Most of us have experienced low-level versions of this when we wake up, perhaps in a strange bed, possibly hung-over, and briefly struggle to come up with a coherent story that fits all the known facts. It helps explains phenomena like false memories, déjà vu, or confabulation, where we effectively lie to ourselves about our own lives.
But the trickier issue isn’t why we can occasionally lose our bearings. It’s how we are consistently able to keep them. What enables the vast majority of us to develop an identity and to maintain it even though we have this nasty habit of plunging into unconsciousness every night? How can each of us be sure the “me” that wakes up is the same as the “me” that went to sleep? Is there any way to reliably tell whether what we see and feel and remember is real rather than illusion or delusion?
There’s much fun to be had – as well as a lot of heavy duty philosophy, metaphysics and epistemology to wade through – wrestling with such easy-to-ask, fiendish-to-answer questions. And even if we get past them, or at least put them to one side, that still leaves us with what’s going on within ourselves to enable all these experiences and perceptions (and deceptions) to be integrated into something, someone, with a sense of themselves.
We are still a long way from developing a widely agreed neuroscience of consciousness, with many researchers shying away from an area so overshadowed by philosophy and riddled with subjectivity. There are all sorts of theories from it arising from high-frequency resonances between different regions of the brain, to it being a form of quantum computing taking place on an atomic scale in microtubules in neurons across the brain and possibly beyond.
Some of the current thinking on this would blow your mind – if only, as we’ve established, it weren’t so tricky nailing down what we mean by “mind”. And by “your”. What we can under the circumstances be reasonably sure is true is that for all our scientific understanding of ourselves and our brains, we remain very hazy on how our selves and our brains fit together.
It’s not something we tend to think about... except perhaps fleetingly on those mornings we wake up disoriented in a strange bed having had one drink too many. Or when a movie deliberately messes with our head.