The Ego Tunnel: Prof. Dr. Thomas Metzinger at TEDxRheinMain

Translator: Theresa Ranft
Reviewer: Evelyn Tian Good afternoon. Today, I want to show you why it is literally true
that there is no such thing as a self. The self is not a thing but a process. It is a very interesting
and fascinating process. It is that special process
that gives you the conscious experience of being someone. And I’ve been interested
in this process for a long time. I’m a philosopher
of mind and consciousness, and I have cooperated
with neuroscientists for many years. I want to know what a first-person perspective is,
what subjectivity is, and in order to know this,
I have to understand what a self is. There is no such thing as a self, but there is some process that creates
the very robust experience of being someone. And that’s what I’m interested in today: What does it mean to be someone? As it will turn out, nobody in this room
ever was or had a self. In order to explain this to you,
I’ve brought three examples for you today. You will have to learn
two philosophical concepts, and there’s just
one single point I want to make at the end of this short lecture. So, here is something
you can all try at home when you come home tonight. It is a classic experiment. It’s called the so-called
“rubber hand illusion.” If you don’t have a rubber hand at home, you could use some of these rubber gloves
you use for dishwashing and pad them
with cotton wool, for instance. So what the subject does, it puts one hand on the table,
concealed by a screen, and you look at the rubber hand. Then the experimenter starts
to synchronously stroke this rubber hand. You can also use Q-tips
for that, for instance. In my own case, after 60 to 90 seconds, the well-known rubber hand illusion,
which was discovered in 1998, emerges. You hallucinate a connection from your shoulder
to the rubber hand you see. You begin to feel a sense of ownership for the rubber hand
you see in front of you. It becomes part of your bodily self. But what is even more fascinating is that you begin to feel the seen touch in the rubber hand
on the desk in front of you. Two tips from your philosopher,
when you try this tonight: (Laughter) When your subject
has the illusion standing, bend the rubber fingers
carefully into an impossible position, and see what happens to your subject. A second tip from your philosopher: Do have a hammer ready, and suddenly smash the rubber hand,
and see how your subject reacts. What we see in this experiment is that there is something like
a sense of ownership, a conscious experience: “This belongs to me.” And this experience
can be noninvasively manipulated as simple statistical correlation
is offered to the brain and conscious experience follows suit. Now, for the first philosophical concept
you have to learn today: it’s the concept of a self-model. A self-model is an entity in your brain,
an active data structure – it is an inner image
of your self as a whole. I call it the PSM,
the phenomenal self-model. Phenomenal just means
it subjectively appears to you, and it is this representation of your self as an entity with global properties. Now, some lessons that can be learned from the rubber hand
illusion, for instance, are that it is highly
context-sensitive and flexible. The content of your self-model
can be manipulated. Whatever is in the self-model, whatever is embedded
into your conscious self-model is experienced as your own,
a part of your self – my thought, my feeling,
my bodily sensations. And it is an interesting structure. It seems to be a representational process that is driven by many
different constraints. And it can be controlled experimentally. A self-model is something
that can be manipulated. I promised to bring you three examples for what I mean by a self-model. Here is a second example: Many of you must have heard
of phantom limbs. Some people, after amputations,
at some point, still feel the limb
that has been amputated. If you’ve never heard of phantom limbs, I would recommend
Ramachandran’s 2007 TED Talk, and you will see a brilliant explanation
of these phenomena. What many people don’t know is that phantom limbs
sometimes also appear in people who were born
with missing limbs, people who have never had arms or legs. This is patient A. Z. – a cognitively lucid woman
in her late 40s, in Zurich, who has been investigated by the famous neuropsychologist
Peter Brugger. She was born without arms and legs,
and she has experienced a body – from whenever she has memories,
these phantom limbs were there. But there are a number
of interesting things to be discovered if you look at them closely. For instance, scientists
can do fascinating things. They can put a subject like that
in a scanner and ask them, “Move your phantom fingers,
move your phantom feet.” They have never existed. And then you can see
what lights up in the brain. But all technical details aside, there are some interesting details
in the phenomenology. You see, for instance,
the three toes in the middle are not fully differentiated. And if you ask the subject, “Rate how real your bodily self is,
on a scale from 0 to 7” – 0 means no conscious experience, 7 means just as realistic as the content
of the non-hallucinated body model, of the body part – then you get the following result: For instance, these parts of the legs
are just half as real – they are indeed ghostly –
than these parts of the body. But another interesting thing you can see is this right hand is more realistic,
according to conscious experience than the left hand. This right hand has never existed
as an input source to the brain. So here is another example for what I mean
by a phenomenal self-model. It very likely has a lot to do
with body representation. The human self-model
is anchored in body feelings. Many animals on this planet
have self-models, and it is clear that there is
an evolutionary story. To have a self-model
was important to control a body, to control movement. And one can, of course, ask, “Is there maybe
a genetic component to it?” If there is an evolutionary story, is there an inborn part
of the human self-model? The more interesting question, however,
is, What does this represent? What is this a model of? Is this the soul? Is this a global model of body shape? One colleague of mine, Aristotle,
said the soul is the form of the body. It perishes at death –
