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Self in Time and Language

Cosentino argues with Dennet’s claim that language creates the self as a ‘narrative center of gravity’. Rather, she says, it is the ability to mentally project oneself into irrealis states that is central, and that episodic memory does not primarily function as a record of one’s life; rather, it’s an archive for generating recombinatorial predictions.

While the author notes that many other species have some cognitive ability to project (aka ‘mental time travel’, MTT), such as corvidae, other primates, etc, I think more could be made of the point that this is (perhaps?) not enough for a self. I tend to think that symbolic labels serve as a focus for attention (cf Gentner) for the repeated element – aka the ‘self’ – in these projected/MTT episodes. The ability to create a symbol for this repeated element directs the attention and guides the ability to use these states.

I’ll analogize to Nicaraguan sign language, where signers of a pidgin sign gained significant skill at theory-of-mind tasks after the introduction of signs for conditionals. While theory of mind is doubtless within the range of human (and non-human) cognitive abilities, having a symbol to guide attention to them made the skill much more readily at hand.

Time has been considered a crucial factor in distinguishing between two levels of self-awareness: the ‘‘core,’’ or ‘‘minimal self,’’ and the ‘‘extended,’’ or ‘‘narrative self.’’ Herein, I focus on this last concept of the self and, in particular, on the relationship between the narrative self and language. In opposition to the claim that the narrative self is a linguistic construction,
my idea is that it is created by the functioning of mental time travel, that is, the faculty of human beings to project themselves mentally backwards in time to relive, or forward to anticipate, events. Moreover, I propose that narrative language itself should be considered a product of a core brain network that includes mechanisms, such as mental time travel, mindreading, and visuo-spatial systems.

Cosentino, Erica. 2011 – Consciousness & Cognition

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