The human brain generates an idea of “self” that allows us to “own” our experiences and forges a connection between our thoughts and intentions, our bodies, and our actions. Our sense of self also allows us to examine our own minds and to use what we see to guide our behavior.
We divide the world into that which is subjective and internal and that which is objective and external. The boundary between the two acts like a container, which holds the former and places the latter outside. This container is what we know as the “self”. Among other things, it includes our thoughts, intentions, and habits, as well as our actual bodies. Except in altered states (see Altering Consciousness), all experiences we report include a sense of self, but most of the time the sense is unconscious. This “consciousness-with-self” is what we generally call “consciousness”. When the sense of self becomes conscious, we talk of being “self-conscious”.
Agency is our sense of control over our actions. We feel that our conscious thoughts dictate what we do, but this appears to be incorrect. A famous experiment by Benjamin Libet (see Packets of time) revealed that a person’s brain starts to plan and execute a movement unconsciously, before the person has consciously decided to do it. This is often interpreted to show that our sense of agency and of making “decisions” is illusory. The sense of agency we experience may actually have evolved primarily to give us early warning not of our own actions, but of the actions of others. Because we feel ourselves to be agents, we also intuit agency in others, and thus think we know their intentions and can predict what they will do.
People with schizophrenia may have a disturbed sense of agency. Some attribute their own actions to the intentions of others, claiming they are being “controlled” by outside forces; others, that they “cause” events unconnected with their own actions, such as moving the sun. Studies have suggested that these disturbances of the sense of agency are the result of misperceiving the time gap between action and consequence.
The brain holds various “body maps” – internal representations of the physical self. The earliest, most basic map to emerge tells us where our body ends and the rest of the world begins. A more developed body “atlas” enables us to know our spatial location in the world. Normally, the internal maps and the body itself are closely matched, but it is possible for them to be askew. If a person loses a limb, for example, they may develop what is known as a phantom limb—a feeling that they have a limb that, in fact, no longer exists (see The Sixth Sense). People can also be tricked into “owning” a limb or even a body that is not actually theirs.
Out-of-body experiences (OBEs) occur when the internal representation of the body is out of kilter with the real body. This happens all the time in dreams, but when it happens during wakefulness it may be interpreted as a supernatural event. OBEs typically occur as you wake up, before the brain has properly reconnected with the external world .
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