How do you know you’re not somebody else?

How do we develop an embodied sense of self?

How do you know that your body is yours and not somebody elses; that you control your actions and destiny? Why do people sometimes feel “out of it” “disconnected” “disembodied” “disempowered”?


n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.

Sonder is a completely made up word. But that’s ok, people make up words sometimes. Shakespeare made up thousands of words in his plays that carried forward into our language today. The amazing thing about Shakespeare’s inventions is that somehow people were able to understand and relate to these words they had never encountered before simply through their contextual use, and then they copied them.

Sonder describes a phenomenon that is extraordinarily bizarre – the idea that any of us are consciously aware at all, that we know nothing but our experience of being, and cannot imagine anything before or after, that we cannot imagine the world, or universe, without us.

But what is “us“?

Somehow we identify us across a broad range of spectrums. We are “us” while we are awake and moving about through the world, embodied and active. Yet we are still “us” while we are asleep and dreaming, disembodied. This “dream us” is very different from the waking us. While dreaming, we are unlimited. Anything is possible in a dream.

And when we take drugs our “us” changes also.

Some drugs shift the waking us into the dreamlike us, and open up a “reality” where anything is possible: meeting Jesus, sheets transforming into snakes, merging into oneness with an element of the natural world or other people, all of these are experiences that have been reported to me by people I know.

Other drugs limit our sense of self identity. Anesthesia removes the sense of self from the dream times. But other drugs blunt the self of self even while waking. The prescription drug mentioned in the suicide note of a family friend who couldn’t bear to continue moving through life with a blunted sense of self identity, distanced from a sense of agency in life, from an embodied experience of the rewards of his actions, as a brutal but real example of such.

Our sense of self really matters!

When is a Strong Sense of Self a Bad Thing?

Being embodied, self aware, responsible, able to experience the pleasures and pains of the world that teach us and allow us to grow is a good thing. But being caught up and consciously aware of self as a body or ego can be limiting in some situations. We need to be able to modulate our sense of self to succeed and enjoy life.

At One With the Wave

When Patrick McNamara or Laird Hamilton are surfing a giant wave in the middle of a storm, they can’t be focused on how they’re feeling, or anything at all about their own body really. Their conscious focus needs to be on the external environment, while their subconscious simply acts from the skill sets that have been consciously acquired in the past.

They need to become one with the wave. To do anything less means near certainty of death or serious injury.

At One With Others

There are moments where being selfish means everyone loses. When I am with my lover I am not focused on myself, on my pleasure. It is an experience where “us” and “our” pleasure supersedes that of our own as individuals, and the ultimate outcome is a win win for both of us.

Beyond the relationships of lovers, we have experiences of merging with community, where its about what we do working together as a unit or team. There is no “I” in team as the saying goes. Self is transcended into the collective for a brief period of time to accomplish a mutual objective.

When Survival is at stake


We need to eat. And for most of human history we ate by hunting animals. We succeeded in that hunt by becoming so intimately familiar with the animals we preyed upon that we could predict their future actions better than even they could. We did that by learning to transcend the boundary of self and empathically merging with the animal.

This ability led to empathically merge with an animal we hunted may have been what lead to the earliest human religion, animism – the belief that all living things are imbued with soul and have experiences of their own. A sonder for the whole world of sorts.

Being Hunted

And sometimes human beings have to fight. Be it in defense of self in an animal attack, or an attack by other humans, we need to aggressively resist forces by another conscious individual. Without the ability to determine another individuals motives in advance through mood and facial gestures, we can be blindsided by attack. Focused purely on the self, without the ability to empathically gauge the “others” inhabiting our environment, or to predict their movements in a physical struggle, we would have no hope of escape or defense.

How Does Sense of Self Originate?

The source of sense of self might seem elusive, especially given that it can be modulated. But the reality is that we know a good amount about how sense of self develops and is modulated. It develops through an interplay between sensory information coming from the body and its environment, which is then integrated in the brain.

