Kind of Philosophy: Where do you go when you go down a rabbit hole?

Unraveling the mysteries of personal identity in the digital abyss

Image by: Herbert Wang
Snapping back to reality after falling down a rabbit hole.

Picture this all too familiar scenario. You’re engrossed in a mesmerizing 45-minute YouTube binge, and then suddenly, you snap back to reality. You find yourself safely back in the here and now, but a compelling question lingers: where did you go to begin with, and where did you come from when you came back to reality?

To answer this question, we first need to say what exactly “you” are. Your body remains stationary when you go down the rabbit hole, its immediate environment is probably the “reality” you snap back to—but physical embodiment isn’t enough to say what we mean by “you.” Both in this scenario and elsewhere, we need something more.

The rabbit hole isn’t, of course, an actual place. It’s a state of mind you enter when the algorithm is firing in all the right (or wrong) ways.

Philosophers of personal identity usually turn to consciousness to gauge what this “something more” might be. They identify different facets of consciousness and measure identity claims by how strongly you relate to said aspects. John Locke, for example, emphasized memory as a cornerstone of personal identity. In his view, you’re the same person as the five-year-old who stole an eraser from the elementary school book fair if, and only if, you remember stealing the eraser.

Locke’s approach fits within a broader tradition of what philosophers call psychological continuity views. Despite the stark differences between your present self and the five-year-old who stole the eraser, you can draw a line (though perhaps a blurry one) from your present self to that five-year-old. In other words, there is psychological continuity through memory in this case, between that five-year-old and your present self.

We can move beyond memory to establish psychological continuity.

Derek Parfit is one philosopher who does this. To put his view in simple terms, you don’t need a single psychological connection to be the same person as the five-year-old. Instead, psychological connections are maintained so long as there is some semblance of similarity between your past and current self.

One of my old philosophy professors from Laurier put this point nicely in a lecture some years ago: personal identity, for Parfit, is like a rope with many different strands. Memory might be included as one of these strands, but a person can also be continuous with themselves at time X and time Y if they share similar thoughts, character traits, beliefs, aspirations, et cetera. So long as the strands on the rope aren’t too frayed, you have psychological continuity, and your sense of self remains intact.

We exist through time because we share psychological facts with ourselves and ourselves only. Under psychological continuity views, you’re the same person reading this sentence as the one above because you relate very strongly to psychological facts about yourself at both times.

The ways one maintains psychological continuity is demonstrative of how the self snaps in and out of reality between ventures deep into internet rabbit holes. If the self is defined as a dynamic interplay of thoughts, character traits, beliefs, and aspirations, the self can be absent from the picture if an activity weakens the relations enough to fray or completely snap the strands of psychological continuity.

As the final boss of distraction, rabbit holes make this happen, not only from another activity which the rabbit hole probably interrupts, but also from those psychological facts which allow making claims about personal identity possible in ordinary cases.

Consider how the memory strand might fray in the rabbit hole. Though you might not remember what you were watching or why you were watching it when you emerge, when you’re deep in the rabbit hole you might forget certain convictions you otherwise hold near and dear in waking life—like the belief that wasting time is bad.

Whatever—or whoever—is steering behaviour in the rabbit hole clearly isn’t continuous with this belief, given the mind is in a pleasurable state that would ordinarily be opposed.. The self is apparently absent here. From the time you enter the rabbit hole to the time you emerge, you’re disconnected from those psychological facts defining your self. While we go down the rabbit hole, our identity doesn’t necessarily embark on an adventure.

So, where do you go when you go down internet rabbit holes? Apparently, nowhere.


Column, Derek Parfit, John Locke, Kind of Philosophy, rabbit holes

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