified and consistent. By that, I mean that one can have conflicting/inconsistent emotions and subconscious desires simultaneously. 

When I used to introspect, I used to ask myself the question “how do I *really* feel about this”, especially when it came to emotionally difficult questions that I felt conflicted about. I would try to collapse my inconsistent superposition of subconscious ideas into a set of sentences in natural language that made logical sense to my conscious mind. And for that to happen I would force myself to pretend that there was a clear story to tell about how I felt. My current thoughts on the matter, after having noticed this issue, are that I need to normalize to myself being confused, un-unified, and unstable in my inner irrational mind. It seems more accurate to model my mind as a superposition of multiple “selves”, sub-agents, or something like that. 

Furthermore, this is a helpful model of other people. It gives a different perspective on “fakeness”. If someone behaves differently and exhibits different preferences when they are around different groups of people or are in different environments, it is common for people to claim that certain versions of that person are “fake”. However, we become conditioned to adopt different selves in different environments for various reasons and it is not necessarily true that any of those selves are particularly “fake”. I think I *would* label someone as being “fake” if they were clearly feeling one thing but consciously trying to hide it and signal that they were feeling something else. 

A situation that this mode of thinking reflects on is criminals whose friends and family say “I can’t believe they committed this crime – they were always so kind and nice at home”! Readers of such comments are inclined to imagine the “evil” criminal hiding their “true nature” at home, however, my current model is that the criminal had different selves, or different sub-agents (not sure what the optimal language is here), with varying levels of evil-ness, as do we all (not with the same variance of course – I am not claiming that everyone has an inner serial killer). Stories of ordinary people turning out to be criminals (as well as stories that reveal surprising aspects of people I know) used to make me question whether I know or understand anyone at all, or is everyone just great at hiding their “true” nature. However, I now have a strong prior that everyone I meet is “genuine” simply in the sense of “this is a genuine rendition of the particular version of this person that comes out in this particular scenario”. 

I am putting these rambling thoughts out there as I’d like to see to what extent people think I am saying something original, useful, accurate and/or relatable. Do you model people as a unified bundle of thoughts and emotions, or more as conflicting subagents? Do you think people have a true self, and fake selves that they present to others or are different selves on more or less equal footing when it comes to genuine-ness. All ideas welcome!

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The Coherent Self is mostly an illusion. Here are a few links

Spoiler: it's not a true self and a fake self, it's just multiple selves.