I was reading a paper discussing the persistence of self in advanced Alzheimer's Disease Persistence of Self in advanced AD and was struck by the similarity of one contradictory account to an Idres Shah story of Mulla Nasrudin:
Nasrudin was going into a large inn to sleep for the night. There were many beds all in one room. The thought occurred to Nasrudin that in the dark he would not know who he was, so he tied a balloon to his ankle. While Nasrudin was sleeping, the man in the next bed decided to play a joke. He untied Nasrudin's balloon and tied it on his own ankle. When Nasrudin woke up, he looked at the man next to him. Then he reached out to shake hands and said, "Ah, I know who you are. You are Mullah Nasrudin, but please, tell me who I am."
Most of the subjects in the cited study maintained an awareness of themselves as autonomous persons with a distinct identity despite deterioration in cognitive abilities, but one rare contradiction was a subject, "Molly," who evidenced the following behavior:
Molly was found searching through other people's belongings. When asked what she was looking for she replied: "I look for Molly and I can't find her." After describing some of her [cognitive] limitations, she added "That's not me, not the real Molly. So I go around looking for Molly but she's nowhere to be found."
Some claim that it would be difficult to detect a so-called philosophical zombie of the type described by Chalmers (1996), but it appears that human beings who are losing their sense of personal identity are not able to function properly, i.e., that a zombie without true conscious experience would probably be impossible. That got me to wondering whether neuroscience has any new insight to offer on the question of how this seemingly important aspect of consciousness arises, i.e., it seems somewhat distinct from executive function (prefrontal cortex, generalizing) and memory generally (largely hippocampus mediated).
It would seem important to literally flesh out the possible functional character of personal identity both for the implications for the quest for machine consciousness as well as the humane treatment of Alzheimer's patients (who are judged to be losing their humanity merely on the basis of reduced cognitive functions in the areas of information processing, attention, memory, executive function and reasoning, etc.). As John Locke observed, humorously in my opinion, if the soul was to be defined as a substance that was always thinking (he referring to Descartes proposition) many men would suspect they had no souls all at, since they passed away a good part of their lives without thinking (Essay Concerning Human Understanding). It appears thinking and personal identity are distinct and it would be useful to understand at least as a conceptual proposal what this implies.