I should point out that what I am describing here isn’t where “soul” resides, or anything at all like that. That’s a bigger question. This is simply the answer to “How do I know I am in control of, and identified with, my body?”

What Role Does the Spine Play?


The spine plays a central role in the creation of both sense of self and self agency.  The areas at the top and bottom of the spine are the most concentrated source of position sensors in the entire body. Followed by the tiny intrinsic spinal muscles that surround each and every vertebra in the body, muscles so small they can only perform limited work and serve primarily as functional sensors rather than prime movers. There might be 5 sensors in a gram of muscle tissue in your arm, and 150 or more in a gram of muscle tissue at the top of your neck. That’s how significant the concentration difference is.

This position sense then goes to the portions of the brain that generate sense of self. One of which is the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Here, and in a few other areas, the information is integrated and generates that sense of self and self agency.

A Brain Infection

But what happens when it goes wrong?

There is one fellow who lost his ability to interpret those signals from an infection he developed after a butcher shop accident. Most people who this happens to never walk again. But somehow Ian Waterman developed the ability to walk using visual cues instead of knowing where his limbs were in space on autopilot.

What Ian has a lot of trouble doing is telling when he is responsible for certain actions. In a study, they were able to confuse him by moving a cursor on a screen when he could not see his hands. When asked if he was responsible for the movement of the cursor, he couldn’t tell!

Without the position sensation moving from his body and through his spine, Ian couldn’t say for sure if he was responsible for an action. That is both scary and fascinating all at the same time.

The Mystics

Where it gets really fun is back in the 12th century with a rabbi named Abraham Abulafia.

Really, it does get fun with a  12th century rabbi.

Abraham figured out that a certain meditation involving prayer, chanting, and rhythmic movement with unusual repetitions of specific head movements allowed him to generate his doppelgänger and ask it questions. People who do this meditation can literally have a conversation with themselves as though they are standing in front of themselves and facing themselves.

The fancy term for this is heautoscopic hallucination. And we know now through functional MRI work that this phenomenon happens when a person overwhelms their brain with sensory input from the spine in a particular set and setting, and it makes a predictable and useful perceptual error.

The richest area of sensory receptors in the body is in the upper cervical spine.  The head movements of the meditation are crating a massive input of information from this area into the brain. It’s too much for the brain to process at once, and because position sense is critical for generating a sense of self, that sense malfunctions, and we hallucinate our double outside of the body!

What do I do with this?

All well and good you might be thinking. But what does this matter to you?

It matters because the function of your spine, the ability to move through  full complete range of motion, and have the spine actually register that you have moved through a full and complete range of motion, requires all the vertebrae in the spine to be functioning optimally.

When we have areas of tension in the back and neck, the vertebra are not all functioning optimally. Some of them are likely locked down in a position of defense. Your subconscious brain cannot tell the difference between a physical and emotional stressor. It will cause your body to respond by hunkering down and stiffening up. That means dysfunctional vertebra. That means at least a partially a diminished sense of self.

When we have a partially diminished sense of self, life doesn’t feel the same. We may not enjoy it as fully as we should. Or we may not feel like our actions will have any impact. Our interactions with others won’t be as fully present, because we aren’t really fully present either.

And this is stressful. One study showed how tricking the brain into thinking the body was moving in a  way that it wasn’t actually caused symptoms that mimicked fibromyalgia!

Get Your Spine Checked!

Having a fully functioning spine that provides the most accurate self portrait is critical for us to live life to the fullest. And this is just one reason why I get my spine checked as often as possible. Because the quality of my life, my presence within my life, depends upon it. You wouldn’t expect your teeth to be healthy without maintenance and dental visits, your wouldn’t expect your muscles or heart to be healthy without exercise. You wouldn’t eat a diet of fast food and expect to feel energized.

Why would you expect to have a fully embodied and dynamic sense of self without having your spine well cared for?

Read Operating System Nature: The Birth of The Traditon by Dr. Peter J. Fox on Amazon

Allef Vinicius


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