Published by Oxford University Press on May 23, 2012
Bruce Hood argues that the self is an illusion, "a powerful deception generated by our brains for our own benefit." He contends that a correct understanding of self contradicts the popular view that we are individuals within our bodies, "tracing out a pathway through life, and responsible for our thoughts and actions." His argument that the self is merely an illusion will probably not be well received by the portion of the mental health and self help industry that makes a living teaching people to understand themselves, control themselves, or change themselves. Hood argues that none of those objectives can be accomplished, although we might maintain the illusion that we have accomplished them, because we cannot change or control what does not exist.
Is the argument convincing? Yes and no. According to Hood, who we think we are is a product of external influences: "it is the experience of others that defines who we are." Our brains manufacture models to make sense of the external world, and we experience those models as "a cohesive, integrated character," but the model is just a construct, not a reality. I buy that, but I'm not sure the word "illusion" is synonymous with "mental construct." I suppose one could argue that any product of the brain -- a thought, an emotion, a sensation -- is in some sense an illusion as opposed to a tangible reality, but I find that difficult to accept that creations of the brain are correctly categorized as illusions.
Hood's thesis, as summarized in the last chapter, is that the self is the product of the mind, built over time from observing externalities. I'm not sure why this means that the self is an illusion. A house is built over time from materials derived from external sources, but a completed house is no illusion. Yes, the self may be based on imperfect memories and misperceived experiences. Yes, the self is "continually shifting and reshaping" as external influences change. That tells me that the self is fluid, not that it isn't real. Of course, Hood contends that the brain fights hard to protect the self illusion, and that may be exactly what my brain is doing as I write this. Even if "self" is an illusion, however -- and Hood acknowledges this -- it is a useful illusion, and one with which we are stuck. As Hood notes, we "need a pretty strong sense of self to survive," so even if self is an illusion, it is one most of us need to embrace.
On the other hand, perhaps my quibble is only a semantic disagreement with Hood's use of the word "illusion." Much of Hood's argument is indisputable. Hood presents the heart of his argument in the preface. The remainder of the book is packed with information. Chapter 1 provides an overview of the brain: how it functions and how it develops during infancy. Chapter 2 focuses on the social interaction of babies, who (Hood says) are hardwired with a Machiavellian ability to manipulate adults. He also discusses the development of self-consciousness during infancy. Chapter 3 explores the notion of the "looking-glass self" (the theory that we conceptualize ourselves based on how others see us), examines the role memory plays in the development of the sense of self, and discusses the phenomenon of false or induced memories. Hood's premise is largely dependent upon this research. If our sense of identity is based on a composite of our memories, and if our memories are inherently unreliable, are we really who we think we are? Hood also discusses the role that gender and stereotypes play in shaping the sense of self, as well as autism and psycopathy, ADHD and impulse control. Chapter 7 discusses the fallibility of memory and the relationship between memory and identity.
Some aspects of the book are likely to be controversial, particularly the assertion that "the freedom to make choices is another aspect of the self illusion." Chapter 4 suggests that people are not truly responsible for their actions -- a point of view that is shunned by a criminal justice system. That brain injuries rather than conscious choice may lead to aggression or pedophilia is a reality that the law would prefer to ignore. More doubtful, however, is Hood's assertion that our actions are never a product of free will. Toward the end of chapter 4, Hood acknowledges what seems obvious: even if free will doesn't exist, we might as well accept the illusion that it does because the illusion makes us happy.
The most valuable concept that follows from Hood's argument is his rejection of the notion that "winners," extraordinary achievers who manage to overcome formidable obstacles, are inherently better than "losers," the large majority of people who are limited by their circumstances. Hood asks why we blame people for failing to achieve "rather than the circumstances that prevent them from achievement." I suspect that society isn't ready to accept the ramifications of that simple question.
Much of the rest of The Self Illusion could come from Psychology Today. It's all very interesting and Hood credibly connects the wide-ranging topics to his central premise. Do we lose our sense of individual identity in a crowd? Do we join groups to define our identity? Why do we fear ostracism? If the self can be easily molded (even made to do evil) by group membership, can a core self really exist? What do identity disorders say about our actual identity?
After absorbing as much of this information as I could, I think Hood's evidence for the nonexistence of self can be summarized this way: 1. We do not always behave as we expect to behave. 2. We often behave as we think others expect us to behave. 3. When we are in a group, we engage in group behavior rather than behaving as individuals. 4. Behavior is sometimes caused by a mental disorder. This summary is too simplistic to be fair, but I don't think the broader arguments in The Self Illusion convinced me that self is an illusion so much as it reinforced my understanding that the self is complex. Clearly we construct a sense of ourselves that is influenced by a variety of factors (from dopamine to Twitter), but I'm not sure that construct is illusory so much as it is malleable. In any event, Hood assembles a large amount of information that is useful and interesting, whether or not you ultimately agree that it proves his point.