Seeing Through the Illusion of Thingness

The Myth of the Self: Neurology Weighs In

Thomas Metzinger’s book, “The Ego Tunnel,” makes a stunning contribution to the insight that a self does not inherently exist.  Metzinger’s work now brings neurology into what has largely been a spiritual conversation. The “nuts and bolts” examples that are woven into his theories, deepen our understanding of the myth of the self.  The following is an attempt at a brief summary introduction to “The Ego Tunnel,” ending with a video lecture by Thomas Metzinger.


As a philosopher working alongside neurologists, Thomas Metzinger focuses on consciousness and the experience of the subjective self. His evolutionary considerations involve identifying a neural function in complex mobile organisms that allows them to successfully navigate through a changing and unpredictable environment.  This environmental challenge he states, requires the internal sense of self-wholeness in order to anticipate and negotiate with events in the world.  The constructed “phenomenal self-model within the world-model,” involves not only a sensory impression, but a mental image of a unified center, of a self residing in a world.  This self-inwardness or ego, as an inside separated from an outside, characterizes the operation of the ego tunnel.  The ego tunnel is a constructed impression that the ego or subject is directly perceiving and contacting a world.

 “By placing the self-model within the world-model, a center is created.  That center is what we experience as ourselves, the Ego.”

This experience is a naive realism.  If mobile organisms were privy to all of the countless neural and other “internal and external” interactive processes that occurred with the act of walking for instance, they could never function.  Immeasurably complex events had to be reduced to representational images in order to make sense to the mobile organism. These representational images would of necessity, include a unified and independent subject perceiving a world separate from and external to itself.  The feeling of looking directly into the world from the vantage point of a perceiving and cognizant me or self, is a neural-representational process that is most convincing.  We are not aware of this duality as an adaptive function, but view it as reality.  Because we are unaware of the immeasurable neuronal activity involved in the production of an image-based reality, Metzinger refers to this opacity as a tunnel.

 “Moreover, the whole idea of potentially being directly in touch with reality is sort of romantic folklore; we know the world only by representations because (correctly) representing something is what knowing is.”

Out of necessity then, there is the appearance of an inward, embodied sense of a self or ego and consequently, of an attachment to this self in the form of mineness, of ownership, as in my thoughts, my feelings, my body, my consciousness, my experience.  Selfhood is a function of the ego tunnel and not a reality, writes Metzinger, as there is no self, “no indivisible entity that is us” to be found either in the brain, in the broader neural network, or beyond it.  Nor can there be contact with some true reality out there.  What we see as truth or reality, is a representational model.

Consciousness too, is a function of the ego tunnel as there could not possibly be an awareness of an infinitude of interrelated processes. A radical reduction was necessary in order that the mobile organism, which being mobile required consciousness, could manage and predict its environment.  So we must live representational lives, lives made of functional appearances. Consciousness helps allow us to identify and manipulate these reduced object representations.  For the very notion of a subject, a self, presupposes a subject that is conscious of an object.

As consciousness is integral to the process of identifying and predicting activity in the environment, it also needs the notion of time.  This requires a past, present and future to be mentally represented in consciousness in order to fulfill this purpose.  Memory must therefore be a continuous and active component of consciousness. Without memory, a temporal sequence could not be represented and the organism would be unable to make conscious sense of events.  In other words, memory serves the purpose of relating moments to each other.

“One of the essential features of consciousness is that it situates you in this world.”

Metzinger makes the additional point that complex organisms require the conscious vantage point of a present and the sense of presence in order to anchor itself in the movement of time and create temporal order.  If not for this inward temporal placement of a now, a subject could not even locate itself.  The inner knowing of presence temporally provides, as Metzinger puts it, “an immovable center.” But presence like everything else, is merely an appearance.  For the present and presence, as the experienced Now, is a particular kind of representation within in the ego tunnel and is not a temporal reality that has been contacted.

“Signals take time to travel from your sensory organs along the multiple neuronal pathways in your body to your brain, and they take time to be processed and transformed into objects, scenes and complex situations.  So, strictly speaking, what you are experiencing as the present moment is actually the past.”

What then makes so-called consciousness, conscious?  Briefly, Metzinger says that consciousness involves a sensory image, followed by another image that the sensory image has been perceived. The second order image is what we call consciousness.  For example, a visual perception takes place, followed by the mental image that the visual image has been perceived, that it has appeared, that it has been noted. Metzinger explains consciousness as being able to “perceive the perceiving,” to re-represent the experiential sensory image.  It involves looking both outside and inside and also includes subject to subject representation. Consciousness is a kind of mental perception and it allows the world to appear to us as a single reality by connecting sensation to a mental representation of it.

And it is because sensory images or representations, are able to be re-represented, and because these second order mental images are then able to effect subsequent mental images, that learning is able to occur. Learning involves continuous and countless hidden interactions, but is experienced within the ego tunnel to be the result of a conscious self directly contacting an object world, as well as its own internal subject world. But conscious knowledge is the product, not of an objective realism, but of functional representations in the ego tunnel.

