Interviews November 2008

Song of My Selves

Psychologist Paul Bloom reflects on happiness, desire, memory, and the chaotic community that lives inside every human mind

At night, just before he goes to sleep, Yale psychologist Paul Bloom often finds himself facing a critical decision. He can grumblingly set up the coffee machine, delaying his bedtime but ensuring a smoother return to consciousness the next morning. Or he can skip this late-night chore and resent himself for it eight hours later. As Bloom notes in his latest Atlantic piece, “I sometimes think of the man who will wake up as a different person and wonder, What did he ever do for me?” His morning self returns the sentiment: “When I get up and there’s no coffee ready, I curse the lazy bastard who shirked his duties the night before.”

This peculiar inner monologue will be familiar to anyone who has ever saved money for retirement, cheated on a diet, or made any other choice that pits present gratification against future happiness. Religions and philosophies have struggled to explain why human beings so often face these internal conflicts of interest. Jewish texts speak of an evil inclination, or yetzer hara, constantly tugging at the psyche. In Freud’s writings, this impulse takes the form of the id, a bundle of shortsighted passions that fights with the lofty super ego for control of the conscious mind. Cartoonists have depicted these forces more anthropomorphically, drawing tormented characters with shining angels on one shoulder and gloating devils on the other.

According to Bloom, the real picture might not be so simple. The brain, as science has long known, consists of numerous separate parts. One region of the brain controls vision, while another controls decision making. Individual neurons fill these larger regions, and the neurons themselves consist of axons and dendrites. In a healthy brain, all of these individual parts manage to play together in a coherent symphony of consciousness. But Bloom points out that the parts are still parts, and the notion of a singular self might be a mirage. He proposes a different way of looking at human identity:

We used to think that the hard part of the question “How can I be happy?” had to do with nailing down the definition of happy. But it may have more to do with the definition of I. Many researchers now believe, to varying degrees, that each of us is a community of competing selves, with the happiness of one often causing the misery of another. ...Within each brain, different selves are continually popping in and out of existence. They have different desires, and they fight for control—bargaining with, deceiving, and plotting against one another.

Bloom’s theory has implications beyond the neglected morning coffee pot or the dieter’s sneaky bite of cake. It also addresses the marathon runner who spends three hours in physical agony for the sake of future glory, or the gambler who squanders a month’s paycheck in a single night. It might also explain why couples who have children report a sharp decline in happiness, even though parenthood is regarded as one of life’s greatest rewards. In each of these cases, Bloom argues, the question is less about external devils and angels than about the clamor of different selves, each with its own valid goals and perspectives. This multifaceted picture of the human mind, writes Bloom, “keeps the angel and the devil but casts aside the person in between.”

Bloom, the author of the book Descartes’ Baby: How the Science of Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human, has long been interested in psychological contradictions. His last article for The Atlantic, “Is God an Accident?” (December 2005), postulated that religious belief and rational thinking are both hard-wired into the human brain. Now at work on a book about pleasure, Bloom lives in New Haven with his wife, Karen Wynn, and his sons, Max and Zachary. We spoke on September 22nd.

—Jennie Rothenberg Gritz

The last time we spoke, your argument was that human beings have two different selves—that we live two parallel lives in the worlds of matter and emotions. Now these two selves seem to have multiplied into a whole community. How did this happen?

The older I get, the more selves I postulate. I got into this latest topic because I’m writing a book on pleasure, and I’m very interested in the role of multiple selves in pleasure. But these two topics are actually quite different. In my dualism work, the idea is that there are two modes of seeing the world, but it’s one consciousness. In fact, that unity is important, because the idea is that you, as a single person, see bodies and souls as separate.

So there isn’t one self who sees bodies and another self who sees souls.

That’s right.

Then what qualifies a certain mode of experience as a “self”? You mention in this article that people tend to be nicer when they’re smelling the aroma of baking bread. Why is that niceness a “self” rather than just a mood?

