Your body is a big place, with lots of nooks and crannies in which to hide. Where in that skein of nerves and blood vessels and muscle fibers does the real you live? A new study in the journal Consciousness and Cognition investigates the subjective location of the self: the part of your mortal cage that you think houses your “I am.” If such ethereal cartography sounds hard to measure, prepare to be amazed, because researchers have isolated the precise coordinates of the intuited ego and they are: on your chest.
So much for “I’m up here, dude.”
Psychologists Adrian Alsmith of the University of Copenhagen and Matthew Longo of the University of London asked 10 blindfolded adults to use a metal pointer to motion at “themselves.”* Most people indicated their upper torso area. Then, perhaps to ensure participants hadn’t just made the gesture that required the least physical effort, the researchers steered the pointer around the test subjects’ bodies. Again, a majority of people told them to stop when their chests were tagged. As Alice Robb at the New Republic reports, Alsmith and Longo explain the results by suggesting that “the torso is, so to speak, the great continent of the body, relative to which all other body parts are mere peninsulas. Where the torso goes, the body follows.”
This is poetic and intriguing, but, as Robb points out, 10 adults does not a persuasive sample size make—nor do the findings necessarily illumine what the researchers say they do. (What if we just don’t like to jab pointers in the general direction of our eyes?) More interesting than the experiment itself are the questions it raises: What’s the relationship between mind and body? Can our elusive self move around, or must it stay in one corporal place? And how does all of this relate to Slate’s foolproof “Where’s Waldo” strategy?
I wonder whether the ego doesn’t just go wherever you are focusing your attention. When I concentrate on my pinky finger, for instance, it seems to contain more ineffable selfhood than the kneecap I am ignoring. Also, do certain qualities of character lead us to affiliate more strongly with different body parts? Would a jock situate his soul in his bicep? Would a smart, geeky teenager identify as a brain? And, also, what exactly do we mean by “self”? I would certainly place my intellect inside my head; when I’m nervous, I can feel it in my stomach; as a white woman, I often benefit from the color of my skin. I am tempted to table this topic of inquiry as far too nebulous to ever invite the application of the scientific method—but, then again, what do “I” know? I’m just a pair of boobs.
Correction, March 19, 2014: This post originally misspelled the University of London.