Aristotle was a naturalist – but the soul is the form principle,
the global shape. Is that what this woman is experiencing? The inner form of the body? Is that the contents of her consciousness? Another colleague of mine, Spinoza, said, “The soul is the idea
the body develops of itself.” So you see there is a long tradition in thinking about the relationship
between self and body. But there’s a deeper question. Okay, so there’s ownership
for mental states, there’s ownership for body parts, but isn’t there a global property, a property of being a self, something like a globalized
sense of ownership? And here’s the third example
I’ve brought to you. When I first had the rubber hand
illusion, as a philosopher, I immediately thought, “We need to make
a whole-body analog of this.” It will be absolutely interesting to see
if this can happen with a mannequin, with a rubber figure, or with a virtual body,
with an image of a body as well. So, with my brilliant
neuroscience colleagues from Lausanne – Bigna Lenggenhager,
Tej Tadi, and Olaf Blanke – we designed the following experiment. You are wearing goggles,
you are in a virtual reality, you have a head-mounted display. While you are wearing these goggles,
you are being filmed from behind. You have then an experience
you’ve never had before, because a 3D encoder inserts
the camera image into the virtual reality. You have the experience
like in this 1937 Magritte picture: You see yourself from behind
while you are being stroked, just like in the rubber hand illusion. Let’s look at how this looks. So there you are. Your back is synchronously stroked
by the PhD student, and you will soon see
that that is your conscious experience while this happens. The effect is that, after a certain time, for many subjects,
you jump into the avatar. You jump as if the sense of self
is transposed out of the body. You identify with the figure that you see. There’s also an unconscious measure. If you blindfold people,
like in a game of blind man’s bluff, this orients them and tells them, “Go back to where you think
you’ve been standing.” They always go back to a place between the avatar
and their “physical body.” That is, as soon as you’ve had
the conscious illusion, the unconscious spatial frame
of reference is changed. Now, for the second philosophical concept
you must learn today – it’s fortunately much easier
to understand than the self-model. Transparency is a metaphor,
it’s a visual metaphor, and it is more than 100 years old. It just means that consciousness
is like a window, and we see through this window, we look onto the world, but it is very hard
to experience the conscious-ness. So the philosopher who came up
with this, George Edward Moore, was, like us, very much interested
in conscious experience, and he was fascinated by this phenomenon
that you always only see the content, but you never see
the conscious-ness itself. And that is what he meant
by this metaphor of transparency: Conscious states are transparent; unconscious states in your brain
are neither transparent nor opaque. So this is more about
the structure of experience; it’s not about knowledge so much. And the idea is that you don’t have access
to the construction process in your brain; you just see the final result. So the idea is that consciousness is like a high dimensional
window into the world, but we never see this window itself, we just see the bird flying by. That is one way to understand
the transparency metaphor as a property of conscious representation. Our brains, your brains, right now, they create a conscious model of reality. You live with this conscious
model of reality, and you live through it, but you don’t see it. You don’t see the neurons
firing in your brain; you just see what they represent for you. You don’t see a model of a lectern here; you have the naive, realistic illusion of being directly and immediately
in contact with the content of that model, which is now active in your brain. So, transparency creates something
a philosopher colleague of mine might call “the phenomenology
of direct realism” – the idea that you are directly
in contact with the world and that what you experience is real. It is simply because you cannot look
at the construction process, it’s too fast, too reliable, too robust. So, transparency also means
that we are unaware of the medium through which information reaches us, through which information
about the world penetrates our minds. And because this is so, conscious experience
is an invisible interface. Do you still remember
these head-mounted displays from the last example? One of the things I’m saying in this talk is that you are all wearing
head-mounted displays right now, but they are in your heads. Your brains are reality engines, virtual reality generating devices, and they have been mounted in the brains
of your ancestors millions of years ago. And this is one of the best inventions
of Mother Nature today. We have this invisible interface,
just like the window with the bird. We live with it, and we live through it, but we are unaware
of this interface itself. So now I come to the one point
I wanted to make. Let us imagine a certain kind
of information processing system, a certain kind of creature. They would not have selves or souls, but they were conscious, and they would have conscious self-models. But these self-models were transparent
in the sense just explained. Then these beings, by necessity,
would have the experience of being directly
in contact with themselves. They would, by necessity, have the experience of being
infinitely close to themselves. They would, by necessity,
have the experience that whatever is the content
of their self-model right now is real. Metaphorically speaking, these systems
would be confusing themselves with the content
of their conscious self-model. It would be a wonderful
naturally evolved window, a two-way window, connecting their inner life
with the social world around them, but it would be an invisible interface
to themselves as well. Such beings would, so to speak, be glued to the content
of their self-model. They would, therefore, by necessity, have the absolute robust experience
of being someone. I believe that all of you, as you’ve been listening to me
during this short talk, have been beings like that. Thank you very much
for your kind attention. (Applause)

