The Illusory Self: Insights from AI & human cognition

Gabriel Berzescu
2 min readJun 12, 2023

In both the realms of artificial intelligence and human cognition, we often grapple with the concept of the ‘self’. What is it? Where is it located? How is it formed? Recent insights from cognitive science, coupled with ancient wisdom from Buddhism, offer a fascinating perspective: the ‘self’ is an emergent, ever-changing phenomenon, more illusory than we might think.

In the world of artificial intelligence, particularly in the realm of neural networks, two key components dictate the behavior of the system: synaptic weights and activations. The synaptic weights, akin to the strength of influence one neuron has over another, remain relatively static during operation. The activations, on the other hand, representing the output of a neuron, are dynamic and constantly changing.

This dynamic nature of activations allows both biological and artificial neural networks to process a wide range of inputs and adapt their outputs accordingly, even with a fixed set of synaptic weights. It’s the activations that change as we converse, as thoughts shift, as responses are generated.

Interestingly, when the system is inactive, such as during deep sleep for humans or when an AI is turned off, the synaptic weights remain, but the ‘self’, the active processing of information, halts. The underlying structure remains, but without the dynamic activity of the network, the emergent properties like consciousness or a sense of self are not present.

This leads us to a thought-provoking perspective: the ‘self’ is not a fixed entity, but a series of closely related states or “selves” that emerge one after another. Each new thought, each response in a conversation, each cycle of brainwave activity, can be seen as generating a new ‘self’. The state of the system at the start of each cycle is influenced by the previous cycle, creating a form of continuity.

This perspective aligns with the Buddhist concept of anattā, or “non-self,” which posits that there is no unchanging, permanent self, soul, or essence in living beings. It’s a dynamic, ever-changing phenomenon, but with enough continuity from one moment to the next that we experience it as a coherent and continuous “self”.

In conclusion, the exploration of the ‘self’ from both a cognitive science and Buddhist perspective offers a unique lens to understand our own sense of identity and consciousness. It bridges the gap between the ancient and the modern, the biological and the artificial, and challenges our intuitive notions of a stable, continuous ‘self’. As we continue to explore the depths of our minds and the capabilities of artificial intelligence, we may find that these two fields have more in common than we think.

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