The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self - Thomas Metzinger (2009)



We are Ego Machines, natural information-processing systems that arose in the process of biological evolution on this planet. The Ego is a tool—one that evolved for controlling and predicting your behavior and understanding the behavior of others. We each live our conscious life in our own Ego Tunnel, lacking direct contact with outside reality but possessing an inward, first-person perspective. We each have conscious self-models—integrated images of ourselves as a whole, which are firmly anchored in background emotions and physical sensations. Therefore, the world simulation constantly being created by our brains is built around a center. But we are unable to experience it as such, or our self-models as models. As I described at the outset of this book, the Ego Tunnel gives you the robust feeling of being in direct contact with the outside world by simultaneously generating an ongoing “out-of-brain experience” and a sense of immediate contact with your “self.” The central claim of this book is that the conscious experience of being a self emerges because a large portion of the self-model in your brain is, as philosophers would say, transparent.

We are Ego Machines, but we do not have selves. We cannot leave the Ego Tunnel, because there is nobody who could leave. The Ego and its Tunnel are representational phenomena: They are just one of many possible ways in which conscious beings can model reality. Ultimately, subjective experience is a biological data format, a highly specific mode of presenting information about the world, and the Ego is merely a complex physical event—an activation pattern in your central nervous system.

If, say, for ideological or psychological reasons, we do not want to face this fact and give up our traditional concept of what a “self ” is, we could formulate weaker versions. We could say that the self is a widely distributed process in the brainnamely, the process of creating an Ego Tunnel. We could say that the system as a whole (the Ego Machine), or the organism using this brain-constructed conscious self-model, can be called a “self.” A self, then, would simply be a self-organizing and self-sustaining physical system that can represent itself on the level of global availability. The self is not a thing but a process. As long as the life process—the ongoing process of self-stabilization and self-sustainment—is reflected in a conscious Ego Tunnel, we are indeed selves. Or rather, we are “selfing” organisms: At the very moment we wake up in the morning, the physical system—that is, ourselves—starts the process of “selfing.” A new chain of conscious events begins; once again, on a higher level of complexity, the life process comes to itself.

Nevertheless, as I have repeatedly emphasized, there is no little man inside the head. In addition, weaker versions don’t take the phenomenology really serious. True, upon your awakening from deep sleep, the conscious experience of selfhood emerges. As I described in the chapter on out-of-body experiences, this may have to do with the body image becoming available for self-directed attention. But there is no one doing the waking up, no one behind the scenes pushing the Reboot button, no transcendental technician of subjectivity. Today, the key phrase is “dynamical self-organization.” Strictly speaking, there is no essence within us that stays the same across time, nothing that could not in principle be divided into parts, no substantial self that could exist independently of the body. A “self ” in any stronger or metaphysically interesting sense of the word just does not seem to exist. We must face this fact: We are self-less Ego Machines.

It is hard to believe this. You cannot believe it. This may also be the core of the puzzle of consciousness: We sense that its solution is radically counterintuitive. The bigger picture cannot be properly reflected in the Ego Tunnel—it would dissolve the tunnel itself. Put differently, if we wanted to experience this theory as true, we could do so only by radically transforming our state of consciousness.

Maybe metaphors can help. Metaphorically, the central claim of this book is that as you were reading these last several paragraphs, you—the organism as a whole—were continuously mistaking yourself for the content of the self-model currently activated by your brain. But whereas the Ego is only an appearance, it may be false to say that it is an illusion; metaphors are always limited. All of this is happening on a very basic level in our brains (philosophers call this level of information-processing “subpersonal”; computer scientists call it “subsymbolic”). On this fundamental level, which forms the preconditions of knowing something, truth and falsity do not yet exist, nor is there an entity who could have the illusion of a self. In this ongoing process on the subpersonal level, there is no agent—no evil demon that could count as the creator of an illusion. And there is no entity that could count as the subject of the illusion, either. There is nobody in the system who could be mistaken or confused about anything—the homunculus does not exist. We have only the dynamical self-organization of a new coherent structure—namely, the transparent self-model in the brain—and this is what it means to be no one and an Ego Machine at the same time. In sum and on the level of phenomenology as well as on the level of neurobiology, the conscious self is neither a form of knowledge nor an illusion. It just is what it is.


