Book Review: THE SELF ILLUSION

The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity, Bruce Hood, OUP, 2012, pp: 349. ISBN 978-019-989759-9

Prof. Bruce Hood is the Chair in Developmental Psychology at the University of Bristol, UK. He started off his graduate work in Psychology  a couple of decades ago studying the gaze of new born infants, tracking their eye movements and what excites them to take in the world they look at. From then on grew his curiosity to know how a ‘self’ gets ensconced in the innocent minds of the babies and grows to the Himalayan proportions in the grownup egos — some turning out to be Osama Bins or Hitlers and others, well, a you and a me. Bruce presents lucidly a captivating and absorbing narrative of not only his research findings but also that of a plethora of Psychologists and Neuroscientists from different parts of the world.  He does not, however, preach sitting on a high pedestal condescendingly giving the reader exercises for self-improvement as we usually find in the books authored by Psychologists. (In fact that was my peeve about the excellently written work of Gary Marcus, “Kluge: The Haphazard Evolution of the Human Mind”, 2009).

Fig 2. Kanisza Square

But how could he? As so well argued by him, rather to the consternation of many Westerners unaccustomed to this kind of thinking, there is no entity, a ‘self’, present in you waiting to be improved. “Most of us believe that we have an independent, coherent self – an individual inside our head who thinks, watches, wonders, dreams, and makes plans for the future. This sense of our self may seem incredibly real, but a wealth of recent scientific evidence reveals that it is not what it seems — it is all an illusion.”  He illustrates the point using the Kanisza square (see Fig 2). Yes, you see a square alright. But remove the four Pac-Men in the corners. Where is the square?

Bruce explains what an illusion is in a conversation with Neuroscientist Sam Harris: “An illusion is a subjective experience that is not what it seems. Illusions are experiences in the mind, but they are not out there in nature. Rather, they are events generated by the brain.”

As Advaitins, we are familiar with the word ‘mithya’ – something feels like it is there because we experience it, but it is not really there in the way we take it to be. Similarly,  the ‘self’ we think we are feels as if it is there; but it has as much reality as the square in the Fig 2.  Its existence is merely an imagination.

Bruce points out with innumerable examples how the self is a ‘bundle of sensations, perceptions, and thoughts piled on top of each other’ as conceived by David Hume, the 18th century Scottish Philosopher. He does recall that the Buddha of the sixth century BC had also arrived at much the same conclusions, obviously unaware of the millennia old Upanishadic teachings about the illusory nature of the world (including an individualized ‘self’ in each of us) much before Gautam Buddha .

Fig 3. The Brain of Bruce Hood or rather the feelings, experiences, knowledge, skills etc. we call Bruce under the hood!

Talking on the role of brain, Bruce observes that “Thoughts and actions are not exclusively the brain because we are always thinking about and acting upon things in the world with our bodies, but the brain is primarily responsible for coordinating these activities.” He goes on to say a little later that “our brain constructs models of the external world. It can weave experiences into a coherent story that enables us to interpret and predict what we should do next. Our brain simulates the world in order to survive in it.”

According to Bruce who we are is much more than our own thoughts and imaginations. We are “more susceptible to outside influences than we imagine.” He shows the vulnerability of our ‘self’ by asserting that its contours are decided as a reaction to the outside world and that we do not hesitate to ‘switch from one character to another’ in response to the external demands. “We exist as a reflection of those around us” much like what the American Sociologist C.H. Cooley said a century ago – a  ‘looking-glass self’: “ I am not what I think I am and I am not what you think I am; I am what I think that you think I am.”

And we, Advaitins, hold a different viewpoint. While Advaita agrees that there is no separate ‘self’ in each of us, it goes a step further to declare that the entire world is your projection. The True Self is One single entity but It manifests as the multiple objective world when one perceives It. The separate individual ‘selves’ are nothing but the virtual reflections of the one True Self.  Science, by its own investigative methods, has discovered thus far the first part of the Advaita teaching.

After this brief Prologue on ‘The Reflected Self’, Bruce follows up with an elaboration of his thesis in nine Chapters dealing with the ‘Wondrous Organ’, brain, its malleability and plasticity; how the baby brain grows up acquiring various characters; how we are is a reflection of the environment we are in; how the illusory self weaves and creates a make-believe scenario of choice for us as if we are endowed with Free Will.  The illusion of free will paradoxically goes to reinforce our belief in the illusory ‘self.’ See here for example, as he writes,

“I believe the sentence that I have just typed was my choice. I thought about what I wanted to say and how to say it. Not only did I have the experience of my intention to begin this line of discussion at this point but I had the experience of agency, of actually writing it. I knew I was the one doing it. I felt the authorship of my actions.

