The Sense of Self Illusion

Someone recently posted this on reddit…

Tonight, I discovered that I am afraid of death. Never, before tonight, had I been truly afraid of it. Of course, it’s not a fun thing to think of, but I don’t know, it never really hit me as something to fear. I would sometimes think about what kind of impact I had made on the world and what effect my death would have made, but that never resulted into something. I’m a fairly happy person. I am a healthy nineteen year old. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke and don’t do any sort of tobacco. I feel that if I stick with this philosophy, I will help someone make better decisions. I want to be someone people look up to. I enjoy having a good reputation. I care for others. I have sympathy and empathy for others. I am saying this now because I don’t ever really hear it from anyone, but I hope to believe it’s true and I’m not lying to myself. Anyways, tonight I was leaving my friend’s house and they were drinking a little bit, and of course I don’t condone it, but I’m not gonna judge them for it. I’m there so that they don’t do anything stupid. So, after awhile, I decide the night is starting to end. My friends started watching a movie and I felt that I should get home. I grabbed my coat, said a subtle goodbye and left. As I’m driving along a backroad I start going up a slight hill and see a glow of carlights right over it. I tend to drive closer to the middle of backroads for safety (there was snow on the sides of the street). Anyways, since I saw the glow of the lights I shift over a little bit to make sure that I am in my lane. Then coming over the hill, right in the middle of the road, was a speeding vehicle. I knew the vehicle and the person driving, as I had just left the neighborhood that they live in. I went to high school with this person and I know that they have a history of drinking and not making great decisions. I can’t prove that they were drinking and driving, but it was late, around 1:30 am, and it was the weekend. Regardless the person was easily going 50 mph over the speed limit. The person comes very close to hitting me. I quickly move even more towards the side of the road and the car misses me. The speeding car would’ve absolutely mutilated me and my car. As I look in my rearview mirror I see the car’s breaklights turn on as they knew it was a close call. I continue on the road and start thinking about what if the person had hit me. Would I be dead? Paralyzed? Would the other driver be dead? With my adrenaline pumping, I take deep breaths and continue driving, but much slower, about 5 mph under the speed limit. I continue to think about what happened I think about my impact on the world. Have I done enough with my life to be satisfied or to have left a legacy? All I could picture was newspaper article. I don’t know why, but I started to feel scared. I don’t want to die. I don’t want to leave my family and friends. I love living. If I had died, how would it have effected my family and maybe even worse, what if I had survived this incubus. I saw myslef living a sadder life. I’d forgive the other person so that they wouldn’t have to live in pain, in hopes that they wouldn’t feel bad. I couldn’t imagine my life being the same. I thought prior to this experience that I had been living life more than others. I considered myself a good person, but what did I have to prove it? Nothing really, maybe some stories from friends and family, but who would speak highly of me other than my family and friends? What kind of person would the news article say I was? This experience has changed the way I’m looking at life. It kind of amazes me that an experience like this motivated me to write these thoughts. I believe I needed this to help me life a fuller life. I feel like I’m just reiterating, now and a lot of it’s corny, but it’s true. Tonight, I discovered that I’m affraid of death and what my death would entail. I just wanted to share this story. I don’t know if I’ll ever tell my friends or family, but I will push to be a better person and help others make better decisions. Thank you for reading this. This was my revelation.

The post had zero comments, so I decided to indulge. Here is my reply…

I can sympathize with your revelation. The very clear and lucid fear of death washes over me every once in a while. I’ve used various coping strategies over the years to deal with this unfortunate certainty.

The simplest is to just think about something else, immediately. There is no reason to deeply ponder death while you’re in a fear-of-death state of mind. And it is really easy to engage in something else; something as simple as opening reddit is enough to move on.

Another more complex coping mechanism I’ve developed is to convince myself that sense-of-self is an illusion. There is no such thing as “you”. Every day we are someone different. Our old “self” dies every moment, and a new “self” is born in the next. Imagine you have a terminal illness, but we have the technology to perfectly load your brain onto a robot. Everyone who has ever done this procedure swears it works – they feel precisely like the same person they were just prior to the transfer. Seems like a great way to live forever.

But what if the person (the human) was allowed to continue living after the transfer? Is there now two beings with an identical sense of self? Is there two… of ‘you’? If not, which one, the human or the robot, would be your host? What would you think if you woke up still in the human body, but the robot claims they are definitely the real ‘you’? What would you think if you woke up in the robot body? What if the human form was terminated during a successful transfer – was there still a person in that body that died? My answer is that self of self is an illusion, loosely formulated by a combination of memories, consciousness, attention, and an ongoing stream of sensory perceptions. For me, framing the concept of self as a fleeting moment helps mitigate fear of any death some future self will experience. I feel for that person, but it wont be me.