98 thoughts on “The Ego Tunnel: Prof. Dr. Thomas Metzinger at TEDxRheinMain

  • Wow! Amazing talk – a complex idea beautifully explained. This will give me something to think about, but wait, hasn’t he just explained that there is no “me”?

  • @fergusruston because Aristotle, Spinoza and himself are all philosophers. You can argue that because he calls them his colleagues, he is giving them "life" and, in a sense, suggesting that their ideas are not outdated and still applicable to the modern society hundreds of years after their deaths.

  • @fergusruston Cont: thereby giving them tribute and suggesting that their works are timeless. Tho you could also argue that he is elevating his own status by putting himself at the same level of the famous philosophers… though I think my first reasoning is more plausible

  • Imagine a world centuries from ours now in which the process of information gathering from the reality and recognition to past experiences is also matched to an evolved form of the internet, where the knowledge of all of the humans ever to have lived is readily available to your being at a moments notice, with an invisible interface much like our own, evolutionary selves has created. The possibilities of such biotechnologies is fascinating, as well as plausible.

  • I saw Metzinger at my university a couple of weeks ago, I can assure you that referring to Aristotle, etc. is intended as a sublime joke. He also called his research on out-of-body experiences a CLM, "does anyone know what a CLM is? A carrier-limiting move". Great guy! Doesn't entirely enjoy giving autographs though it seems :S

  • Who is "WE" that are "unaware of the medium through which information reaches us"? That remains unanswered, but I commend Dr. Metzinger for cogently explaining how 'WE" as we think we are, i.e. our image of ourselves, is just an illusion.

