Seeing the System as a Source of Self

How an Integrated Identity Creates a Sense of Belonging (and a More Compassionate World)

By Dr. Dan Siegel

Imagine if you identified yourself as an oxygen atom. All your life you’ve somehow known oxygen is your identity. Even when you combine with another oxygen atom to form O2, you have no confusion because you and your kin are the oxygen that animals breathe to live.

But there’s another kid on the block that is even more abundant than you—hydrogen. That little pipsqueak of an atom has only one proton and one electron compared to your eight. Sometimes two of those atoms get together with your kind and make a weird combo called a molecule—in this case, the molecule is water: H2O. Who are you now? Are you O or H2O? All of your electron orbits get mixed together with hydrogen’s electrons, and, wouldn’t you know it, you’ve lost the purity you had when you were just plain old oxygen. What’s with this?

In this moment, would you cling to a separate-self view of being only oxygen after you’ve locked orbits with these measly hydrogen atoms against your will? Would you be longing to be only oxygen?

When we think of your dilemma in this situation, we can see that as a single atom of oxygen you are struggling to find what “Me” means for you when the “We” of molecular configuration is denied. But what happens to the even larger collection of all the water molecules that make up streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans? These collections of water molecules are the life-giving and life-sustaining biosphere that are required to maintain life on earth. What would it mean to be such a “selfish” solo oxygen atom to not want to be a part of that larger life system?

Similarly, if you were a cell in a body and fought to separate your identity and life—its functions and features—from other cells by growing at your own accelerated speed and disregarding other cells, the body wouldn’t function well. In fact, we call that condition cancer.

These issues can help us illuminate the nature of mind and deepen our understanding of what the self may truly be.

Since the days of Hippocrates, 2500 years ago, we’ve been told in modern medicine that the human mind is only a product of the brain. When we think of the mind this way—and if we think of the self as coming from the mind—then the skull and skin are the defining boundaries of our mental lives and the sole origins of the self.

People have been fascinated with what the “mind” is for ages. As an educator in this expansive field, many people ask me if the “mind” might just be part of a social brain’s sensitivity to social signals, rather than the fully relational and embodied process that is stated in my writings. That understandable question is a natural part of a view of mind that comes from the perspective that mind is an equivalent for “brain activity.” In other words, this is a natural question when we think the mind is what the brain does.

For me, the view that mind is only a synonym for the activity of the brain is partially true—but embracing it as complete and literal is potentially lethal. Lethal? Similar to cancer, seeing the mind and self as separated from other people and other living beings creates a way of living that is isolating, incomplete, and illusory.

The mind, in my view, is an emergent property of a system of energy and information flow that arises within the whole body and our relationships. These relationships include our connections to one another and with nature. One of the mind’s facets can be defined this way: An emergent, self-organizing, embodied, and relational process that regulates the flow of energy and information. This self-organizing process is an emergent property, an aspect of reality that mathematics has established is part of complex systems—systems that are open, chaos-capable, and non-linear. This means that a complex system is open to influences from outside “itself.” It’s capable of being chaotic. And, it is quite difficult to predict how small inputs result in large changes to the system.

Emergent properties are an established reality of our universe.

Emergent properties, like self-organization, cannot be reduced to the components of a system alone. They emerge from the interaction of the components.

In other words, the notion of “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” is a mathematical feature of the emergence of complex systems. What I am suggesting is that mind—as an emergent property of the complex system of embodied and relational energy and information flow—is more than just a social brain responding to social signals, like the brain responding to light or sound. Mind happens as much between us and others and the world as it happens within our body and its brain.

It may be that we’ve fallen for an identity error like that of the oxygen atom I described earlier, meaning that we’ve confused where the “self” actually resides. In systems terms, we have aspects of a system in which the components have channeled interactions called “nodes.” If one node of energy and information flow is the body and its brain, we’ve come to assign the notion of “selfhood” to the node, instead of also seeing the system as the source of self. We’ve come to believe that the node of our bodily existence is the sole source of self, the brain the sole source of mind. But we can propose that the mind is broader than the brain; the self bigger than the body. What if the self includes the whole system? What if these bodies we’re born into are simply nodes of the larger system? What if the human brain has evolved to have this unfortunate vulnerability of a mistaken belief that the self is separate, which is reinforced by modern science, schooling, and society? Are other people merely pawns in a game of self-preservation? Is the planet simply a source of stuff and a useful trash can?

The consequences of this vulnerability of the human brain to misperceive the self as limited to only the body is potentially lethal, in that we cannot sustain such a view on our precious and fragile planet—not to mention that we typically neither find meaning nor joy in living such an isolated existence.

Let’s come back to you as an oxygen atom. Yes, you are still the oxygen atom that you think you are. But you are also the water molecule; you are also the stream; you are also the sea. Our human brain deceives us by convincing us that the skin and skull encase the only source of self and we are collectively dying because of this unintentional neural lying. When we open to the reality that life on earth depends on the emergence of properties much larger than the individual components, we can see that cortically constructing the self as separate is, as Einstein suggested, an “optical delusion” of our consciousness. Not even an illusion, but a delusion, a psychotic belief not consistent with reality.

How can we dissolve that optical delusion?

If we see that optimal self-organization arises from a process called integration—the linkage of differentiated parts—we can see that an integrated identity might involve combining the importance and reality of Me with the importance and reality of We. This leads us to a simple equation of integration, the linkage of differentiated aspects of a system: Me plus We equals MWe.

MWe is an integrated identity that links us across time, across space, within our inner lives, and within our own experience of connection with one another. As MWe, we are connected to others whose bodies have come before ours, and to those whose bodies will arrive long after ours are gone. We become more than just oxygen alone; we become water. And both oxygen and water are essential for life to flourish. Me and We are essential aspects of our identity. MWe is an integrated self that can transform how we nurture life on Earth. With all our differentiated glory and linked collaboration, together MWe can make this a more integrated, compassionate, and connected world for us all.

Dr. Dan Siegel is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and the founding co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA. He is also the Executive Director of the Mindsight Institute, which focuses on how the development of mindsight in individuals, families, and communities can be enhanced by examining the interface of human relationships and basic biological processes. He is the author of many books, including, most recently, Mind: A Journey to the Heart of Being Human.

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2 comments on “Seeing the System as a Source of Self”

  1. Ken Kenney says:

    I would like to learn more.

  2. Susan Sylva says:

    Wishing I was able to attend the upcoming workshop, especially after reading this. The metaphor, such a perfect one, keeping the conceptual web of life connected from H2O to MWe. I’ve recently come across an introduction to Richard Schwartz’ internal family systems and the Self. I can see the Self as the internal leader nestled in the wider role of MWe. I too am interested in learning more.

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