The Art of Diagrams #1 – What is the Self?

(By Thomas Quine – Cave paintings, CC BY-SA 2.0,

The Utility of Diagrams

I do love a good diagram. As a method of communication, art precedes writing. The earliest undisputed figurative art is dated at 35,000 years old.1 Whereas the oldest form of writing I could find in the literature is an early type of cuneiform from the Sumerian people in ancient Mesopotamia. It’s between 3500 and 3000 years old.2

So, for this week’s post, I thought I would go through the process of making a diagram for a difficult concept.

(What follows next is the concept in a written form. If you want to go straight to the artwork please click here)

My subject

I am very interested in what happens to us after we die and how the more spiritual side of life works. I think this comes from having had a heart rhythm problem when I was younger. I spent about 15 years going into hospital, under blue lights, to get my heart stopped and restarted. To do this the doctors give you a drug that temporarily stops your heart. Normally the heart restarts itself and you’re all fixed, but sometimes they have to shock you. As well as being a frightening concept, it is made much worse by the fact that when your heart is actually stopping your body sends out all sorts of warning signs which give you an overwhelming sense that you are dying. Even after many years of this issue I still found it hard to manage. You have to be very strong mentally at a time when your body is failing and you feel very unwell indeed. This gave me good reason to begin to think very carefully about death much earlier in my life than most people have to come to terms with it. Although I am now cured, thanks to the brilliant cardiac team at Barts Hospital, my interest still remains.

During my life I have practised two types of Christianity (Anglican and Baptist), Quakerism and two types of Buddhist teachings (Tibetan Buddhism for a short while and Soto Zen for about 12 years.) I have spent longer with the Quakers than any other group. In America this may be different, but in England Quakers kind of set you free to explore spirituality for yourself. I love that freedom.

At the moment I have no faith in anything supernatural and yet have found ways of looking at life and death that I find I am at peace with.

The concept of “I”

The concept that I want to illustrate this week is part of my understanding of life and death. I want to explore what I actually am.  Coming from a neuroscience research background I have thought a lot about the nature of life and consciousness.  However the more I thought and researched on this topic the more I realised how complex the situation really is.

This week I want to look at the concept of my “self” as a simple living organism and leave aside any discussion on consciousness for another week.

So, as a biological organism, what am I?  Where does the part of the universe I called “me” end and the part of the universe I call “not-me” begin?

  • For instance, is my hair me? It is attached to my body and yet I cannot control it, I cannot feel it if it is cut and the cells within it are keratinized and already dead. They have my DNA but are not living.
  • Is the oxygen in the air around me a part of me? One minute it is floating around my head and the next minute I have breathed it in and it’s part of my body’s metabolism.
  • Sometimes when I’m driving I feel like I am one with the car and the car is an extension of me. Anywhere I have agency feels like it is somehow part of myself.
  • Perhaps I am every cell in my body with my DNA? For a long time I used this as a working definition until I found out that it was wrong.

Counterintuitively, the evidence is that just over 50% of each person’s body is made up of cells which are not human. They are bacteria, viruses, fungi and archaea.3  So “I” am partly my own genetic phenotype (the outward bodily expression of my genes, i.e. my body and it’s processes) and partly a whole ecosystem of different living organisms. I must admit, when I encountered this bit of research it brought me up short and I wondered if “I” exist at all, since there is clearly no real line between me and the “other”.

I began to wonder…

“Am ‘I’ just a psychological artifact? Just a pattern of thinking which helps the organism and ecosystem that thinks it is me manage itself in life?”

Although it feels a little like walking off a cliff to consider this, the more I thought about it the more it made sense. I am like the country Wales for example. I spent a lot of holidays in Wales as a child. I remember being in the car as we went over the border and being mystified as the world didn’t change at all. It was continuous, just the world. We use the concept of a country to manage our society, to govern the land and the people living there. But countries don’t really exist – they are artificial labels which are used because they are practical and help us manage our lives in different places. I think the sense of “I” each of us feels is a similar artificial label. It doesn’t actually exist. It’s is simply a part of the mental map we each make of the world and a map is not the same thing as the land itself.

So what am “I” really?

My hypothesis is that I am simply a part of everything. There is no real division between what is me and what is not me. When I came across this in my own thinking it felt like a new idea, but of course, it’s not.  The idea seems to be present in Hindu texts from over a thousand years ago.  E.g. The Ashtavakra Gita reads…

I am the unbounded deep
In whom the waves of all the worlds
Naturally rise and fall…

I am treating this new understanding simply as a hypothesis at the moment and still seeing if it is indeed a good model for the way things really are, and if it fits or conflicts with what I know about the world from a rational, scientific perspective. I have a lot more concepts which have come out of this, including how I think consciousness starts in terms of a neural net, but this post is already quite long so I shall save all of that for another day.

Diagram to illustrate this hypothesis

I began with this sketch which I drew in my personal journal when I was first forming these ideas…

The diagram worked for me at the time to show what I was thinking about and still has value as a tool to help me understand the concept.  So I decided to make a proper digital version of it.

First I made a better sketch and scanned it into Manga Studio 5…

Then using, this as a guide I redrew the diagram digitally. You can set the reference layer to a lower opacity so it looks very pale. Then you can clearly see your new drawing over the top…

Here’s the new drawing…

After that I needed to colour this line art two different ways. I began with a more standard way of looking at things…

Then I went on to the second picture. I made a swirly pattern in Photoshop and used this to colour an altered version of the line art. Here’s the pattern I made…

And here is the finished second drawing…

So the final diagrams look like this…


Putting them together with some text and arrows you get…


1. M. Aubert et al. “Pleistocene cave art from Sulawesi, Indonesia” Nature volume 514, pages 223–227 9 October 2014.
2. G. Leick The A to Z of Mesopotamia Scarecrow Press 1 March 2010.
3. J.

14 thoughts on “The Art of Diagrams #1 – What is the Self?

  1. This was a great post! It was well articulated and the drawing is simple yet powerful. Amazing how you were able to use your heart challenge and use it to reach the fundamental.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Loving how all that heavy thought ended up as a simple diagram. For myself, I’m just glad I don’t have to personally manage every function of my body, such as making sure my stomach is digesting things the way it’s supposed to and my heart is pumping at the proper rhythm. If I had to take on management of all the things the autonomic nervous system does I wouldn’t be able to do anything else!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It is interesting how all of this fits together. When I first qualified to teach I was teaching Physics and Biology to A’Level and so had to keep up generally with major advances in both fields. The physics research always seemed to be pushing on the edges of what we can know, with so much already captured in equations and theories. But the biology research felt like it was still paddling around in the shallows most of the time, a very broad field but not as deep. I think this is because the number of variables in a biological system is so large. Until the information age began we had no way to work with that kind of data. Now, with the advent of genomics etc. we are finally beginning to dive a bit deeper.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Thank you – I appreciate your comment. I’ve just had a look at the Blake illustrations you mentioned. I really like the engravings – they are beautiful.


  5. I like the idea of symbiosis (though I’m no scientist) especially when it comes to the powerhouses that are mitochondria and the relationship between tree roots and the strands of mycelium underground. Your diagram definitely conjures these ideas up for me.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. What a wonderful piece of work. I can understand the concept of being part of the world therefore the world is part of me. But in your illustration you have included not only creation but the created ( the house). I have problems accepting that. Have you ever read or looked at illustrations by William Blake? I think you would be most interested. I have had the privilege of studying, just for a short time, one of the 7 remaining original sets of the illustrations of the Book of Job that Blake did. Remarkable. Good work Jo. You have given me something else to ponder.

    Liked by 2 people

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