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The Self in Self-Help

Well, wait a second: Who is the “you” who gets “your brain” to rewire, and how does it do so? Through “the power of decision,” Robbins says, which “gives you the capacity to get past any excuse to change any and every part of your life in an instant.” But if we are creatures of conditioning, how did this one part of ourselves remain independent? Where did it hide while we were being conditioned, and how will it emerge, and by what mechanism will it make decisions for the rest of us?

You see the problem. The self-help movement seeks to account for and overcome the difficulties we experience when we are trying to make a desired change—but doing so by invoking an immortal soul and a mortal sinner (or an ego and an id, a homunculus and its minion) is not much different from saying that we “are of two minds,” or “feel torn,” or for that matter that we have a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other. These are not explanations for the self. They are metaphors for the self. And metaphors, while evocative and illuminating, do not provide concrete causal explanations. Accordingly, they are not terribly likely to generate concrete solutions. True, self-help literature is full of good advice, but good advice is not the issue; most of it has been around for centuries. The issue is how to implement it. In the words of the emphasis-happy Robbins, “Lots of people know what to do, but few people actually do what they know.

When it comes to solving that problem—which is the problem—all self-help literature offers is a kind of metaphysical power of attorney for our putative better halves. But if you identify with the above-mentioned Oreo-eater or healthy-­relationship saboteur or procrastinator, you yourself are evidence that this is a nonsolution. If giving your better half executive control by fiat could change your life, sales of self-help material would plummet overnight. It is a somewhat beautiful fact that the underlying theory of the self-help industry is contradicted by the self-help industry’s existence.

But, in the spirit of being a better person, I should not be so hard on self-help. The fact is, selves are profoundly difficult to understand. “There is nothing that we know more intimately than conscious experience,” the contemporary philosopher David Chalmers observes, “but there is nothing that is harder to explain.”

Part of why we can’t explain the self is that we can’t even find it. Here’s William James, an exceptionally acute internal observer, giving it a try. “My present Me is felt with warmth and intimacy,” he wrote in Psychology: Briefer Course. “The heavy warm mass of my body is there, and the nucleus of the ‘spiritual me,’ the sense of intimate activity is there. We cannot realize our present self without simultaneously feeling one or other of these two things.” That was as close as James ever got to figuring out how to find a self: on the basis of a warm fuzzy feeling, emphasis on fuzzy.

David Hume, meanwhile, couldn’t find himself at all. “When I enter most intimately into what I call myself,” he wrote, “I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception.” If there was an essential “I” beneath all that, Hume couldn’t find it. Ultimately, he proposed that it doesn’t exist—that we are not sum, only parts: “nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions.” That idea poses a major problem for the master theory of self-help, with its internal governor, its you ex machina. Apparently, self-help has assigned the lead part in our show to an actor who is nowhere to be found.

Nor has science made much progress in locating the self, let alone explaining it. These days, most people who study the mind believe that our sense of having an “I” somehow arises from cognitive processes like the ones Hume described. That rules out Descartes’s theory that our inner essence was rooted in the pineal gland, but it still leaves us intellectual light-years from anything like a fully developed scientific theory of the self. To put the problem in perspective, consider that, three centuries after Isaac Newton pioneered the study of optics, vision scientists are just starting to understand how our brain handles the problem of recognizing faces. Those discoveries are interesting and admirable on their own merits. But it is a very long way—probably many more centuries—from understanding how the mind sees faces to understanding how the mind sees itself. In the meantime, perhaps we should start looking beyond the constraints of the master theory of self—and, indeed, beyond the self entirely—for ways to improve our lives.