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.

I recently heard a TED Talks podcast by the psychologist Dan Gilbert on this subject. He says that we start out trying to find happiness in specific ways, but when things don’t go as we’d planned, we “synthesize” happiness by changing the way we think about our circumstances. He gives examples of people who spend 20 years in prison—or lose millions of dollars—and come out saying, “That was the most fortunate thing that could have ever happened to me.”

The way Dan puts it—and his work is just excellent—is that we try to forecast whether or not something will make us happy, but we’re wrong, we’re mistaken. He gives all these examples of how we think we’re going to like something, and we think we liked it afterwards, but we actually don’t like it all.

His most provocative example is having children. He says this gets him into all sorts of trouble. People get enraged and walk out of his talks. But the literature is pretty clear that if you beep people on a beeper while they’re with their children and ask them how they’re feeling, they’re not so happy. But if you ask people what they like most in life, they say they love their kids—their kids are the great joys of their lives. The way Dan puts it is that we’re wrong. Kids really make us unhappy, but we think they make this happy. He gives different reasons why, but one reason is that we’re fooled by the media. We’re suckered in by this legend.

I actually don’t think that’s the right way to look at things. It’s possible for kids to be a pain in the ass day to day and to be a huge joy in a broader sense. You may experience that joy only when you ask, “What kind of person am I? What kind of life am I living?” That’s when you get joy. But in daily life, you’re jamming your kids into the car and changing diapers and looking for a McDonald’s and getting yelled at, and then they poke you, and you’re miserable. But when you think about the experience of having them, you’re happy.

My disagreement with Dan is that Dan would say, “Somebody’s got to be wrong there.” But the way I see it, it’s no different than saying to a friend, “I like going to Vegas and you don’t.” It’s just two selves having a difference of opinion.

I wanted to ask you about that research on children. The last time we spoke, you mentioned that getting married is one of the few things that’s actually been shown to make people happier. Since we had that discussion, I have gotten married…

Mazel tov!

Thanks! I’ve actually thought a lot about what you said, because there’s been a very obvious increase in my day-to-day happiness. But it’s a bit disconcerting to think that all of that happiness will start to evaporate once I have children.

Dan has a scary graph in his book Stumbling Upon Happiness. When you get married, he shows happiness shooting up—it skyrockets, and it’s all wonderful. Then you have kids, and it starts creeping down and down and down and down. And when they leave the house, you’re back to your glorious happiness. That, to me, makes no sense at all. It fits very badly with my own life experience.

Yes, I remember how you quoted your little boy Max in your last article. You seemed to be a very proud, happy father.

That’s right. I have two kids, Max and Zach, and I’m very close with both of them. They’re the great joys of my life. But you know, Dan might be right. Day to day, kids are difficult to deal with. But I think they add a richness to your life that’s incomparable.

The point is that it depends who you ask. The beeper studies ask one self. But when you’re talking to me about it now, you’re talking to another self. I think that’s a nice way to get around some paradoxes. It might seem like we’re wrong about the most fundamental aspects of our lives. But I don’t think we’re wrong at all. We just get different responses when we ask different selves.

That’s reassuring. Now what about this notion of escapism? According to your article, when we watch TV, we leave our everyday paradigm and actually become Tony Soprano. Jeffrey Goldberg wrote something similar in The Atlantic about going to a lab at UCLA and having researchers study his brain. When he looked at a photo of Bruce Springsteen, the researchers told him that he was playing the role of Bruce, neurologically pretending to play guitar and sing like him. Is that what happens whenever we get deeply absorbed in an experience?

I do think that when we’re interacting with people, particularly when we’re taking their view, we simulate what’s going on with them. And there’s actually some interesting neuroscientific evidence for that. But it’s a very old observation. Adam Smith has this wonderful quote where he says that when we see somebody being struck, we feel as if we were them. If you see somebody being hit in a movie, you might wince. We do take on the perspectives of others. Otherwise, fiction would be impossible. The characters on The Sopranos are awful people. You wouldn’t hope that Tony would be successful in killing someone if you weren’t looking at the world through his eyes, shifting your goals and desires accordingly.

Does that kind of exposure—whether we get it through art or just through living—create more selves? Does a child come into the world with fewer, more streamlined selves and an adult have more numerous selves?

Yes, I would think so. In all sorts of ways, I’d think we multiply selves as we grow older. We have different situational selves, different desires that clash. These desires grow their own personalities and motivations. Also, as we’re exposed to more fiction, we multiply perspectives. We can playact in all sorts of ways. Even young children get joy out of pretending, creating imaginary friends. But as we get older, we get more and more multitudinous.

Speaking of multitudes, your piece includes one of my favorite quotes from Walt Whitman: “I am large, I contain multitudes.” But I wanted to ask you about an earlier section in “Song of Myself” where he describes a sort of über-self that isn’t part of the multitudes. He lists various perceptions and relationships he has in his everyday life, and then he says, “But they are not the Me myself. / Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am, / Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary, / Looks down, is erect, bends an arm on an impalpable certain rest, / Looks with its side-curved head, curious what will come next, / Both in and out of the game, and watching and wondering at it.”

That’s a lovely quote.

Is there anything in your research that indicates a larger self above the fray, watching the whole pageant of the other selves?

Most people believe that there’s a self that’s in charge. And in some way, that self is identified with the will, with self-control. Suppose we’re multiple selves. Who should win? The standard view, which I think is 95 percent right, is the one that’s rational, the one that contemplates, that sees a therapist and so on, and not the petty, impulsive self. The adult and not the child. But sometimes our more emotional, less verbal, younger self should get a lot of say. It’s not hard to find cases where the rational, contemplative self goes horribly wrong.

Right. In your piece, you give the example of the Nazis.

The Nazis were not crazy, stupid people. They weren’t in some sort of emotional frenzy. They were contemplative, thoughtful people who read, talked, and had grand ideas. They were in some way the model for this über-Self. They were just rotten. In general, I think rationality is wonderful. But there are cases where it can lead you astray and your gut feeling is what you should be listening to.

But I’m not sure Whitman is talking about a rational self. You might remember that I grew up with Transcendental Meditation and a somewhat eastern worldview. It makes sense to me that there are all these different rationalizations and desires that come to the forefront, but that none of these is the ultimate reality. That’s what I get from this Whitman passage. It’s as if there’s a deeper part of him that’s a silent witness to all his selves, like an affectionate parent sitting back and watching his children playing.

The story of meditative exercises and what they do to your multiplicity of Self is really fascinating. There’s been a lot of interesting research on the subject, although it’s not something I know anything about.

Well, whether you intended it or not, your article does seem to fit in very well with that paradigm—especially if there’s a big-S “Self” that contains all those multitudes.

I guess so. This whole notion of multiple selves is still very strange and alien to me. It was fun to explore it in a magazine article, to see where I could take the idea. But if I picked up this piece right now as a reader, I don’t know whether I’d be convinced. It must have been a different self who wrote it.