Losing ourselves

Equipped with a neolithic brain architecture, legacy brain software, and an old repertoire of subjective experiences 1 2 we don’t see the world as it is (whatever that means) but in a way that has ensured our survival and reproduction over the milennia. This has been all good up until now. We do after all come from an ubroken lineage of survivors and procreators all the way from the primordial amoeba. (Fascinating thought, that.)

Our brains generate a feeling of a self that I belive is best described as a subjective experience like pain or proprioception. It is not diffult to imagine the utility of such a self that can be hurt, greedy, neurotic, hungry, and generally needy in many ways. The list of needs of the self is long. Some include Lamborghinis and private jets. The self is that imagined entity which our mind and body ultimately wish to protect and serve. It is, per definition, selfish.

The self, while valuable from an evolutionary perspective, can be a source of misery, egoism, provincialism, distraction, lack of compassion and other ills. It craves constant attention and protection and is very hard to satisfy. Many individuals are not very happy with the self they experience and its attributes and try to escape from it with drugs and other less adaptive means.

In her book, Dr Jill Bolte Taylor tells a unique story about how she lost her self after a stroke in her left hemisphere due to an aneurysm [5]. She describes how she lost the sense of the boundaries of her body, how she didn’t feel like an individual any more but part of an infinite “flow”. She felt as one with the universe. She had lost her feeling of a self as an entity separated from others. She didn’t initially really care to get her self back again because the limitless existence was so pleasant. Dr Bolte Taylor describes many other interesting aspects of her experiences immediately after the stroke. She also lost the ability to see colors, another type of qualia and she lost track of time passing.

The self is as hard to define as other concepts that in an objective sense don’t exist. The Indian Veda literature defines the self as “the witness of all that we perceive, the agent of our actions, the enjoyer of our aesthetic experiences”. I believe this captures our usual intuitions. The self is thus an imagined little “homonculus” in our brains (or somewhere else) that experiences and initiates actions [1]. (The question is whether the homonculus has it’s own even smaller homonculus…)

I will here take it for granted that dualism is a dead end. All living things are in fact parts of a cosmic, causal dance in which we, subject to laws of nature, attempt to survive and procreate. We can of course identify individuals just like we can identify inanimate objects like stones. But in a naturalistic world we are all part of a bigger system in which the self and free will (however defined) are (sometimes) useful but false ideas. They are what Bret Weinstein calls metaphorical truths i.e., useful falsehoods. For longer arguments against the existence of a self and of free will, see [1] and [2].

While the self has been instrumental in our evolution as a species, there are in the modern world many reasons to lose it, at least temporarily, to improve our cognitive productivity, our mental health, and our compassion for our fellow travelers.


Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi developed the concept of flow to describe a state of optimal experience in which individuals are fully immersed and engaged in an activity and lose the experience of a self [3]. Flow occurs when there is a balance between the perceived challenges of the task and the individual’s perceived skills. The activity is neither too easy to be boring nor too difficult to cause anxiety.

Flow is additionally characterized by:

  • A deep focus on the activity itself without irrelevant thoughts or distractions.
  • Despite the often high levels of effort involved, activities performed in flow are felt as effortless, with actions and awareness merging.
  • A strong sense of personal control over the outcome and performance in the task.
  • During flow, concerns for the self vanish, yet paradoxically, the sense of self emerges stronger after the flow experience.
  • Distortion of sense of time, with hours passing by like minutes.
  • The experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it for the sheer sake of doing it, even at great cost, for the deep sense of gratification it provides.

Csikszentmihalyi argues that achieving flow experiences is essential for personal well-being and happiness. Flow states promote growth, skill enhancement, and a sense of fulfillment. Individuals can experience flow in various activities, including work, artistic pursuits, sports, and everyday tasks, provided the conditions of challenge and skill balance are met. Csikszentmihalyi’s work suggests that creating environments and opportunities for flow in schools, workplaces, and other aspects of life can significantly enhance productivity, creativity, and satisfaction.

Mental health

Psychedelics, according to the REBUS (Relaxed Beliefs Under Psychedelics) model, disrupt the brain’s usual hierarchical processing of sensory information. They lower the weight of these high-level priors, which are normally resistant to change, thus allowing lower-level sensory information to have a greater impact on our perception of reality (see my earlier posts about the active inference theory for an explanation of priors in perceptual inference). This effect is mediated by the action of psychedelics on the 5-HT2A serotonin receptors, which leads to a more flexible and less constrained brain state. The suppression of these high-level priors under psychedelics can lead to a more fluid and less biased integration of sensory information, potentially enabling the “rewiring” of deeply entrenched patterns of thought and behavior.

A critical aspect of the REBUS model is its implications for the concept of the self. High-level priors include not only our beliefs about the external world but also our internal narratives about who we are. By relaxing these priors, psychedelics may temporarily dissolve the boundaries of the self, leading to experiences of ego dissolution. The REBUS model suggests that by temporarily reducing the influence of high-level priors and the sense of self, psychedelics can facilitate a therapeutic window of increased plasticity and openness to change, thereby promoting healing and growth.


Buddhism offers a good explanation of how losing one’s self leads to greater compassion and happiness. Buddhism intricately links the concept of “selflessness” or “anatta” (no-self) with compassion through its fundamental understanding of the nature of existence and interdependence.

Anatta is a core Buddhist doctrine suggesting that in beings, there is no permanent, unchanging soul or self. Recognizing anatta helps individuals see that clinging to the notion of a self leads to the creation of boundaries between oneself and others, fostering attachment, desire, and aversion—all of which are sources of suffering.

Buddhism also teaches that all phenomena are interconnected and interdependent, a concept known as “pratītyasamutpāda” or dependent origination. This understanding implies that the well-being of each individual is deeply connected to the well-being of others and the environment. By recognizing the interdependent nature of reality, individuals can transcend the self-centered perspective, fostering a natural sense of empathy and concern for the welfare of others. This type of interconnectedness is consistent with Jill Bolte Taylor’s account of losing the boundaries between herself and the rest of the universe.

Recognizing the absence of an inherent self (anatta) and understanding the interconnectedness of all life lead to the realization that others’ suffering is not separate from one’s own. This realization naturally engenders compassion, as one sees no fundamental distinction between oneself and others.

Paths to anatta

In the first two situations a temporary loss of self is achieved through either immersion in an interesting task or through psychedelica. For a more permanent attenuation, if not loss, of self, Buddhists prescribe meditation, intellectual analysis, and compassionate deeds. More about the paths to anatta in future posts.


[1] Losing Ourselves – Learning to Live Without a Self. Jay L. Garfield.
[2] Free Will. Sam Harris.
[3] Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
[4] REBUS and the Anarchic Brain: Toward a Unified Model of the Brain Action of Psychedelics. R. L. Carhart-Harris, K. J. Friston.
[5] My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey. Jill Bolte Taylor.

  1. If we accept the proposition of the active inference framework, subjective experiences are created in the brain before they are matched and tuned to sensory inputs. Thus the word “repertoire”. ↩︎
  2. The term “subjective” in “subjective experience” has its roots in the philosophical concept of subject-object dualism which refers to the distinction between the observing subject (the “I” or self) and the observed object (anything perceived as not-self). The term may not be optimal in a post claiming that there is no subject but it has come to more generally refer to the fundamental nature of personal experience that is directly accessible only to the individual, be there a self or not. ↩︎

Related Post

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *