The existential alternatives in the title of this post were named by brain researcher Susan Greenfield. I came across a mention of them in Julian Baggini's intriguing book, "The Ego Trick: What Does It Mean to be You?"
Here's how Baggini describes the alternatives, based on an interview he did with Greenfield at the 2009 Bristol Festival of Ideas. After sharing these excerpts from his book, I'll add some observations of my own.
Where Greenfield gets a little more speculative is when she imagines the variations in types of selves which might emerge if different types of connections become dominant. She bases this speculation on what I think is a quite useful way of simplifying three forms of subjective experience.
The first she calls the 'Someone' scenario, which is the normal case of 'you being different from someone else'. This is how we almost all, almost always, feel ourselves to be. 'In brain terms, the Someone scenario could be reflected in the forging of idiosyncratic connections, and associations that are unique to your particular experiences, and also leave you open to modification by those.'
Although we tend to think of ourselves as Someones, we are on occcasion also 'Anyones', the second of her scenarios. 'Sometimes in our everyday life, we're all parts of a team, it's where we subsume our own interests, our own individuality, we sacrifice what we personally want to do in favour of the group.' Instead of 'living out an individual life story', Anyone lives out a collective life story.
Although this is benign in moderation, Anyones are malign when they are created by ideologies in which 'you are so constrained in what you do, what you think, what you eat, how you live out your life, what your agenda is, that really you're subsuming your life into the collective life story of that particular ideology... You're living out life as a component, you're just a small part in the very big picture, to the extent that in extreme scenarios, as we know tragically happens at the moment, the individual can be disposed of or can dispose of themselves in the service of the greater narrative.'
The neural basis of this could be that there are 'connections that are so strong that they are more resistant to modification by subsequent experience'.
We also sometimes live life under the third scenario, as Nobodies. 'Human beings have stalked this planet for 100,000 years, [and] we have from time to time indulged in wine, women and song; or drugs and sex and rock and roll, the modern equivalent.
There are moments in most of our lives when we want to "let ourselves go", "blow our minds". The very word "ecstasy" in Greek means to stand outside of yourself. These are moments when we abrogate our sense of self, when we are no longer self-conscious, we're just conscious.' This is what psychologists call depersonalization.
Dancing is one of Greenfield's favourite examples. 'The whole point of dancing is that you let yourself go. You're having a sensational time, that is to say you're putting a premium once again on the senses, as you would as a small child, you're back in the booming buzzing confusion.'
What's interesting about the feeling of being Nobody is that it can be wonderful and dreadful. For instance, most people who take marijuana report depersonalization effects, sometimes quite strongly, and find them pleasant.
But as Roy J. Matthew points out, in clinical psychology 'depersonalization is associated with such unpleasant states of mind as fatigue, sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, anxiety, depression, temporal lobe migraine, temporal lobe epilepsy and so on.' Depersonalization disorder is a recognised, distressing condition.
Well, I think Greenfield doesn't emphasize the positive side of Nobody enough. She worries about how video games and other forms of computer technology could suck people into a Nobody Scenario of excessive passive sensation and insufficient active cogitation.
But her favorite example of Nobody'ness, dancing, certainly doesn't seem dreadful. Not does the general notion of "flow," that pleasant feeling when you're so immersed in an activity, you and the activity come to be almost one.
I might be garbling what Greenfield is getting at. However, to me the words "I," "You," and "Us" seem to closely relate to her Someone, Anyone, and Nobody respectively.
Yes, most people identify with "I." We view ourselves as individual entities, selves or souls or whatever. Our nature appears to be distinct from the world. Our subjectivity looks upon the rest of reality as an object.
Many religions, cults, mystic practices, and spiritual paths offer up a "You" alternative, the Anyone scenario Greenfield describes. In another article about her three ways of being, the dark side of Anyone is laid out.
In the "Anyone" scenario people subsume their individuality to a mass collective mindset, typically revolving a David and Goliath story. The Nazis believed there was a Jewish world-wide conspiracy while Al Qaeda thinks the same about the US. Group members generally all behave the same and lack individuality. On the other hand they are generally emotionally fulfilled, content within the group but angry and contemptuous of outsiders.
Thus the "I" of the individual is subsumed into the "You" of a belief system, which may be embodied in an charismatic leader or guru. The devotees offer their all to the collective, doing whatever is asked of them.
I no longer find this appealing, having experienced both the delights and downsides of belonging to an India-based, guru-centered spiritual organization for many years. After all, what's the point in trying to give up one's "I" just to have it replaced by another "I" -- the personal characteristics demanded by a belief system, religious leader, or such?
One self-centered way of being in the world, "Someone," simply is replaced by another, "Anyone." "I" becomes "You" -- a different someone.
So I'll take Nobody. Or Us.
This strikes me as being both the most scientific and most pleasant way of being. After all, the world is known to be seamlessly interconnected. Neuroscience tells us there is no enduring self or soul inside (or outside) our cranium.
We are all changeable, malleable beings, albeit with an enduring sense of psychological continuity. We are the world, and the world is us.
My wife and I have enjoyed learning ballroom dancing over quite a few years. As Greenfield notes, dancing is a good example of the Nobody/Us manner of experiencing. When in the flow, there just seems to be me, my partner, our movement, and the music.
Yes, there are distinctions between us, but blurry ones. She, and I, and our moves, and the music... we are all together. It feels good to be Nobody. Because at that moment Nobody seems like Everybody.