It is clear that a new image of humankind is emerging in science as well as in philosophy. Increasingly, this emergence is being driven not only by molecular genetics and evolutionary theory but also by the cognitive neuroscience of consciousness and the modern philosophy of mind. At this critical juncture, it is important not to confuse the descriptive and the normative aspects of anthropology. We must carefully distinguish two different questions: What is a human being? And what should a human being become?

Obviously, the evolutionary process that created our bodies, our brains, and our conscious minds was not a goal-directed chain of events. We are gene-copying devices capable of evolving conscious self-models and creating large societies. We are also capable of creating fantastically complex cultural environments, which in turn shape and constantly add new layers to our self-models. We created philosophy, science, a history of ideas. But there was no intent behind this process—it was the result of blind, bottom-up self-organization. Yes, we have the conscious experience of will, and whenever we engage in philosophy, science, or other cultural activities, we experience ourselves as acting intentionally. But cognitive neuroscience is now telling us that this very engagement may well be the product of a self-less, bottom-up process generated by our brains.

Meanwhile, however, something new is happening: Conscious Ego Machines are engaging in a rigorous expansion of knowledge by forming scientific communities. Gradually, they are unraveling the secrets of the mind. The life process itself is being mirrored in the conscious self-models of millions of the systems it created. Moreover, insight into how this became possible is also expanding. This expansion is changing the content of our self-models—the internal ones as well as their externalized versions in science, philosophy, and culture. Science is invading the Ego Tunnel.

The emerging image of Homo sapiens is of a species whose members once longed to have immortal souls but are slowly recognizing they are self-less Ego Machines. The biological imperative to live—indeed, live forever—was burned into our brains, into our emotional self-model, over the course of millennia. But our brand-new cognitive self-models tell us that all attempts to realize this imperative will ultimately be futile. Mortality, for us, is not only an objective fact but a subjective chasm, an open wound in our phenomenal self-model. We have a deep, inbuilt existential conflict, and we seem to be the first creatures on this planet to experience it consciously. Many of us, in fact, spend our lives trying to avoid experiencing it. Maybe this feature of our self-model is what makes us inherently religious: We are this process of trying to become whole again, to somehow reconcile what we know with what we feel should not be so. In this sense, the Ego is the longing for immortality. The Ego results in part from the constant attempt to sustain its own coherence and that of the organism harboring it; thereby arises the constant temptation to sacrifice intellectual honesty in favor of emotional well-being.

The Ego evolved as an instrument in social cognition, and one of its greatest functional advantages was that it allowed us to read the minds of other animals or conspecifics—and then to deceive them. Or deceive ourselves. Since our inbuilt existential need for full emotional and physical security can never be fulfilled, we have a strong drive toward delusion and bizarre belief systems. Psychological evolution endowed us with the irresistible urge to satisfy our emotional need for stability and emotional meaningfulness by creating metaphysical worlds and invisible persons.1 Whereas spirituality might be defined as seeing what is—as letting go of the search for emotional security—religious faith can be seen as an attempt to cling to that search by redesigning the Ego Tunnel. Religious belief is an attempt to endow your life with deeper meaning and embed it in a positive metacontext—it is the deeply human attempt to finally feel at home. It is a strategy to outsmart the hedonic treadmill. On an individual level, it seems to be one of the most successful ways to achieve a stable state—as good as or better than any drug so far discovered. Now science seems to be taking all this away from us. The emerging emptiness may be one reason for the current rise of religious fundamentalism, even in secular societies.