  • Alan Watts already bridged this gap. It seems taboo to correlate scientific practice with religious experience. @coyote2625

  • It's taken decades of scholarly study and practice to make Dr.Metzinger realize something that a single mushroom trip would unveil.

  • i lost my sense of smell about 25yr ago, due to a cranial operation i recieved after a RTA. i have had dreams where i can smell and the moment i wake up there is about 2 or 3 seconds where i am physically experiencing the aroma through my nose. dont know if that means anything, but the second point you made made me think of it x

  • Perhaps he was saying great things, but I was entirely unable to focus on it as I was steamed that I couldn't see the visuals that were going along with his talk. My inner voice kept shouting at the video to let me see what everyone else is looking at.

  • Why isn't the projection recorded? It seems some critical information and pictures and more things are projected and explained by Thomas. It's funny to see that there are two cameras and that they actually pan, that is, move around, but none actually record crucial part of the lecture, the projections and illustrations. In a certain way, this distracts the whole experience because there is always the wish to look at what he is showing… But these persons controlling the cameras… Oh well…

  • All of what he is saying is due to empathy neurons, just because the identity can be displaced, does not mean that the true self is illusionary. The true self is in the quiet of the mind, no matter how many personalities, or dysfunctions there may be.

  • And i might be biased, but does this stink of dehumanization of the human soul? I know hardly anyone believes in the soul, but does he sound like he;s trying to dismiss the fact that we have an awareness as if its some kind of natural process the brain learned on its way from evolution? I bet he cant wait to become programmed into a robot, lol

  • " … The Buddha taught the existence of neither Soul nor God. According to early Buddhism there is no such thing as eternal soul in man. The world is empty of self. So does a being. It is not possible to believe that a soul, that is permanent and stable can exist in a being, because all beings are subject to continuous change, death and decay. They are "becoming" continuously…. "

  • My brain is a virtual reality device manifesting the illusion created by holographic projection. Then why do I need confirmation and validation of that from the illusion of some other "self" or "selves that I subjectively experience as exrernal ?
    Even that "externality" might be merely the manifestation of projected illusion: my own ? or someone elses ?

  • Can anyone explain my disgust of women as intellects? I'd hate to think that they even exist I know it's bad I don't want it. Is that just my ego?

  • Thinking about how many implications and consequences bring this integrated theory that contains not only ideas but also evidence brought by what for many are just new discoveries in many fields; neuro-motor disorders and mental diseases that have to be redefined, a new way of educating people (even for AI), etc. "The Ghost in your genes" video has an increased importance and it seems that changing the pattern of our minds could solve a lot of problems. Universe scientific definition…

  • In my opinion, it's your conditioning. You've been conditioned to have a particular model of “a man” and another one of “a woman.” When you see a person with the characteristics you've ascribed to “a man,” you experience cognitive dissonance, which makes you uncomfortable.

    It might help if you understand that it's not your “fault” that this happens; you were programmed that way by others. It is, however, your RESPONSIBILITY to see that you adjust the programming to better match reality.

  • Edit: In the comment above, please replace "When you see a person" with "When you see a female person"

    Ah, YouTube, when will you join the 21st century and allow editing of comments?

  • This is exactly ego. You see Mr. Mentzinger as a big fish, while in fact he isn't a definition or any other than you are. The very fact that you are annoyed by his 'wrong assumptions in his pholosophy of mind', is means by the ego to not accept ''what is''.

  • “… why then thinking that you believe you have a thinking given you the feeling it´s you and not your brain?”

    It does my mental processes no good — serves no purpose — for them to know the deep details of how they work. They work with or without that knowledge (interesting though it might be). I can, of course, confuse fleeting thoughts with “me” and think that I AM those thoughts or that at least they largely define my essence. That's an unwarranted conclusion — an illusion, one might say.