“It seems absurd to question my free will here but, as much as I hate to admit it, these experiences are not what they seem. This is because any choices that a person makes must be the culmination of the interaction of a multitude of hidden factors ranging from genetic inheritance, life experiences, current circumstances, and planned goals. Some of these influences must also come from external sources, but they all play out as patterns of neuronal activity in the brain. This is the matrix of distributed networks of nerve cells firing across my neuronal architecture.”

We cling to a belief in a non-existent ‘Free Will’, though ‘our choices are not our own.’

After all, we are an unsuspecting victim of the way the brain has learnt to function for its own survival during the millions of years of biological evolution. It has acquired quite a few energy saving shortcuts in quickly assessing the opportunities and threats in the environment.  It looks for patterns and established thumb rules.  ‘post hoc, ergo propter hoc’ is a key principle that has given raise to the cause-effect relationship we find hard to give up. We are also so much conformity-minded that the tribe we live in governs our actions and decision-making. We tend to lose our separate self and subjugate it to the mob mentality. “The mind that generates our sense of self is a product of a brain that has evolved to become social. But in being social, the self is radically altered by the presence of the others and our need to fit in with them.”  The influence of the society on each of us exceeds far more than we realize.  He tells that “The point at which we feel that we are making a decision is often well after the fact, and yet it seems as if we were responsible in advance of making our choice. How we make decisions can also rely more on those around us than we realize, and we might not necessarily be the ones in charge.”

Nevertheless we like to feel that we are in control.  We develop ‘rituals and routines because these behaviors give the illusion of control when in fact there is none. Giving people choices, or at least the perception of control empowers them to tolerate more adversity.’

Surprisingly, whether we lose the self in the group or find the whole group as our self, the net effect is the same. Bruce explains why we behave embarrassingly in odd ways:  “By rejecting the notion of a core self and considering how we are a multitude of competing urges and impulses, I think it is easier to understand why we suddenly go off the rails. It explains why we act, often unconsciously, in a way that is inconsistent with our self image – or the image of our self as we believe others see us.”

By now we have completed seven chapters out of the nine, each about 35 odd pages. At this point, Bruce begins to talk almost like an aged parent bemoaning the modern day networking technologies and their influence on the behavior of the younger generation. Perhaps at the back of his mind are his two teenage daughters about whom he is concerned as a responsible and loving father. He rather got carried away by his own theory about how the society can influence the ‘self’ and behaviors. Otherwise I did not see much reason to devote nearly 40 pages on the effects of internet and the worldwide web, its influence on impressionable young minds and what the future is going to be. He liberally sprinkles this chapter with juicy stories of strange behaviors of the wealthy and the mighty. Though an undercurrent of his basic argument can be seen behind them, one could have compressed the whole stuff into a handful of pages. Of course, as the author, he has the privilege of what he would like to present. But  I, for one, would have preferred to see that these pages are devoted to a discussion of the “Perception-Reality Disconnect” which is being increasingly established by cognitive scientists working in association with magicians and illusionists. Alas, a conspicuous miss in this inarguably comprehensive book on modern Cognitive Neuroscience.

In the last short chapter, the author delves with “Why you can’t see yourself in reflection.”  He explains that our brain generates the self illusion for a useful purpose. “If you think about the “I” and “me” that we usually refer to as the self, it provides a focal point to hang experiences together both in the immediate here and now, as well as to join those events over a lifetime. Experiences are fragmented episodes unless they are woven together in a meaningful narrative. This is why the self pulls it all together…. We are not evolved to think about others as a bundle of processes.  Rather, we have evolved to treat others as individual selves. It is faster, more economical, and more efficient to treat others as a self rather than as an extended collection of past histories, hidden agendas, unresolved conflicts, and ulterior motives. Treating humans as selves optimizes our interactions. We fall in love and hate individuals, not collections.” These lines very well express the genesis of the illusory self on one hand and the world out there on the other.

