The Self Illusion

5 Jun

The excellent Jonah Lehrer interviews Bruce Hood about his new book The Self Illusion here.

I’ve included a few choice quotes, but recommend the whole article as a very interesting discussion around the self and consciousness, and it fits with the neuroscience books I’ve read. It’s an evidence-based view rather than the usual wishful thinking that gives us the tendency to think we’re something more than we are. It’s an approach that goes against our ego, which is kind of the point.

Personally I prefer Occam’s Razor when it comes to choosing the most likely explanation for a phenomenon, and Bruce Hood seems to take the same approach.

In his book The Self Illusion, Hood argues “that the self – this entity at the centre of our personal universe – is actually just a story, a constructed narrative.”

He uses “a distinction that William James drew between the self as “I” and “me.” Our consciousness of the self in the here and now is the “I” and most of the time, we experience this as being an integrated and coherent individual – a bit like the character in the story. The self which we tell others about, is autobiographical or the “me” which again is a coherent account of who we think we are based on past experiences, current events and aspirations for the future.

This is an important point to bear in mind when we justify our behaviour: “We can easily spot the inconsistencies in other people’s accounts of their self but we are less able to spot our own, and when those inconsistencies are made apparent by the consequences of our actions, we make the excuse, “I wasn’t myself last night” or “It was the wine talking!” Well, wine doesn’t talk and if you were not yourself, then who were you and who was being you?

It has been experimentally confirmed that we decide most of our actions subconsciously and our conscious mind then creates reasons for our behaviour post hoc.

Whole branches of philosophy are based around this one: “We have no direct contact with reality because everything we experience is an abstracted version of reality that has been through the processing machinery of our brains to produce experience.

And Hood comes to terms with his conclusion with equanimity; “I don’t think appreciating that the self is an illusion is a bad thing. In fact, I think it is inescapable… we know that the self must be the output of the material brain.

And there’s a fascinating section that concludes “the brain creates both the mind and the experience of mind”.


One Response to “The Self Illusion”

  1. Damian June 20, 2012 at 12:07 pm #

    Interesting to see science weighing in on this one. As I’m sure you know, many Eastern traditions (and several not from the East as well) having been talking about the self illusion for thousands of years. The self illusion is pretty hard to hold onto once you look into it enough. What “one” does with that insight is an interesting question…

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