This morning, I woke up in a small studio flat, alone. I haven't always been alone, of course. Everyone who has made it past infancy began their life living with at least one person capable of meeting their various needs for survival. For most of us, myself included, that means our biological parents. I also had several roommates at university; some were my friends, some were not. Most recently I lived with my ex-partner.
But who was I? Who is "I" there in those sentences? Am I still the same person I was when I lived with my family as a child? Almost certainly not. So much time has passed, and memories have so faded by now, that I cannot even really relate to whoever that individual was. Is it correct, then, to say that the person I was as a child is dead? I don't think so... but child-me certainly no longer exists. If that's true, where does it end, or rather, where does it begin? When did I start existing in my current form? How many versions of me have there been?
Human beings are connoisseurs of illusion. We're extremely reliant upon it in our day-to-day life. Consciously and subconsciously, we manufacture and consume illusions all the time. Your favourite television show is not actually moving; it's flashing a series of individual images so brief and so close together that your brain and eyes cannot keep up with processing them all. Believe it or not, digital music is the same way. It may sound continuous to us, but slow any digital recording down enough and you'll be able to hear the very obvious distortion that comes from trying to fill in the information that just isn't there. So many of our interactions with technology, especially, are entirely dependent upon our brain's subconscious compensation for the latency of the human senses, which creates several illusions that several completely impossible things are happening. If you want to horribly break one of these latency-centric illusions, just try singing with someone on a phone call or teleconference. Seriously, try it if you've not tried it before. It's terribly disorienting and it ends in sadness.
Continuity of consciousness has been repeatedly demonstrated to be an illusion, too. Ask anyone who's ever been in a coma, or under anaesthesia, or blacked out, or slept like the dead after exam week at university. Where did all the time go? Where do we go, when we're unconscious? Of course we like to think of ourselves as, well, ourselves. It's not even that we like to, actually... it seems that we really need to. This subject is not a new one to me. I've been interested in questions about consciousness for as long as I can remember, and yet, the language I've used in this very sentence proves that my actual subjective conscious mind very much considers itself to have existed before today. I feel like I've always been interested in consciousness. I have memories of conversations I've had and various material I've consumed on the subject. The thing is... I wasn't there for any of it.
I'm not telling you anything crazy here. There is a really fun category of thought experiment which involves imagining what if everything is a simulation? Or even, what if the memories I feel like I actually have were planted there by aliens, or God, or the KGB? No, don't worry; I'm not telling you that your memories never happened. It's just that you weren't there to experience them. A human body was there, and inside it was a human mind, but neither of those things were actually you.
It's like this: this morning, a complex multi-faceted electrochemical algorithm decided that your body and brain needed to be awake. Perhaps it was due to a particular external stimulus, such as the light coming through your window; the gentle kneading of your cat's paws; the sound of your alarm clock, or the soft touch of your partner's lips against your shoulder as they departed your bed to make coffee. Regardless of how it happened, it ignited a storm of neural activity which somehow, some way, resulted in a conscious singularity capable of having experiences. This new entity found that it had access to a brain full of memories, and knowledge, and preferences, and it decided that it was itself.
It decided, that it was you.
Take a moment to think about your favourite food. What is it? Have you had it yet today? If not, you've never had it. Your favourite movie? You've probably never watched it. What about all the songs you've ever loved? Even if you've had your entire library on shuffle all day, you've probably never heard most of them. Even if you start now, you'll be unable to finish them. Who is your favourite person? Do you have one? Do you have multiple favourite people? If they're not all in the same household as you, chances are you've never met them, and you never will.
What's your favourite flavour of ice cream? Mine is mint chocolate chip. Or is it? I'm sure that it is, but I've never had it. That particular example has consistently been a favourite of past versions of myself. It's the first example that always comes to mind for me. It's a good one, because most people don't have ice cream every day.
Today's me, though, is stuck on something different: I love hugs. I love touch in general. I love to cuddle and be cuddled. It feels like the most important need that I have, but my logical mind knows that cannot be true. It only feels that way because my mind is in the state that it is in. The facts don't change how I feel though, as is usually the case with this sort of thing.
I love hugs. But. I've never been hugged.
So many people that have called themselves me, that have felt like they were me, have lived their entire existences without being hugged. And for the foreseeable future, every "me" that exists, until all of this is over, will do the same... including me, today.
I love hugs. I crave a hug right now as much as I can imagine craving anything. But I've never been hugged; and for as long as I exist, I never will be. 🍋