The minimal self hypothesis

Consciousness and Cognition 85:103029 (2020)
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For millennia self has been conjectured to be necessary for consciousness. But scant empirical evidence has been adduced to support this hypothesis. Inconsistent explications of “self” and failure to design apt experiments have impeded progress. Advocates of phenomenological psychiatry, however, have helped explicate “self,” and employed it to explain some psychopathological symptoms. In those studies, “self” is understood in a minimalist sense, sheer “for-me-ness.” Unfortunately, explication of the “minimal self” (MS) has relied on conceptual analysis, and applications to psychopathology have been hermeneutic, allowing for many degrees of interpretive latitude. The result is that MS’s current scientific status is analogous to that of the “atom,” at the time when “atom” was just beginning to undergo transformation from a philosophical to a scientific concept. Fortunately, there is now an opportunity to promote a similar transformation for “MS.” Discovery of the brain’s Default Mode Network (DMN) opened the door to neuroimaging investigations of self. Taking the DMN and other forms of intrinsic activity as a starting point, an empirical foothold can be established, one that spurs experimental research and that enables extension of research into multiple phenomena. New experimental protocols that posit “MS” can help explain phenomena hitherto not thought to be related to self, thereby hastening development of a mature science of self. In particular, targeting phenomena wherein consciousness is lost and recovered, as in some cases of Unresponsive Wakefulness Syndrome (UWS), allow for design of neuroimaging probes that enable detection of MS during non-conscious states. These probes, as well as other experimental protocols applied to NREM Sleep, General Anesthesia (GA), and the waking state, provide some evidence to suggest that not only can self and consciousness dissociate, MS might be a necessary precondition for conscious experience. Finally, these findings have implications for the science of consciousness: it has been suggested that “levels of consciousness” (LoC) is not a legitimate concept for the science of consciousness. But because we have the conceptual and methodological tools with which to refine investigations of MS, we have the means to identify a possible foundation—a bifurcation point—for consciousness, as well as the means by which to measure degrees of distance from that foundation. These neuroimaging investigations of MS position us to better assess whether LoC has a role to play in a mature science of consciousness.

Author's Profile

Timothy Joseph Lane
Academia Sinica


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