Yes, the self-model made us intelligent, but it certainly is not an example of intelligent design. It is the seed of subjective suffering. If the process that created the biological Ego Machine had been initiated by a person, that person would have to be described as cruel, maybe even diabolic. We were never asked if we wanted to exist, and we will never be asked whether we want to die or whether we are ready to do so. In particular, we were never asked if we wanted to live with this combination of genes and this type of body. Finally, we were certainly never asked if we wanted to live with this kind of a brain including this specific type of conscious experience. It should be high time for rebellion. But everything we know points to a conclusion that is simple but hard to come to terms with: Evolution simply happened—foresightless, by chance, without goal. There is nobody to despise or rebel against—not even ourselves. And this is not some bizarre form of neurophilosophical nihilism but rather a point of intellectual honesty and great spiritual depth.

One of the most important philosophical tasks ahead will be to develop a new and comprehensive anthropology—one that synthesizes the knowledge we have gained about ourselves. Such a synthesis should satisfy several conditions. It should be conceptually coherent and free of logical contradictions. It should be motivated by an honest intent to face the facts. It should remain open to correction and able to accommodate new insights from cognitive neuroscience and related disciplines. It must lay a foundation, creating a rational basis for normative decisions—decisions about how we want to be in the future. I predict that philosophically motivated neuroanthropology will become one of the most important new fields of research in the course of this century.


The first phase of the Consciousness Revolution is about understanding conscious experience as such, about what I have been calling the Tunnel. It is well under way and yielding results. The second phase will go to the core of the problem by unraveling the mysteries of the first-person perspective and of what I have been calling the Ego. This phase has begun, as exemplified by the recent flurry of scientific papers and books on agency, free will, emotions, mind-reading, and self-consciousness in general.

The third phase will inevitably lead us back to the normative dimension of this historical transition—into anthropology, ethics, and political philosophy. It will confront us with a host of new questions about what we want to do with all this new knowledge about ourselves, and about how to deal with the new possibilities resulting from it. How are we to live with this brain? Which states of consciousness are beneficial, and which are harmful to us? How will we integrate this new awareness into our culture and our society? What are the likely consequences of a clash of anthropologies—of the increasing competition between the old and the new images of humanity?

Now we can understand why rational neuroanthropology is so important: We need an empirically plausible platform for the ethical debates to come. Recall that I previously stressed how important it is to separate these two questions clearly: What is a human being? And what should a human being become?

Consider a simple example. In our recent Western past, religion was a private affair: You believed in whatever you wanted to believe. In the future, however, people who believe in the existence of a soul or in life after death may no longer meet with twentieth-century Western tolerance but with condescension—much as do people who continue to claim that the sun revolves around the Earth. We may no longer be able to regard our own consciousness as a legitimate vehicle for our metaphysical hopes and desires. Political economist and sociologist Max Weber famously spoke of the “disenchantment of the world,” as rationalization and science led Europe and America into modern industrial society, pushing back religion and all “magical” theories about reality. Now we are witnessing the disenchantment of the self.

One of the many dangers in this process is that if we remove the magic from our image of ourselves, we may also remove it from our image of others. We could become disenchanted with one another. Our image of Homo sapiensunderlies our everyday practice and culture; it shapes the way we treat one another as well as how we subjectively experience ourselves. In Western societies, the Judeo-Christian image of humankind—whether you are a believer or not—has secured a minimal moral consensus in everyday life. It has been a major factor in social cohesion. Now that the neurosciences have irrevocably dissolved the Judeo-Christian image of a human being as containing an immortal spark of the divine, we are beginning to realize that they have not substituted anything that could hold society together and provide a common ground for shared moral intuitions and values. An anthropological and ethical vacuum may well follow on the heels of neuroscientific findings.