  • maybe there is a self that is capable of extending itself to what it sees and perceives with its senses, i think that consciousness is capable of expanding or internalizing, but this guys says totally convinced that there is not a self, just a process… if you ask me that's an idiot conclusion. (my own personal opinion)

  • Great talk, but isn't this just the Cartesian theatre all over again? Perhaps in his books he explains why his view doesn't fall prey to the objections lobbed at the Cartesian theatre, or how his view is not to be confused with the Cartesian theatre.

  • Certainly could be. I think the guy needs to read Heidegger's Being and Time. The representationalist perspective gets dangerously close, but I don't see much else that may cause issues. Likely if he doesn't go to far to the level of modelling intentionality he won't have any problem maintaining consistency with Dennett's "heterophenomenological multiple-drafts model" of consciousness.

  • I think I'm finally starting to get it, feeling disturbed and awed at the same time.  But since I'm just a representation within a representation, both arising from processes that are integrating data and transparently constructing a coherent "reality" too fast to comprehend, it's no biggie right?  Right?!?!!

  • In the third experiment, it is the robot hand that inspired him to make a whole body. That is a virtual body. In that experiment, he let a person to wear a googles, in which there is a 3D recorder inserted. So while the person is stroked in the back, he can see the imagine of his back. The feel of that imagine is 2 meters in front of him. After a certain times, he feels to jump into the avatar, that means he identities that figure, like transfer his ‘self’ to that avatar. Another unconscious measure is if you blind that person and pull him back, when you ask him to go back to where he was standing, he always go back to the place between the avatar and their physical body.

  • His books are wroth ready. Very interesting ideas, although might make the reader very uncomfortable in his own conscious state.

  • For me, these were all perfect examples of a "unit of consciousness" operating through a "virtual body," or a virtual "biological avatar," so to speak. So in this interpretation of the data, it's not the self that doesn't exist, it's the body (and everything else in the material universe) that doesn't exist – at least from the superset perspective, or the macro-level of the Infinite Field of Consciousness (to borrow a phrase from Gary Weber). Cheers. 

  • And this guy is a Phd?  Philosophical musings such as his are based on false assumptions derived from their experimentation.  These men come off like the three blind men asked to describe an Elephant by touch.  One touches the tail and say it is like a snake, another feels the leg and says it is a tree, and the third comes up with another description.

    Our reality has barely been examined but by philosophers, but is now being examined by scientist, and what they are finding will astound those who are stuck trying to describe our reality and our place in it, as if they are blindfolded !!!

  • Well spoken. Sadhu

    "This is not mine", "This is not what I am", "This is not My Self"…

  • I think that is called fractals of mind in reflection of part of fractals of the existence of what could be with what is in connection what is being.

  • no they are doing a fractal function some form of predictable and proportional between what we feel in any emotions and the sub-reality that we can life. that emotion is  sign of connection how we dance will all the existence,

  • Interesting, so who/what is the observer that is looking through the window, and that is tricked into constructing this transparent self ?

  • Im not sure what the big deal here is. So our brains create inperfect models of our bodies, so? I mean is it news to anyone? Obviously our brains create the image of the whole world.

  • The realization that the perceived self is non existent or just a product of the environment leads you to call into question its motives. Emotion is how the ego connects to the world. Anxiety, fear, and especially concerning others impressions of you. The ego is I everything else is other. Its the biggest road block a person faces when trying to improve. The ego hates change. In drug rehab the counselor tells the people to stay away from the people, places, and things connected to the addiction. The ego is nothing but a reflection of a persons people, places, and things. Its only an issue if the person is ruled by it by feeding it, its food is attention.

  • So, he basically replaces the concept "self" with the concept "being with a self model". But he don´t ask himself the question; who is the one who thinks he is someone?

  • He starts by saying "self" is not a thing, it's a process; so I was afraid he wouldn't have a point, since, well, most "things" turn out to be processes. But I think he makes things clear by the point he says "you see a podium, not a model of a podium." It's easy to think "hmm I see light from a screen which is showing a podium…" but not easy to think "I seed a model which my brain is making"! Because the model is part of "me". And the difficulty drawing a line between "me" and introspecively available stuff (or subconscious and therefore not introspectively available stuff) comes from the fictional nature of the self.

