Illusion Of The Unified Self

One of the most dramatic demonstrations of the illusion of the unified self comes from the neuroscientists Michael Gazzaniga and Roger Sperry, who showed that when surgeons cut the corpus callosum joining the cerebral hemispheres, they literally cut the self in two, and each hemisphere can exercise free will without the other one’s advice or consent. Even more disconcertingly, the left hemisphere constantly weaves a coherent but false account of the behavior chosen without its knowledge by the right. For example, if an experimenter flashes the command ‘WALK’ to the right hemisphere (by keeping it in the part of the visual field that only the right hemisphere can see), the person will comply with the request and begin to walk out of the room. But when the person (specifically, the person’s left hemisphere) is asked why he just got up, he will say, in all sincerity, ‘To get a Coke’—rather than ‘I don’t really know’ or ‘The urge just came over me’ or ‘You’ve been testing me for years since I had the surgery, and sometimes you get me to do things but I don’t know exactly what you asked me to do.’ Similarly, if the patient’s left hemisphere is shown a chicken and his right hemisphere is shown a snowfall, and both hemispheres have to select a picture that goes with what they see (each using a different hand), the left hemisphere picks a claw (correctly) and the right picks a shovel (also correctly). But when the left hemisphere is asked why the whole person made those choices, it blithely says, ‘Oh, that’s simple. The chicken claw goes with the chicken, and you need a shovel to clean out the chicken shed.’

The spooky part is that we have no reason to think that the baloney-generator in the patient’s light hemisphere is behaving any differently from ours as we make sense of the inclinations emanating from the rest of our brains. The conscious mind – the self or soul – is a spin doctor, not the commander in chief. Sigmund Freud immodestly wrote that ‘humanity has in the course of time had to endure from the hands of science three great outrages upon its naïve self-love’: the discovery that our world is not the center of the celestial spheres but rather a speck in a vast universe, the discovery that we were not specially created but instead descended from animals, and the discovery that often our conscious minds do not control how we act but merely tell us a story about our actions.


Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, p. 43-4

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