It’s a good question. It’s hard to establish a sharp dividing line between saying you’re in a different mood as opposed to saying you’re a different person. I think it’s kind of a continuum. If you’re in a good mood on Monday and a bad mood on Tuesday, it can still be the same you. But if you have very different goals and motivations and memories and desires, there’s a certain point at which I think it makes more sense to talk in terms of two different selves.

You make the point that we tend to see our own future selves as totally different people—that when we’re young and saving money for retirement, we almost resent the older person who’s going to get the money later on.

It’s as if we’re saving it for someone else.

That sort of makes sense because we don’t know that older person in the future. That person doesn’t exist yet. But you mention that this is also true for our past selves. Do we really look back at the things we did in college or in childhood and judge ourselves the same way we would judge other people?

I think we do. If I did something yesterday that’s really stupid, I’ll feel embarrassed and ashamed today. But I did a lot of stupid things when I was 15, and I don’t feel embarrassed about them anymore.

Maybe just a little bit.

A little bit. But I can really say, “That wasn’t me. It was another guy.” In a sense, it was me. It was the same body. But the psychologies are so different that in another sense it wasn’t really me.

When you talk in this piece about different selves, a lot of the distinction seems to be time bound. For example, you talk about the person who goes to bed without setting up the coffee maker versus the person who wants coffee in the morning—or the person who eats cake now versus the person who will gain the weight later.

Another way of looking at it is that the two selves might coexist in your head, but, over time, one gets stronger than the other. The coffee-wanter shows up in the morning. The cake-eater and the smoker show up when faced by temptation. But they’re always there, and they’re part of you. And once you start plotting against them, they have resources of their own.

That’s really what attracted me to this topic in the first place. The idea of bargaining and negotiating with your selves can be thought of pretty much the same way as bargaining and negotiating with another person.

So it’s more than just a matter of different physical urges coming up at different times. It’s not enough to want the cake—in order to defeat the dieter, the hungry person has to actually rationalize why it’s okay to have the cake.

Yes. There’s a view in the popular literature, and in theology, and in a lot of neuroscience, that I think is mistaken: there’s a rational self, and then there are these quick-and-dirty temptations and desires that you have to thwart. I think that’s too simple. The desiring self—the person who wants the cake—isn’t as smart as the person who wants to be slim. But it’s smart enough that most of us can’t defeat him. Smart enough that when the cake is in front of you, it can tell stories and spin tales and use techniques to override the dieter.

But it sounds like the really smart thing to do is to take advantage of those moments when the rational self is in control to set up systems so that the other selves can’t have their way later on. Like Odysseus ordering his sailors to tie him to the mast so he won’t throw himself into the sea when he hears the siren song.

That’s the plan of the rational self. But you know, most of us aren’t non-smoking, non-drinking, slim, faithful, diligent, and so on. That’s because we don’t succeed at all this.

I wanted to talk a bit about memory. In your piece, you describe a person who grumpily hikes through the Amazon rainforest but then comes back and feels happy about having hiked through the rainforest. I do that sort of thing all the time. I’m always surprised when I read through old journals and realize that whole phases of my life that I’ve labeled as “carefree” or “challenging” were actually a lot more mixed when I was living them.

One way to think about this comes from the work of Daniel Kahneman, who talks about an “experiencing self” and a “remembering self.” I had a similar experience to yours. I spent a summer in Europe and kept a journal. When I looked back at that journal, I was startled to find out how often during that summer I was bored and depressed, because I had remembered it as one incredible romp. That’s a standard finding when it comes to memory. You remember the time you got drunk with all those cool people. You don’t remember sitting on the train for eight hours. That stuff just slips your mind.

So memory distorts. But I think it goes a little bit deeper than that. There’s a difference in planning an experience that I’ll enjoy while I’m having it versus planning an experience that I’ll remember fondly. This fits in with the idea of multiple selves, that you can trade the happiness of one self for the happiness of another.

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