Do you or I really know who we are?

The strangeness of this species Homo sapiens.

My writings of the previous three days have explored the nature of man.  The many ways that we struggle to understand so many issues in our lives. In particular the biggest issue of them all since we abandoned the life of the hunter-gatherer.  Our very survival.

It would be so easy to beat oneself up.  To stare in the mirror and despair at all the unfinished ideas that one has about being ‘sustainable’ shortly before jumping on one’s shiny new tractor, yet another symbol of our industrial civilisation.  The hypocrisy, the double standards!

New tractor being delivered last December.
New tractor delivered last December.

But the mistake in any attempt at self-awareness is the assumption that you know who you are!  Therein lays the problem.!

Marcus Peter Francis du Sautoy is a very smart person.  This is how WikiPedia describes him.

Prof. Marcus Sautoy

Marcus Peter Francis du SautoyOBE (born in London, 26 August 1965)[3] is the Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science and a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford. Formerly a Fellow of All Souls College, and Wadham College, he is now a Fellow of New College. He is President of the Mathematical Association.

Prof. Sautoy came to the realisation that the thoughts that make us feel as though we know ourselves are easy to experience.  But where do those thoughts come from? Marcus Sautoy acknowledged that they are notoriously difficult to explain.

So, in order to find out where they come from Marcus subjects himself to a series of probing experiments.  With the help of a hammer-wielding scientist, Jennifer Aniston and a general anaesthetic, Professor Marcus du Sautoy goes in search of answers to one of science’s greatest mysteries: how do we know who we are? ,

He learns at what age our self-awareness emerges and whether other species share this trait.

Next, he has his mind scrambled by a cutting-edge experiment in anaesthesia. Having survived that ordeal, Marcus is given an out-of-body experience in a bid to locate his true self. And in Hollywood, he learns how celebrities are helping scientists understand the microscopic activities of our brain.

Finally, he takes part in a mind-reading experiment that both helps explain and radically alters his understanding of who he is.

All of this is covered in a fabulously interesting episode from Horizon, the excellent and long-running  BBC TV science and philosophy series.  Thankfully, it made its way onto YouTube.

It is just under an hour long but I promise you it will capture you from the very first moment.

Enjoy.  Even if you end up realising, as I did, what a strange person you are!

As Confucius reportedly wrote: Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.

2 thoughts on “Do you or I really know who we are?

  1. The key to unlocking our potential lies in self awareness. I observe that like a match needs to be struck against a surface to ignite into flame, so we may need an external catalyst to reveal who we are.


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