Where is your ‘self’? Surely the self is an emergent property of physical parts of your body, and, of course, most of these parts are squishy brain parts. I mean, clearly you’re not in your toes — if you lost a few in an unfortunate snake pit accident you would still clamber out of said pit as yourself. And if you lost a leg in an ill-fated whaling mishap, you would still be yourself too, though perhaps a little moodier, and maybe revenge-obsessed.
People’s common sense usually places selves around the general head area, or as absolutely zero scientists call it, the “brain box.” But you wouldn’t say someone’s self is in the ears and hair parts of the brain box. Yet if you say the self is in “the brain,” you’re likely referencing the fact that you are educated enough to know that the brain is the machine of thoughts and feelings, the stuff of self. Education aside, is there an innate psychological intuition about the location of the self? Do humans, especially children, have a built in bias that tells them where the self is, and if so, how and why would this have evolved?
Paul Bloom and Christina Starmans, of Yale Univeristy, published a clever research article last week in the journal Cognition, arguing that children and adults tend to assume the self is in and around the eyes. They devised a novel experiment where they showed children and adults different South Park-esque animated images of people with an object (in this case, a buzzing fly) placed in front of various regions of their cartoonish bodies. Subjects were then asked to judge how close the objects were to the cartoon. The objects, however, were not obviously closer or farther to the cartoon person in any of the experimental conditions, and Starmans and Bloom deduced that, “if children and adults consider the self to be equally distributed across the body, or if they think the self has no spatial location, then they should judge that an object is equally close to a person regardless of where on her body it is positioned. However, if people have an intuition that the self is located in a particular part of the body, then they should judge that objects nearer to that part of the body are closest to the person.”
Their results showed that, overwhelmingly, children and adults judge objects near to the cartoons’ eyes as being closest to them. But how could they know if it was the eyes that were causing the bias, or the head region itself? In the next experiment , they moved the eyes to the chest (and changed the cartoon’s skin color to the obligatory neon alien green) and still found the same result.
Why we would people have this eye bias? What is it about the eyes that gives them the honor of Official Self Palace? Starmans and Bloom touch on the issue, making a witty reference to studies on the childish behavior of covering one’s eyes to avoid detection:
Perhaps children intuitively see the eyes as the location of the individual, and intend the claim that the experimenter ‘cannot see me’ to mean the experimenter ’cannot see my self.’ Our current findings lend support to this interpretation, and also suggest that the childish attempt to hide by closing one’s eyes reflects an intuition children share with adults: the eyes are the windows to the soul.
It probably goes even deeper than this. Research on theory of mind, which is a human skill learned early in development that helps us read the thoughts and motivations of others, has shown that the eyes play a central role in the non-verbal communication of our inner mental states (PDF). Think about it – if you’re trying to really understand what’s going on in someone’s head, you can’t just focus on what they say – you have to stare them in the eye. That’s why so many poker players wear sunglasses.
Eyes also tend to inject humanity into otherwise non-human things. Just take a look at the Muppets with People Eyes tumblr and tell me if you aren’t completed weirded out by seeing Muppets with humans souls.
Emerson wrote, in The Conduct of Life, that, “The eyes of men converse as much as their tongues, with the advantage that the ocular dialect needs no dictionary, but is understood all the world over.” I would venture a guess that the evolution of the language of the eyes predates verbal language. There’s something more universal, primal, and emotional about looking into someone’s eyes — it’s a language of the reptilian brain, not the cortices of complex thought.