And finally Bruce wraps up excellently with another pictorial presentation of who “YOU” are (Fig. 4 ). Remove all the other factors around (work, family, hobbies, politics etc. that define “you”) and you cease to exist. He, however, cautions, “This does not mean that you do not exist at all, but rather that you exist as a combination of all the others who complete your sense of self. These are the memories and experiences that shape you.”

Fig 4. The Illusory “You”

The author cites over 490 references to research papers published mostly in the recent times. It is educational to see how the disparate papers that one comes across in Neuroscience are knitted together as plots and subplots in a novel. No irritating footnotes, no recourse to abstruse and archaic philosophical concepts. Fast moving and easy flowing, the book is highly enjoyable to read.  The communicative skills of the author are exemplary.

The author’s philosophical bent of the mind opens up in his acknowledgements.  He admits, “The most difficult aspect of writing the book was that it forced me to confront my own self illusion and the way I have lived my life. It made me uncomfortably aware of my own weaknesses, vanity, insecurity, lack of integrity, lack of cohesion, and all the other negative things that few of us admit, but a self illusion can conceal. It is a thesis that does not, and will not, sit easily with those who regard their self as real. However, I do believe that questioning the nature of our self on a regular basis is a necessary process to get most out of life.”

As Advaitins, we fully endorse what you say Bruce for, Self-inquiry does begin with: Who Am I?  Join us. We wholeheartedly welcome you.

[A less than 30 min presentation by Prof. Bruce Hood can be seen at: http://brucemhood.wordpress.com/2012/09/21/buddha-bombs/#comment-7103 ]

7 thoughts on “Book Review: THE SELF ILLUSION

  1. Ramesam,

    Thanks so much for this review. But as I read it, I really didn’t think any new info was presented.

    “However, I do believe that questioning the nature of our self on a regular basis is a necessary process to get most out of life.”

    I found a big contradiction in this sentence…if there is no solid self, who’s going to get “the most out of life”?

    I think “process” when I think of self, yet I usually feel “myself” during every day life. I am wondering….

    I’m up for questioning and comments by others here:

    Is awareness of all that goes on, all the items which we consider “ourselves”, is awareness not actually the “self”?

    The perceiver cannot be perceived. Is that not maybe what the author is dancing around? He can’t find a self to write about because the self is actually that which is looking at all that stuff…and the self, awareness, can never be objectified. The subject, self, cannot be the object, so it can’t be “found”, written about, thought about, talked about…nez pas?

    Best wishes,
    SteveS

  2. Self is just a word that symbolizes an identification process that takes place within experience. This identification process is created from memories stored in the body/mind and a ‘story’ is woven out of it. We create a person, a subject. When we try to pinpoint this entity, this person, this sense of self, this is all taking place within the body/mind and does not give you any real answer to your questions. The very questions we ask are more of the same identification process. You cannot separate your self from experience. There is no looking at ‘your self’. There is no awareness of something or of nothing that is going to give you your answer to your imagined dilemma simply because it is imagined. Consciousness and experience are one process. There is no one separate from this who is imagining that they are aware or anything that we can call a self. That separation is what we have to notice. That we are doing it, creating it, moment by moment. And, that part of yourself that observes this separation and thinks it can change it or manipulate it in any way is also part of the separation/illusion. This is what you are whether you accept it or not. The whole struggle is contained within this framework. Somehow, slowly, we begin to see our struggle and the way to let go of it. The letting go of it is all you need to do. Nothing else to remember or think about. The whole idea of achieving anything, understanding anything, is blown apart. Sometimes I think the scientists are much nearer the truth than the practitioners of all these paths which are all mind-made, and mired in unnecessary complexity.

  3. Hi,

    A delayed response on my part!

    Thanks Steve for the comments and the thoughts. Yes, like you say, just as a ‘self’ is imagined, an activity called life around it is also imagined and one could get lost in trying to “get most out of it” !!

    Now, one can resign to the whole game of ‘life’ in a fatalistic manner and be adrift in the flow. Or ….

