Backstory: Out of the Loop

By Adam Greenfield, Associate Artistic Director
March 4, 2019

Escher, M.C. Drawing Hands. 1948.

At the start of A Strange Loop, our protagonist “Usher” embarks on a journey inward, deep into his psyche to examine his cyclical, self-defeating behavior. He’s supported by a shape-shifting chorus who are literally the “Thoughts” in his head, spinning around him as he faces the day’s humiliations. Usher is a struggling musical theater writer who works, appropriately, as an usher for The Lion King on Broadway while writing a new musical about a struggling musical theater writer who works as an usher for The Lion King, and etc.; his life is a loop. But a few pages in, he sings to us: “Today I plan to change this show for the better / I want to break the cycle / That’s so ingrained in me / Today I plan to change my self.”

A study published in January 2018 reports that the self-improvement market was worth $9.9 billion in the year 2016 in the United States alone, and it forecasted that by 2022 this industry should be worth $13.2 billion annually. We are, to say the least, a culture obsessed with our selves. But we employ that word “self” without much thought about what constitutes one, and certainly without recognizing the magnificent fact that we have one at all. Along with certain apes — also, possibly, dolphins, elephants and magpies — our species has evolved to possess the extraordinary cognitive ability to perceive not just the world, but to perceive ourselves perceiving, and to shape an idea of what we are in relation to what’s happening around us. But what, or who, is doing the perceiving? Our knee-jerk response is “I am. It’s the self.” But what is “I”?

This question opens up an unsettling paradox because, when we try to answer this question, we’re relying on our own brains and perceptions to do it. Though we know intuitively that there is such a thing as “I,” we can’t empirically prove it without referring back to ourselves. We rely on our self to confirm its own realness: a recursive logic, a loop.

This question of “I” has occupied philosophers since the word “philosophy” was coined, not to mention psychologists, artists, gurus, computer programmers, and stoners. It becomes further confounding when you consider that each of these thinkers is basing her definition of self on the unique workings of her own brain; so all conclusions are as individual, incompatible and varied as the brains that produced them.

As neurologist/author Todd E. Feinberg writes in From Axons to Identity, “There are as many conceptions of the self as there are writers on the subject.”

“We rely on our self to confirm its own realness: a recursive logic, a loop.”

Socrates beseeches us to “know thyself,” believing the true self is our immortal soul, separate from the body, and that upon death it leaves the physical realm to live in an “ideal” one. Buddhism, on the other hand, dismisses the notion of a fixed self, offering instead that the self is not an integral, autonomous identity, but rather a by-product of the skandhas, transitory elements that temporarily form an individual’s sense of identity.

John Locke (1632–1704) defined identity as a matter of psychological continuity founded on consciousness (memory); whereas David Hume (1711–1776) argued that we’re unable to observe ourselves in any unified manner, that even though some logic between our transient feelings, impressions and so forth might be traced through time by memory, there’s no real evidence of a core that connects these holistically. The self, he argued, is just a bundle of perceptions.

Then in 2007, Douglas Hofstadter published the book I Am a Strange Loop, a multi-faceted examination of the concept of “I,” which develops an idea he first posited in the 1979 Pulitzer- winning Gòˆdel, Escher, Bach, and which (you may have sussed) had a certain influence on Michael R. Jackson’s musical. Hofstadter’s concept is based on a rift he identifies between two broad definitions we use for the self. On one hand, there’s the cognitive “I,” the assemblage of impressions we collect as we travel through the world, our “life story,” a bundle of tastes, hopes, fears. On the other hand, though, “I” is also the body, a physical being made up of individual cells moving around doing their jobs without the slightest regard for the first “I,” the supposed whole of which it is a tiny part. The impressions taken in by the cognitive “I” are being processed and recorded by the physical “I” to construct a narrative of our experiences.

For example, as we move through the world, we collect arbitrary impressions — say, “pickle chips,” “stinky perfume,” “beef patty,” “scratchy sofa,” “soft jazz,” “sesame seed bun.” And our brains organize and bundle these impressions together into concepts— say, “hamburger” or “grandma’s house.” We’re continuously building and altering these concepts, all of which are themselves being bundled together to assemble the largest concept of them all, the “self.”

So, if this is indeed the process by which our identity is constructed, then why does it feel to us like it’s something we’re in control of? Why, if our sense of self is an assemblage of impressions collected from outside, recorded as signals inside and linked together, does it feel to us like it’s something that we’re doing? Hofstadter posits that it’s not conceivable a human brain could understand the microscopic, infinite process of receiving an experience; it would be like trying to understand the ocean by looking at the behavior of every particle of water. So the brain, being a pal, simplifies this for us, turning the process into something that we can comprehend, something that “I” did. “I ate a hamburger,” or “Grandma’s house is smelly and no fun.”

“Can you actually change your patterning if the only change conceivable to you is the product of the brain that brought you to this point in the first place?”

This is where Hofstadter’s “strange loop” concept of the self comes in. A loop is essentially a line that ends where it begins: an inherently confounding logic. It’s a logic that’s acutely illustrated in the art of M.C. Escher, especially Drawing Hands (1948), which shows two hands evolving from an abstract two-dimensional rendering into a realistic three-dimensional one, each drawing the other into existence; (and which has been tacked to 89% of college dorm room walls on account of it being trippy). Hofstadter argues that this process, our brains’ way of turning impressions into a life narrative, operates on the same principle of a loop: “Millions of tiny signals impinge on us from outside,” he writes, “whether visually, sonically, tactilely, or whatever.” And when they land, they trigger chemical movements inside our brain. So when we observe that we’ve moved forward in the process, from signals to bundles to concepts to “I,” that observation is itself just the product of those chemical movements, and we’re back to the start of the loop. It’s like Escher’s drawing. As you move forward in the loop, away from abstraction toward a sense of “I,” you inevitably realize that this sense of self is created by the very abstraction you began with.

In terms of understanding our lives, and specifically Usher’s quest to change his, Hofstadter’s view becomes disconcerting. It suggests that we can only operate within our own loop, according to a perception of reality that our brain’s stored information is able to support. If you’ve never experienced “kindness,” for example, your brain might not recognize that behavior when confronted with it. In Michael R. Jackson’s musical, Usher’s on a journey to change himself; but what does change mean when you’re living in a loop? Can you actually change your patterning if the only change conceivable to you is the product of the brain that brought you to this point in the first place?

As Liz Phair eloquently concluded in the final line of her iconic 1993 album Exile in Guyville, (in a track titled, not coincidentally, “Strange Loop”): “I only wanted more than I knew.”

So are we trapped? Are we stuck in a loop, repeating patterns because that’s what we’re wired to do? Or are our human powers of cognition evolved enough to allow us to understand our loop and level up? Can we move closer to understanding why we experience what we experience, as our intake of impressions expands over time? Can we interrupt the loop and, as Usher tries to do, understand our selves and change our lives? Or is that idea, when we have it, just another product of the loop that brought us that thought to begin with?

It’s all too big for us to know. And, like any theater worth our time, a “Strange Loop” — both the concept and Michael’s musical — raises more questions than answers, only helping understand ourselves a little bit less. But as Hofstadter offers, prettily, from within his own loop: “Poised midway between the unvisualizable cosmic vastness of curved spacetime and the dubious shadowy flickerings of charged quanta, we human beings, more like rainbows and mirages than like raindrops or boulders, are unpredictable self-writing poems — vague, metaphorical, ambiguous, and sometimes exceedingly beautiful.”