This is a dangerous situation. One potential scenario is that long before neuroscientists and philosophers have settled any of the perennial issues—for example, the nature of the self, the freedom of the will, the relationship between mind and brain, or what makes a person a person—a vulgar materialism might take hold. More and more people will start telling themselves: “I don’t understand what all these neuroexperts and consciousness philosophers are talking about, but the upshot seems pretty clear to me. The cat is out of the bag: We are gene-copying biorobots, living out here on a lonely planet in a cold and empty physical universe. We have brains but no immortal souls, and after seventy years or so the curtain drops. There will never be an afterlife, or any kind of reward or punishment for anyone, and ultimately everyone is alone. I get the message, and you had better believe I will adjust my behavior to it. It would probably be smart not to let anybody know I’ve seen through the game. The most efficient strategy will be to go on pretending I’m a conservative, old-fashioned believer in moral values.” And so on.

We are already experiencing a naturalistic turn in the human image, and it looks as if there is no way back. The third phase of the Consciousness Revolution will affect our image of ourselves much more dramatically than any scientific revolution in the past. We will gain much, but we will pay a price. Therefore, we must intelligently assess the psychosocial cost.

The current explosion of knowledge in the empirical mind sciences is completely uncontrolled, with a multilevel dynamic of its own, and its speed is increasing. It is also unfolding in an ethical vacuum, driven solely by individual career interests and uninfluenced by political considerations. In the developed countries, it is widening the gap between the academically educated and scientifically well-informed, who are open to the scientific worldview, and those who have never even heard of notions such as “the neural correlate of consciousness” or “phenomenal self-model.” There are many people who cling to metaphysical belief systems, fearing that their inner Lebenswelt, or life-world, will be colonized by the new mind sciences. On the global level, the gap between developed and developing countries is widening as well: More than 80 percent of the human beings on this planet, especially those in poorer countries with growing populations, are still firmly rooted in prescientific cultures. Many of them will not even want to hear about the neural correlates of consciousness or the phenomenal self-model. For them especially, the transition will come much too quickly, and it also will come from countries that systematically oppressed and exploited them in the past.

The growing divide threatens to increase traditional sources of conflict. Therefore, leading researchers in the early stages of the Consciousness Revolution have a responsibility to guide us through this third phase. Scientists and academic philosophers cannot simply confine themselves to making contributions to a comprehensive theory of consciousness and the self. If moral obligation exists, they must also confront the anthropological and normative void they have created. They must communicate their results in laymen’s language and explain the developments to those members of society whose taxes pay their salaries. (This was one of my reasons for writing this book.) They cannot simply put all their ambition and intelligence into their scientific careers while destroying everything humankind has believed in for the past twenty-five hundred years.

Let us assume that the naturalistic turn in the image of Homo sapiens is irrevocable and that a strong version of materialism develops, in which case we can no longer consider ourselves immortal beings of divine origin, intimately related to some personal God. At the same time—and this point is frequently overlooked—our view of the physical universe itself will have undergone a radical change. We will now have to assume that the universe has an intrinsic potential for subjectivity. We will suddenly understand that the physical universe evolved not only life and biological organisms with nervous systems but also consciousness, world models, and robust first-person perspectives, thereby opening the door to what might be called the social universe: to high-level symbolic communication, to the evolution of ideas.

We are special. We manifest a significant phase transition. We brought a strong form of subjectivity into the physical universe—a form of subjectivity mediated by concepts and theories. In the extremely limited part of reality known to us, we are the only sentient creatures for whom the sheer fact of our individual existence poses a theoretical problem. We invented philosophy and science and started an openended process of gaining self-reflective knowledge. That is to say, we are purely physical beings whose representational capacities have become so strong that they allowed us to form scientific communities and intellectual traditions. Because our subsymbolic, transparent self-model functions as an anchor for our opaque, cognitive Ego, we were able to become thinkers of thoughts. We were able to cooperate in constructing abstract entities that move through time and are constantly optimized. We call these entities “theories.”

