When my mother began a vendetta against next door’s dustbins and conceived a hatred of seagulls, we thought it was just Mum at her worst and even found it quite funny, but when she began getting lost and demanding to move to a cottage in the middle of a field, we realised she had no idea she needed looking after. A few awful years later and she was hurling abuse, and furniture, at my poor dear father, who had no idea what day it was, let alone why she was attacking him. Stories from Paul Broks and Oliver Sacks came to mind, and the psychology of illusions and the mystery of consciousness. Above all, knowing about the brain came to my rescue. With every step of their awful journey I was reminded that we are all no more and no less than brains functioning in bodies in a world full of other such creatures. No one is a spirit or soul. The self is not some entity; some inner spark of selfhood that gets born and lives a life until death. A self is just one of the brain’s many constructions – ephemeral and fleeting, here for a while, then gone, ever springing up again in a slightly new guise. And in the case of dementia ever less coherently.
I learned about myself as I learned to let them go.
Sue Blackmore is a psychologist and writer researching consciousness, memes, and anomalous experiences, and a Visiting Professor at the University of Plymouth. She blogs for the Guardian and Psychology Today, and often appears on radio and television. The Meme Machine (1999) has been translated into 15 other languages; more recent books include Conversations on Consciousness (2005), Zen and the Art of Consciousness (2011), and a textbook Consciousness: An Introduction (2 ed 2010).