Lastly, a more profound and uplifting coping mechanism I use is to reflect on the awe of the universe, and existence itself. There could have easily been no universe – nothing. It’s curious to think about why anything exist at whatsoever? Why the fuck does the universe exist? And its rules are crazy. Time is relative, it can be sped up or slowed down. Time becomes warped around matter (objects with mass). Time stops at the event horizon of a black hole. A massive black hole might lead to a different universe. Another universe? Gravity pulls things together, but we have no idea what gravity is or how it does what it does. Photons travel at the speed of time. All electrons in the universe might be just one single electron moving back and forth through time. Sometimes antimatter jumps into existence, out of some parallel plane of existence. Any given vector in the vacuum void of space has some probability of generating a particle from what appears to be nothing whatsoever. Random collisions between elementary particles governed by the arbitrary laws of this universe sprouted ‘life’, and soon after a beings with metacognitive faculties. This being is strangely close synthesizing artificial life with intelligence exceeding its own cognitive faculties. Entities smarter than humans will soon be creating even smarter versions of themselves, and worlds. These worlds could be simulated on a computer, and those worlds could contain worlds of their own. Our universe could be such a simulation. Any unfathomable thing is possible. It may have already happened and it may happen again; or all possible things are happening right now, simultaneously. The universe is a grand and wondrous thing. There is absolutely no telling what comes after death, and even if it comes trillions of years from now, it will feel like a blink of an eye.

Password requirements are getting ridiculous.

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Fair enough, let’s get some caps in there:


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What? Really? Okay, maybe dictionary words are banned, let’s go random:


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Seriously?? All right, symbols too:

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UCSD Design Lab

This spring I’ve been enrolled in COGS 200 – the seminar course associated with the cog sci department’s talk series (this is a requirement of my IDP). This year’s lineup included speakers such as Ed Hutchins (former department chair), Scott Klemmer (peer studio), Eric Vinkhuyzen (parc), Bonnie Nardi (heteromation); yesterday was the last talk of the year, which was given by none-other than Don Norman.

Don Norman Design Lab
Pictured: Don Norman. Source: UCSD Design Lab Homepage

I want to talk about Don. He is the founding chair of UCSD’s Cognitive Science Department, co-founder and consultant with the Nielsen Norman Group, and former Apple VP. He is currently the founding director of UCSD Design Lab. Don is 80, but unlike many elders of the ivory tower, he is certainly not a Luddite. Instead of both shunning and criticizing contemporary tech-ware like many prototypical golden-agers, he only engages in the criticism part. Don believes that a device or piece of technology should be easy to use, and if it’s not, there is a flaw in the design (not with the person using it). To be more precise, it’s not that Don believes everything should be easy to use, per se, but that things should be more user friendly. Sure that idea may be obvious now, but it wasn’t always, and Don was an advocate for ‘user-friendliness’ before it was cool (see: The Trouble with Unix: The user interface is horrid (1981)). Naturally, he wrote a best-selling book about it called The Design of Everyday Things.

In the second chapter of this book, Dr. Norman focuses on the psychology of ‘doing things‘ – how people interact with tools and technology, and how they evaluate their actions. He highlights the role of the designer as someone who absolutely must consider the psychology of human-device interaction. The crux of his synthesis is that well-built products have intuitive functionality user-centered design, and manipulations performed on/with the device result in predictable outcomes.

The Designer, by Don Norman

No I’m not talking about another book by Professor Norman; I’m talking about thee designer apotheosis, in Don’s world. According to his formulation the designer, by definition, is someone who helps people bridge the “gulf” between execution (learning what to do) and evaluation (figuring out why an action did/didn’t work). If you’ve ever helped create a product and that wasn’t your main objective, you weren’t the designer, you were something else. Maybe you were the inventor, or the engineer, or the programmer, or the manufacturer, which are certainly important roles; but to reiterate, unless your main objective was to determine how to make a product/device more-better for humans, you weren’t the designer.

Maybe today Don will tell you that’s not at all how he defines the role of the designer. But that was his definition yesterday, mutatis mutandis. I know because he spent an hour explicating the complex mysteries of user-centered design, to me. To clarify, I introduced Don and provided an overview of his work; the goal was to craft a proem that could spark discussion ASAP. Why was that the goal? Well, for one this is an assignment, and it happened to be my week (there were two other students who could have started talking in the 10-second eternity between the time the instructor said “ok guys, go ahead and get us started”, and the time I opened my mouth… but they didn’t). Two, I barely know of Don. Yes, he is famous, but not in my field. Three, he was there, sitting right there in the front of class. How are you supposed to talk about the objet d’art when the artist is in the room? Four, to be honest I couldn’t give a shit about the psychology of design. But that was yesterday. I have since changed my feelings about the subject. All because of Don.

You see, product design is incredibly important to manufacturers and corporations. The tiniest detail can mean the difference between a product become highly profitable and one that flops. Thus, billions of dollars are invested every year in R&D; a chunk of which is spent on design consultants, for which Don has elite status. However, there is nothing remarkable about the intellect of Dr. Norman, the 80 year-old cognitive scientist. That is, aside from him being, at 80, far more sagacious than the average scientist studying psychology and human cognition. I presume this is because Don’s undergrad was in electrical engineering and computer science, at MIT. He was a student of the hard sciences, but somewhere along the way Don realized that he could be an elite psychologist. It was an interesting field, and he had lots of mental tools many psychologists lacked. So Don quickly worked his way to the top of the food-chain. He became intimately familiar with psychology jargon, inventing some of it; and now to listen to him talk, well, it’s just entertaining.

It’s just entertaining.