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My hands, and becoming a self

I have a memory from when I was around 4 or 5 years old. I was talking with my Dad and he said something like, “hold out your right hand” and I held out the left (or maybe it was the other way around). He corrected me, and as I realized my confusion, I asked how to tell the difference? How to know my right hand from my left?

He told me which hand was which, and I confirmed my understanding. Then I turned straight around and asked to confirm that the hand that was my right when facing That way (south) was now my left when facing This way (north). (I did not explicitly know the compass direction I was facing, and don’t know how I would have dealt with facing southwest, or lying down versus standing, it didn’t get that far! 😂) Dad laughed and said no, your right is always your right, and your left is always your left, and it doesn’t change.

This was a revelation to me, that my body could be the locus of orientation, I could be the compass point, so to speak.

I remember this feeling of astonishment at realizing that these directions, left and right, were always relative to “me”. More than 30 years later I still find this amazing, that this little girl’s first instinct was to understand relations of directionality as oriented to the wider world, only to be surprised that the Way It Is Done could, in fact, be different, individually-oriented, “self”-referential. This lesson had a deep, though subtle, impact on how I navigated the world for many years, perhaps still to this day.

As individuals, our meta-cognitive experience of a self may co-arise with our development of recursive language, which happens between 2 and 5 years old (and happened in humans as a species around 70.000 years ago; see this very interesting article here).

Language and concepts are how our intellect processes information about reality. (Bernardo Kastrup talks about this in his book More than Allegory, and Eugene Gendlin discusses this in Experience and the Creation of Meaning). Prior to our acquisition of language, our experience is more intuitive, and much more present-moment oriented: everything is about Now. The formation of memories is facilitated or perhaps even made possible by language: pure experience with no reflective capacity is blind.

We begin to develop the capacity for language as we begin to individuate, to discover ourselves as apparently separate, autonomous beings within this world. We begin to discover, or create, our individual locus of experience, which is bolstered by the scaffolding of memory.

Memory formation is an integral part of our notion of "self". Who are you with no reference to the past, no recall of yesterday, last year, childhood? How do you interact with your environment with no recognition of, for instance, pencil, teacup, computer? These labels rely on memory, conceptual scaffolding, an understanding of time and differentiation (“that was then, this is now” or “this is a pencil, which I can use to write, while that is a teacup full of delicious tea which I may drink”). So perhaps "self" (as malleable a concept as that may be) is what we call our “experiential constant”.

What is your earliest memory of becoming a self?


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