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The Ego Trick

What Does it Mean To Be You?

By Julian Baggini
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The Ego Trick by Julian Baggini

The Ego Trick (2011) explores the slippery topic of what we call “I” or “me.” These blinks give insight into the many factors that shape our sense of self, including brain function and dysfunction, society, culture and technological changes, and introduce the key philosophical questions behind our ideas about identity, souls and free will.

Key idea 1 of 9

Do spiritual awakenings reveal the truth of our existence – or are they the result of brain dysfunctions?

In 1982, a woman named Suzanne Segal was waiting for a bus in Paris. Without warning, she forgot everything about her life, including her conception of who she was.

To Segal, the body and brain that she’d had since birth no longer seemed to be hers. Instead, her thoughts of herself encompassed everything and everyone around her. “I” was nothing more than a vast open space, and Segal became certain that she didn’t really exist at all.

For the following ten years, Segal resisted this loss of self and sought help from several therapists. But as her attempts to reconnect with her old self failed, Segal began to wonder if she’d experienced an awakening. Was it possible that losing her identity was a form of transcendence?

Having found similarities between her experience and the Buddhist conception of anatta, a transcendental state of non-being, Segal began to work as a spiritual leader. Yet by 1996, Segal’s sense of anatta began to fall apart at the seams. At times, she even felt like her old self again, and her spiritual messages became confused.

Neuroscience research suggests that some spiritual experiences may, in fact, be the result of brain dysfunctions. Unfortunately, this seemed to be the case for Segal, who could no longer hold a pen or remember people’s names. In February 1997, she was diagnosed with a large brain tumor. She died a few months later, after a brief coma.

Doctors believed Segal’s shift in consciousness back in 1982 was caused by the pressure the tumor was exerting on her brain. However, Segal’s followers disagreed. They believed it was the tumor that caused her to lose her connection to the transcendent, universal consciousness.

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