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).
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 .
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.”
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 ]