Summer Research Project: Personal Identity and the Unity of Consciousness

Philosophy and Psychology double major Kate Hanniball tells us about her summer 2012 research project as a Richard Bangs Collier Scholar (information on the Summer Research Grants in Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences is available here and don’t miss our previous post on another interesting summer research project):


The focus of my summer research was a philosophical investigation of the concept of selfhood incorporating an emphasis on the physical realities of the brain. Specifically, I was interested in the philosophical implications for selfhood which could be drawn from laboratory experiments conducted on brain-bisected patients, and how these abnormal results could influence our conceptions of the self.

Working within the theoretical framework of Derek Parfit1 I explored the question of selfhood by maintaining a focus on the unity of consciousness we all associate with the singular nature of the self. The theory of conscious unity–or the idea that at any one time all our phenomenal experiences are unified by the fact that there is a single subject of experience—has been contested by the emergence of certain neuropsychological discoveries concerning communication between the right and left hemispheres of the brain. Specifically, laboratory experiments conducted on brain bisected patients (individuals who had their Corpus Callosum severed) yielded interesting results which have led some theorists to speak of a “duality of consciousness.” My research focused on these findings and their implications for personal identity and I concluded that what was revealed by these experiments was not a duality of consciousness, but rather that the existence of a persistent unified self a falsehood.

My claim is that instead of a persistent and unified self, the reality of selfhood is a collection of instantaneous mental states which do not add up to a cohesive whole, but are instead connected by some relation of psychological connectedness or continuity. Further, it is this relationship between mental events which matters in our discussion of selfhood rather than our mental or phenomenal experiences. In this way what is revealed by brain bisection operations is not some deep metaphysical problem concerning ownership of our mental states, but rather a physical malfunctioning of the neural pathway in the brain which inhibits our ability to create a cohesive and unified “narrative” for our experiences.

For further reading see:

1Parfit, D. (1984). Reasons and persons. New York: Oxford University Press.

One thought on “Summer Research Project: Personal Identity and the Unity of Consciousness

  1. Pingback: Summer Research Grants | Puget Sound Philosophy

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