“Shadows do not have an independent existence.  And the book you are holding right now – that is the unified sensations of its color, weight and texture – is just a shadow, a low-dimensional projection of a higher-dimensional object ‘out there.’ “

One example of knowledge as a representational model involves how color is created.  Even color is an image and not a property of objects in the world. There are no colored objects.  Metzinger describes how different wavelengths of light are converted into representations of color within the neural-visual system. There is no red rose or blue sky.  There are only different frequencies of light.  Because all objects are seen as colored, organisms are able to more successfully survive in and manipulate their environment by being able to acutely distinguish one object from another.

Conscious representation is critical to the myth of the intrinsic self through the perception that the world is appearing to me and is being captured in consciousness by an internal me.  Subject to subject representations are integral to the conscious image of a self.  Yet consciousness is without an actual center that can be pinpointed.  It is dynamic, relational and multidirectional process that does not occupy a fixed location. Consciousness has “no fixed location in the brain…” declares Metzinger.  What is referred to as consciousness is a dynamic and causal neural network that cannot be separated out because it does not exist independently.  Consciousness is a representation, a function of the ego tunnel along with the image of a self.

“We have also come to understand that consciousness is not an all-or-nothing affair, a phenomenon that either does or does not exist.”


Editorial Note:
Thomas Metzinger’s theory of “selective representation” compliments the Buddhist Madhyamaka philosophy that a self and all phenomena are abstractions in an immeasurable web of nondual interdependencies, that are mistaken for the way things truly and substantially exist. With Metzinger’s contribution, we can better understand the illusory appearance of an inherently existent self and object world through the lens of neurology.

Specifically, we can extend our understanding of both the causal conditions and the relative mechanisms involved in the stubborn and pervasive appearance of inherent existence.  This can help us to further unravel and demystify these appearances by seeing them as functional representations, rather than as things that have their own given nature.

According to Buddhist philosophy, consciousness, like all phenomena, cannot be located as it does not exist as a thing in itself, with its own substance.  It is a relational function and process.  An analogy of this would be like looking in a car to see if it has driving in it.  Believing that consciousness has a fundamental nature is exposed by Metzinger as an interactive neural-evolutional function of the ego tunnel.

And as in Buddhist emptiness teachings, Metzinger recognizes that it is possible to break free from the belief in naive realism and correspondingly, from the myth of the self.

Here is a video presentation of Thomas Metzinger’s lecture called “The Ego Tunnel,” that provides an overview of his theory and research claiming that “Contrary to what most people believe, nobody has ever been or had a self.”





*Quotations and reference material: Metzinger, Thomas.  The Ego Tunnel – The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self.  New York: Basic Books, 2009, Print, Kindle.

4 Responses to “The Myth of the Self: Neurology Weighs In”

  1. riverflow

    An excellent article, Susan–I’m not surprised, coming from you, though!

    Just to share a few of my own related thoughts: Metaphysical quandaries (freewill vs. determinism, body vs. soul, mind vs. matter, being vs. becoming, etc.) cannot be solved because the questions themselves are misleading, being dualistic. We don’t even have to read philosophy to hold onto these implicit metaphysical notions. They are embedded in all societies.

    Science operates on helpful models of reality. I think we are seeing more and more in all fields of science how interdependence provides a more accurate picture than those picures based on Platonic/Aristotelean metaphysical assumptions.

    Buddhism, quantum mechanics, ecology, and here, in the case of neuroscience, a way is being pointed out which drops such misleading metaphysical questions to express instead a liberation from the entire notion of “this” and “that.” This boundary between self and other is a kind of ontological rupture that needs healing.

    The separation we have been conditioned into believing is “reality” is the cause of so much anxiety, pain, anger and confusion. We haven’t learned how to trust or fully express compassion because we still believe in this fundamental separation, looking at the world through an “ego tunnel.” Because we get so caught up in the story of a permanent, separate and essential self, we are actually imprisoning ourselves and those around us.

    For myself, Buddhism then is a helpful method of salvation, in the sense of the original Latin salvus–literally “healing,” a “making whole.”

    Thank you for your thoughtful work, Susan.


  2. Gordon Cornwall

    Thanks, Susan, for your take on Metzinger’s work. I think one of its main strengths is his emphasis on modeling: the self-model within the world-model. The human self-model is an immensely useful tool which allows our organisms to move through and engage with a complex, dangerous world effectively and adaptively. Some of the features of the human self-model are likely to be found in any ‘system’ (another of Metzinger’s favourite words) that can interact with its environment as flexibly as we can. As a programmer, I have a professional suspicion that advanced semi-autonomous systems being built by engineers today use world-modeling and self-modeling with similar features. The Google driverless car almost certainly has a self-model. Arguably, it may even have rudimentary consciousness–which, according to Metzinger, is essentially the capability of devising novel behavioral solutions to new problems.

    What Metzinger does not sufficiently emphasize, I think, is the emotional, motivational side of the human self-model. That is where the suffering comes from. It is also where we (as descendants of wild animals) certainly differ from the Google car (an engineered artifact that was not designed to care about itself). It is an aspect of selfhood we can, and should, aspire to change.


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