Thomas Metzinger’s book The Ego Tunnel provides an interesting way of understanding our own personal, subjective experience. Metzinger is a German philosopher who has studied consciousness and has written in both German and English about how he understands the way we, as individual people, experience ourselves in the world. One of the evocative concepts in this particular book is that we go through our lives in a kind of tunnel, with our own experience being just a limited part of what it is possible to experience at any moment. We tunnel through reality, noticing some parts of our experience and not noticing others.
Metzinger’s ideas are a great deal more complex than that, but for this post, that is enough. Because if we are in a tunnel of experience, choosing, manipulating, noticing, and ignoring selectively in the process of moving through our lives, each other person is in his or her own tunnel also. Experiences mean different things, he or she notices different things and fails to notice different things than we do. So much of trying to be together with other people involves negotiating our very isolated, subjective experiences of reality. In other words, we try to imagine, as much as possible, what it would be like to be in his or her tunnel. Of course that imagined reality then becomes part of our own tunnel, and is not some kind of “true” reflection of his or her reality.
We could, on the one hand, become pessimistic about truly connecting with other people in this view. Or we could see our connection as a deliberate effort to bring our tunnels toward each other. Metzinger’s image of our individual tunnels moving through the world is helpful in reminding us how very specific our own experience is. And it helps us see the poignant, courageous, effortful nature of human connection. Our innate motivation to be together with other people fuels our efforts to empathically understand what another person’s tunnel feels like. When we can remember how very specific our experience is, we can recognize the unique views of another person as his or her reality.