    Yes, in the alternative comes the problem of expressing and understanding the entire ‘game.’ What Unknower indicates is quite profound in one sense, but also has shades of ‘you-can’t-do-anything.’ The point he/she makes is that there is no identifiable ‘you’ separate from the Totality with a Capital ‘T.’ But, at the same time (s)he is talking (maybe the inadequacy of the language) as if a ‘you’ is there. Unknower says:

    ” There is no one separate from this who is imagining that they are aware or anything that we can call a self. That separation is what we have to notice. That we are doing it, creating it, moment by moment. And, that part of yourself that observes this separation and thinks it can change it or manipulate it in any way is also part of the separation/illusion. This is what you are whether you accept it or not. The whole struggle is contained within this framework. Somehow, slowly, we begin to see our struggle and the way to let go of it. The letting go of it is all you need to do. ”

    Else where in his/her comments on when others talk about the alternative, it is constantly pointed out by him/her that everything written about is a “story”, a mere “belief.” Of course, it is good to be alerted about the danger of one getting trapped in a ‘comfort zone’ of one’s own making or be warped in a self-sustaining belief. But the more important aspect of getting out of the “ignorance” should not be trivialized. One cannot dispense with all ‘teaching’ as another mental play. Mental play it is, undoubtedly, but it comes with a self-annihilating quality. Let me illustrate it by quoting a paraphrased dialog between Rama and Sage Vasishta in Chapter IV Sustenance, Sarga 41, Verses 12-17, Yogavaasishta.

    Rama: “Master! You yourself are admitting that what you have been teaching is untrue. Any knowledge gained from falsehood would also be false and a part of nescience. One mendacity cannot be the opposite of another mendacity. How can then your teaching destroy nescience?”

    Vasishta: “Some devoted wives follow their husbands into the funeral pyre. Don’t they know that their bodies will be burnt by this? They know! Still they do it with the belief that it will help them. Even in nescience, there is some superior type. The superior type ignorance enters into the mind of an individual as a result of his meritorious deeds. These are referred to as “the sattvic ignorance (the ignorance which is dominated by sattva guna – purity, goodness, softness and the like).” The ‘sattvic ignorance’ has a strong motive to do good to the individual who is its master. It desires that pure knowledge should dawn on the individual. Who hinders wisdom from inhabiting him? Ignorance blocks wisdom! The ‘sattvic ignorance’, like the devoted wives, purposefully invites on to itself pure knowledge that destroys it. The ‘sattvic ignorance’ takes root and intensifies with my play of words.”

    Rama: “Teacher, you talk of nescience and illusion. What is illusion (Maya)?”

    Vasishta: “Rama, it will be visible, if you do not see; if you look at it, it will disappear! Illusion is strange indeed!….”

    regards

  4. Well said, Ramesam. When you pay attention to the whole matter of this illusion (story), another kind of ‘seeing’ begins to take place. I don’t know how to describe it except to say it is as if another part of ourselves opens up and let’s us see the illusion for what it is. Nothing is done except this seeing so in the sense that I say you can’t do anything, I mean not do anything to change what is. It seems all we can do is give our full attention to this movement of ourselves and its creation story. The story begins to recede and this new way of seeing becomes more natural. The key seems to be in paying attention.

  5. Ramesam,

    In Advaita, or in your own experience, do you think there is a ‘True Self’? A self that is not woven from experience, its memory, and the identification process that thought builds? If you point to Atman as the True Self, then it seems to indicate that Brahman is the No-Self or absence of self and no-self and free of all dualities and qualities. This would mean that Atman, or True Self would still be in a sort of dualistic mode capable of experience of itself and the world. To me, this is the definition of consciousness. I also believe that Nisargadatta’s translators conveyed what he meant when he said that Consciousness still had to dissolve into the Absolute in order for their to be true Moksha. This would also be consistent with what some others have said that the realization of Self was not the end of the journey (so to speak) but that another fuller transformation, a complete cessation of Self, takes place, analogous to a final death which even shrouds the body for a period of time. Ramana, U.G., & Nisargadatta, all went through some sort of death process that they have described. JK also talked about mutation of the body and brain as a result. I’m curious as to how you would fit all this in to the Advaita view or even just your own view. I believe you understand what I’m talking about quite well.

    • Dear Unknower,

      Thank you for raising a very important topic. Further its formulation as a question makes it easy for discussion. So thanks again.

      Some people hold the opinion that what Advaita says is different from what JK or UG speak. Orthodox Vaidiks (followers of Vedas) do not value Ramana’s teaching. But Ramana is popular and more acceptable than Nisargadatta in some Advaita circles . Yet others wrap them all in Non-dualism wherein they fit Zen Buddhism too. Dr. Walpola Rahula, the famous Buddhist monk, considers JK’s talks to be akin to what Buddha originally taught. Some contemporaries and later period adversaries (e.g. Ramanuja) painted even Sankara as Prachanna (hidden) Buddha!

