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Prof. Harry Segal, psychology, discussed his conception of the human sense of self in a 'Last Lecture' on Wednesday.

April 27, 2017

Prof. Harry Segal Details Human Sense of Self at ‘Last Lecture’

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“Descartes was wrong. He said that ‘I think, therefore I am.’ It really should be I associate, therefore I am.” said Prof. Harry Segal, psychology, detailing the way he understands the human sense of self.

Segal gave the lecture as part of the “Last Lecture” series hosted by the Mortar Board/Der Hexenkreis Senior Honor Society. As part of the series, professors are asked to give a hypothetical last lecture at Cornell, requiring them to think about what topics they find most important or intriguing.

To contextualize his own views versus the current perspectives on the notion of the “self,” Segal provided a history of the concept, stretching back to the origins of religions.

“There was this idea of a divide — this notion across many cultures that we have this body with instincts, but our actual consciousness is given to us by supernatural beings,” Segal said. Similar concepts of the soul and body are prevalent in Christianity, Judaism and Islam, he said.

Discussing the perceived relationship between mind and body, Segal said that “up until the 19th century, these models were overwhelmingly dualist” with the mind and body being considered separate.

Segal also referenced Freudian theory to elaborate on the history of the sense of self.

“Sigmund Freud would explain that you all think you are the person that you are conscious of at that moment,” he said.

However, Segal argued, there is more than just the conscious self and people can only see “glimpses” of themselves in certain situations.

Further relating the history of the idea of the self, Segal explained that beginning in the 1970s, new models of self-awareness arose in which our concept of self — our self-image, our self-identity, our self-perception and our self-conception — are all interconnected.

“Connectivist models assume self is generated by hidden layers of node activity in the brain,” he said.

Providing a fuller picture of the subject, Segal discussed David Hume’s declaration that there is no self and that any idea of self must be derived from an impression and that there is no enduring self. Others view the self as simply a social construct created by “cultural moment” and “context.”

Delving deeper into specifics and detailing his own perspective, Segal explained how the complex associations we make between our experiences in the present and our past experiences were an evolutionary advantage. These associations also allow us to develop an idea about who we are.

“In our great evolutionary advantage is our capacity to respond emotionally in the moment and to associate our present experience in memory,” the professor said.

Although an advantage in evolution, our ability to associate has also left humans vulnerable to trauma, Segal said. Humans, he added, “evolved the capacity to dissociate and go into trauma when an event is too traumatic.”

Segal explained that “when [a] memory or event is so traumatic, the brain creates a quarantine — a barrier. But, our memory is creating associations anyways, we are just not conscious of it.”

Because “we associate with everything,” Segal said, though it may seem counter-intuitive, the treatment for trauma and patients with post-traumatic stress disorder typically involves asking the subject to recall traumatic events over and over again.

“Once you can remember something emotionally, it can be a part of your history,” Segal said.

Segal noted that while there are still many unknowns regarding the brain and the way in which human perceive themselves, he believes the associations humans form shape the sense of self.

“My prediction is that there is no ‘self’ that we are going to find in the brain,” he said. “But, we each have a style of thinking created by the innate capacities of our brain, our cultures, our families and our individual histories.”