Predictable Identities: 21 – Enlightenment

This entry is part 21 of 27 in the series Predictable Identities

Before talking more about self-identifying, it’s worthwhile to consider why we even think that there is anything to identify  — a “self” that we can attach labels to. This is not a given; many people “…report no individualized sense of self, no self-related thoughts” This is from a paper on Persistent Non-Symbolic Experiences, a sciencey-sounding term for what is normally called “enlightenment”.

Who’s “enlightened”? If you ask them, any and all of:

Whatever do these all have in common? Here’s my Predictable Identities conjecture: the sense of self comes from habitual and repeated thoughts; novel thoughts make the self dissolve.

“Habitual thoughts” means everything from high-level cogitation to low-level processing of stimuli. Kaj Sotala points out that something as simple as the perception of hearing a stick hitting a woodblock is the result of complicated processing that combines several auditory frequencies, your previous experience with wood objects, and mental imagery. This processing usually happens automatically: [hear sound] -> [imagine block]. 

But, with enough concentration, one can break this habit, leaving just the raw sounds to do with as one wishes. The same is true of “habits” like [feel pain] -> [experience suffering] or [see object of desire] -> [experience craving] that are the common focus of the monk’s meditation, or the frameworks of social interaction Valentine writes about

When the part of your brain that monitors itself notices repeated patterns of thought it creates a high-level model called “self” that it can use for prediction. “I” am interpreting the sound as a stick hitting a woodblock. “I” suffer when in pain. “I” think of everything in terms of predictive processing. And “I” will likely continue to do so in the future.

But when a thought or interpretation arises that can’t be predicted from the habits of my mind, there is no reason to assign it to a consistent thinking “self”. The thoughts I’m used to thinking are mine, but the novel ones could be anyone’s or no one’s.

Series Navigation<< Predictable Identities: 20 – Self and Other LabelingPredictable Identities: 22 – The Entropic Brain >>

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About Jacob Falkovich

Jacob is so proud of his blog,, that it's on his online dating profiles. He also tweets @yashkaf.


  1. Small correction, you misspelled Kaj’s name.

  2. Please, tell me this is part of a large project of yours. Would like to see this explored in greater depth.

    • Avadh Dwivedi says

      Read Osho or J Krishnamurthy, trust me this is nothing but first surface of the ocean being talked about.

  3. This kind of thing always makes me think of Julian Jaynes’ theory of the bicameral mind. His idea of introspective self-consciousness is about the creation of a particular kind of individualistic identity. Or rather it is an internalized imagined space that acts as a stage upon which an individual sense of self can be acted out. Of course, there are other kinds of selves, not all of them being individualistic.

  4. The Crystallization of Counter-Enlightenment and Philosophe Identities: Theological Controversy and Catholic Enlightenment in Pre-Revolutionary France Topics: Society of Jesus, Age of Enlightenment, Enlightenment, Catholicism, Christian history, Cartesianism, Clergy, Sacraments