Now we are entering an unprecedented stage: Centuries of philosophical searching for a theory of consciousness have culminated in a rigorous empirical project that is progressing incrementally and in a sustainable manner. This process is recursive, in that it will also change the contents and the functional structure of our self-models. This fact tells us something about the physical universe in which all these events are occurring: The universe has a potential not only for the self-organization of life and the evolution of strong subjectivity but also for an even higher level of complexity. I will not go so far as to say that in us the physical universe becomes conscious of itself. Nevertheless, the emergence of coherent conscious reality-models in biological nervous systems created a new form of self-similarity within the physical universe. The world evolved world-modelers. Parts began to mirror the whole. Billions of conscious brains are like billions of eyes, with which the universe can look at itself as being present.

More important, the world evolved self-modelers who were able to form groups; the process of increasing self-similarity via internal modeling jumped from nervous systems to scientific communities. Another new quality was created. These groups in turn created theoretical portraits of the universe and of consciousness, as well as a rigorous strategy of continually improving these portraits. Through science, the dynamic processes of self-modeling and of world-modeling were extended into the symbolic, the social, and the historical dimensions: We became rational theory-makers. We used the unity of consciousness to search for the unity of knowledge, and we also discovered the idea of moral integrity. The conscious self-model of Homo sapiens made this step possible.

Ultimately, any convincing and truly satisfying neuroanthropology must do justice to facts like these. It must tell us what exactly in the conscious self-model of human beings made this highly specific transition possible—a transition that not only was crucial to the biological history of consciousness on this planet but also changed the nature of the physical universe.


There is a second positive aspect of the new image of human beings that will allow us to see ourselves in a different light. It is the unfathomable depth of our phenomenal-state space. The mathematical theory of neural networks has revealed the enormous number of possible neuronal configurations in our brains and the vastness of different types of subjective experience. Most of us are completely unaware of the potential and depth of our experiential space. The amount of possible neurophenomenological configurations of an individual human brain, the variety of possible tunnels, is so large that you can explore only a tiny fraction of them in your lifetime. Nevertheless, your individuality, the uniqueness of your mental life, has much to do with which trajectory through phenomenal-state space you choose. Nobody will ever live this conscious life again. Your Ego Tunnel is a unicum, one of a kind. In particular, a naturalistic, neuroscientific image of humanity suddenly makes it obvious not only that we have a huge number of phenomenal states at our disposal but also that explicit awareness of this fact and the ability to make use of it systematically could now become common to all human beings.

Of course, there is an old shamanic tradition of exploring altered states of consciousness. More-or-less systematic experimental consciousness research has been conducted for millennia—by the yogi and the dervish, by the magician, the monk, and the mystic. At all times and in all cultures, human beings have explored the potential of their conscious minds—through rhythmic drumming and trance techniques, through fasting and sleep deprivation, through meditation and the cultivation of lucid dreaming, or through the use of psychoactive substances from herbal teas to sacred mushrooms. The new feature today is that we are slowly beginning to understand the neural underpinnings of all such alternate-reality tunnels. As soon as we have discovered the neural correlate of consciousness for specific forms of content, we will be able, at least in principle, to manipulate these contents in many new ways—to amplify or inhibit them, to change their quality, to generate new types of content. Brain prostheses and medical neural technology are already under way.

Neurotechnology will inevitably turn into consciousness technology. Phenomenal experience will gradually become technologically available, and we will be able to manipulate it in ever more systematic and effective ways. We will learn to make use of these discoveries to overcome the limitations of our biologically evolved Ego Tunnels. The fact that we can actively design the structure of our conscious minds has been neglected and will become increasingly obvious through the development of rational neuroanthropology. Being an autonomous agent and being able to take responsibility for your own life will take on a completely new meaning once neurotechnology starts to unfold into neurophenomenological technology, or what might be called phenotechnology.

We can definitely increase our autonomy by taking control of the conscious mind-brain, exploring it in some of its deeper dimensions. This particular aspect of the new image of humankind is good news. But it is also dangerous news. Either we find a way to deal with these new neurotechnological possibilities in an intelligent and responsible manner, or we will face a series of historically unprecedented risks. That is why we need a new branch of applied ethics—consciousness ethics. We must start thinking about what we want to do with all this new knowledge—and what a good state of consciousness is in the first place.