      Within Advaita too, there are several varieties. Even Sankara’s own disciple (Padmapada) differed from Sankara in certain interpretations.

      I am not a scholar on any of those issues concerning comparative schools of philosophical thought. I made a mention of these controversies because, to my understanding, at the most basic level, all of them say the same thing. People use words to express and the words get covered in layers of interpretations. And later they pick up fights on the “words”, wage turf wars on symbols and forget the real essence of the matter. So it is of utmost significance and of foremost need that we have to have clear idea of what we want to convey when we use a particular word. Hence we have to agree on a convention.

      The convention followed here is to capitalize the first letter when we talk of the Universal and use lower case for what is personal. So Self, Consciousness refer to what is pointed out by the word Brahman, the Ultimate Truth. Same words written as ‘self and consciousness’ refer to the individual’s personality and mind. It looks to me that you have used capitals the other way.

      Atma, True Self, Truth, Brahman, The Absolute, Consciousness, Awareness etc. are all synonymous. Love, Happiness, Existence, Beingness, Infinity, Knowledge are also the synonyms for the same. Brahman is attributeless. It has no objective qualities describable by us and therefore ungraspable by our senses and mind. Brahman is NOT a creature of thought. Thought can never know what Braman is. It just Is, whatever that is when you eliminate all descriptors as per Advaita understanding. The position of Advaita is that ‘That’ nameless, formless something alone Is, there is no second entity.

      True Self is not in dualistic mode. Mind is the one which functions in duality. Yes, as you say, it is individual’s consciousness (lower case ‘c’).

      You say: “I also believe that Nisargadatta’s translators conveyed what he meant when he said that Consciousness still had to dissolve into the Absolute in order for their to be true Moksha. This would also be consistent with what some others have said that the realization of Self was not the end of the journey (so to speak) but that another fuller transformation, a complete cessation of Self, takes place,..”

      The above statement is valid as per Advaita too, provided you replace the capitalization of consciousness and self with lower case letters.

      Next you say: “analogous to a final death which even shrouds the body for a period of time.”

      There is a danger here in this statement as you put it. Brahman is immortal. It is not born, It has no end. It is the individual’s ‘self’ or ego or personality that dies. This ego-self is an artificially delimiting imaginary boundary each person draws around himself. If the imaginary boundary is removed what remains is all just Oneness. It is explained like this: space is all around. You keep a pot in space. Now there is pot-space within the pot. You break the pot now. What happened to the pot-space? It simply merges into what it has always been, the big wide open space whether there was a pot or not. Because there is a pot you broke it. Suppose it is an imaginary boundary (like an international border). There is nothing to break. You just end your imagination. Advaita tells us that our bodies and self and personality are also just an imagination. An imagination does not and cannot have death. Brahman never dies. Therefore, there is nothing like ‘death’ in Advaita.

      The death process you mentioned about some of the people is also an imagination. It can only be taken as a figurative way of saying the end of their ‘ego-self.’ Every “realized” man need not have to go through the same experience of a Ramana or JK. Realization may not be seismic or dramatic. It could be most ordinary and innocuous. One day you may arise and say “Ah” and have a smile. That’s all.

      I am not sure if I could meet fully your query. I am also not sure if every one is interested in this dialog. So if you feel that I failed in communicating clearly, I will be happy to elaborate in a private e-mail. John LeKay raised a number of questions on the topic of Jivanmukta and you may like to take a look at, if you have time and inclination. The link is:
      Part I: http://www.nondualitymagazine.org/nonduality_magazine.2,ramesamvemuri.htm

      Part II:
      http://www.nondualitymagazine.org/nonduality_magazine.3.ramsamvemuri.part2.htm

      regards

  6. Ramesam,

    Your reply is quite clear and you did clarify how some of the terms of Advaita are used here. There is always a problem of language in describing even the most common of things not to mention the difficulties of describing what we are discussing here. I’m not entirely sure it’s ultimately important that we do entirely agree on all this as you’ve pointed out that even great men/women have disagreed in the interpretation of all of this. There are however some issues of a personal nature as well as of a philosophical level that I would like to discuss with you but you mention that this may not be interesting to viewers. I can’t give an opinion on this, but I will take a look at the links you posted and reply by mail to you.

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