  • Переводят же на русский всякую хуйню типа аниме и комиксов, а это не интересно им, видите ли

  • What does it even mean to say we don't have a self? Who do you mean by "we" in the first place? Wittgenstein already dealt with this in detail earlier. I suggest you read him first.

  • First – Metzinger is a monotonous speaker. Second – his ideas are interesting but highly speculative. This is not science.

  • to all the critics below….for gods sake this is a short public talk…give the guy a break….if you want supporting detail for this talk read his thesis ""Being No-one""…but take your time…I have been reading it for seven years.

  • Metzinger is a brilliant idiot. His entire dazzling argument is based on an erroneous premise – namely, that the self is just the product of a physical process. Sad waste of a life. Tsk, tsk.

  • I don't have a self, but myself just told me that , no I think myself told my myself that I think is myself is myself but I am not sure myself that myself knows I have a self……….Thanks for the great talk Thomas. Learned a lot.

  • I have a self yes it developed grew in the womb. . Still is. I have consciousness. Emotions feelings thoughts, mind, I have a soul and DNA from ancestry. So his invisible interface with no self or soul but consciousness doesn't make since to me. What beings is he trying talk about.

  • Strange. I think that everytime he addresses the audience as "you" he refutes his whole argument. He's not dealing with the problem of infinite regress, and like Daniel Dennett, just tries to explain the self away rather than face the awesome and terrifying face of it.

  • A process is a thing. The sun is both a process (the process of fusion). An experience is also a thing. The start/premise, at least, seems to be wordplay.

  • This guy is cherry picking and very easy to debunk. He is ignoring the last 50 years of research on NDEs, OBEs and Energy Psychology.

  • I appreciate your presentation DR. Don't you thing that it's not just about the memory of the phantom limb.
    Maybe she's just experiencing Imitation.
    She lives surround of bodies and seeing them since she's a baby so she reproduce it.
    Don't misunderstand me, Soul for me is the basis of who we are…energy is what we are…but we reproduce things with inconsciousness.

  • Interesting talk, but I find it a little dangerous to at one side deny the personal self and on the other hand talk about the brain as a deal thing.

    Maybe the was a concession to the audience, I don't know. But it needs to be stressed that a brain is a concept of mind, a way of thinking and speaking in the relative to come to an understanding agreement about the working of conciousness. But ultimately, as Meitzinger points out himself, everything is a model of what we think of as "reality" created in and seen by the mind. This of course also includes the concept of a brain. 😘

  • The only wish i would gift to "scientist Metziner" is a day .. no… a week.. of hand digging a foundation for a house with a shovel. No one will talk to him and his job requires that He Not Talk. He will dig. For 4 hours, then take lunch. Then for four hours more. For 5 days in a row. Then. Then tell me about conscious self. Tell me about your air and your personal well being. Tell me about the greater human consciousness when your hands split and bleed. I look forward to that Ted Talk. good day.

  • This proves perhaps, the root of empathy. Perhaps Margaret Thatcher fundamentally misunderstood the question of society in that she said it didn't exist. Or perhaps she was only half right. It also explains why dramatic literature, film and theatre work…religion too as the ultimate representation.

  • This is an editing mistake, and absolutely NOT the camera person's fault. In the beginning, there were other camera angles that captured the slides, however, whoever edited the video just stopped including those after the first experiment. The camera person's job is to hold one specific angle at all times, but the editor is in charge of managing all the different angles to create an inclusive and comprehensible package. Also note, it could have been a technical issues i.e. the other angle camera malfunctioned or they lost the footage.

  • Amazing – back in 2001 this would be considered hippie-stoner talk – now in 2019 it is German Philosophers talking about this! 🙂

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