If I told you that your identity and the world around you are not really real, you’d probably dismiss me as another of those quacky hucksters who want to sell you some crock of bullshit. There are lots of them around, and you definitely need to hold on to your common sense as well as your wallet when they start opening their boxes of foolery. Better just move on and keep your feet in reality.
But I’m not after your money, and I don’t have a cult for you to join.
When I say that your identity and the world around you aren’t really real, I mean they aren’t real in the same way your body, brain, and the physical environment around you are real.
The names of what you see when you look around yourself, the value things have for you or somebody else, the meaning of this, that, and the whole shebang – all of it is constructed and projected by your mind onto the reality of what you see. And then you apprehend the projected image as having objective existence, as a reality existing apart from you and outside your mind.
It won’t be surprising to learn that personal identity (self) and its context of meaning (world) are as variant and numerous as there are egos on the planet. A review of your own experience growing up and coming of age will confirm the assertion regarding the constructed nature – let’s just say the imaginary character – of who you are and the world you live in.
If you had a better understanding of how it all gets going to begin with, you might not only accept the claim but embrace it as foundational to a revolutionary and liberating philosophy of life.
In our scientific age a valid explanation cannot invoke alien agencies, transcendent deities, or occult powers in our effort to understand reality and the projection of a world. So we will begin where our grasp on reality is firmly established, in the fact that you are, at this level at least, a brain in a body. It doesn’t sound very romantic, I know, or even all that interesting. But there’s something going on here that you need to understand.
The neuro-architecture of your brain is an evolutionary record of nervous systems in animal life on planet Earth. Your brainstem regulates the many physiological events that generate and support the life force in your body. Its work is “unconscious,” by which we mean it is autonomic, involuntary, and compulsive – below the threshold of your conscious attention and control.
At this level, you are a brain in a body staying alive from moment to moment.
Moving up a level in your brain’s neuro-anatomy engages a constellation of structures and networks known as the limbic system (hidden within the dashed circle in my diagram above). Its primary role is to adaptively match your body’s internal state to the changing situations of your physical environment.
The repertoire of limbic programs it uses to do this are called emotions, and each program is designed to assess sensory information from the environment, activate and attune your nervous system to what’s going on there, and motivate adaptive behavior that will help you stay safe, grab an opportunity, gain an advantage, or whatever the situation holds.
While the brainstem operates at a level below conscious awareness, your limbic brain does its thing before you are consciously aware of what’s going on, letting you in on the secret only after a half-second delay. For that reason, consciousness at the limbic level is said to be “preconscious.” In the evolutionary history of consciousness, this short delay served the longer prospect of adaptive learning – but only after the priority of survival was satisfied.
So let’s pause to appreciate the amazing contribution of your limbic brain to the evolutionary adventure of consciousness on Earth. Beyond the urgent task of regulating the life force in its resident body, the brain now had the capacity to manage the body more adaptively to a wide range of survival situations in its physical environment. Every new situation afforded another opportunity to recall previous episodes, anticipate what was coming, refine its strategic response, and learn from the outcome.
Whereas the brainstem’s memory is about doing the same thing, instinctually, over and over again, the limbic system can build an archive of discrete episodes of experience and call them up in situations that happen to activate any part of the pattern.
Basal animals, whose consciousness is almost entirely invested in the brainstem work of regulating the internal life force of the body, behave in today’s generation exactly as they did millions of years ago. Limbic animals, however, are capable of adapting and learning new responses to the changing situations of their environment. Although for the vast majority of them the physical environment hasn’t changed all that much over the millenniums of time, to the degree it has changed, so too has their emotional repertoire and range of learning expanded accordingly.
Of course, you are also considered a “limbic animal,” but your brain has an additional layer to its neuro-architecture. Lots of species have a cerebral cortex as well, but it is most highly evolved in humans. The bi-lateral set of structures (one on each side of the brain) that began in limbic brains continues at this higher level, but the branching associations of the cortical brain are exponentially increased, adding to emotional learning and situational adaptation a capacity for symbolic language, creative imagination, pretend play, problem solving, making meaning and abstract thought.
The remarkable product of all this cortical activity is called your world, or as labeled in the above illustration, your “world project.” With the powerful tool of symbolic language, your creative imagination is, in this very moment, telling stories and constructing a world around you. In fact, this projected context of meaning is what creates the performance space for you to be a self and become somebody. “Self” and “world,” that is to say, go together or co-arise in the creative work of your cerebral cortex.
To summarize, your brainstem anchors you in the life force of your body. Your limbic system manages your body across the changing situations of your physical environment. And now, your cerebral cortex takes the core identity of these situational costumes and projects around it the semantic theater of your world.
From the constructed vantage point of this core identity, or ego, you can look inward (subjectively) to your self and outward (objectively) to your world.
It’s common to regard the environment and your world as synonyms for the same thing, which might be named Reality. But what I referred to above as the foundational claim of a revolutionary and liberating philosophy of life itself grows from the insight that environment and world are profoundly different.
The physical environment, as well as your basal and lower limbic levels of experience, is the factual realm. Your world project, though, including your higher limbic and cortical levels of experience, make up (quite literally) a fictional realm where you pursue imaginary things like identity, purpose, freedom and meaning itself.
Just because you share the social stage with others who also pursue these things doesn’t make them any less fictional and imaginary.
Indeed, it is precisely because you and others agree on their significance that such things preoccupy your waking thoughts and fill your dreams at night.
Now, that’s a lot to digest, so let me close this meditation by inviting you to imagine what kind of world would be constructed around the prevalent limbic programs of self-interest, social anxiety, and zero-sum competition. And then how about a world arising out of compassion, generosity, and goodwill?
You and I have the power to create and choose which world we will live in.