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125 of 131 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Are we all mistaken when it comes to knowing who we are?", June 1, 2012
This review is from: The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity (Hardcover)
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 it difficult to accept that any creation of the brain is an illusion.

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.
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Tracked by 4 customers

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Showing 1-10 of 12 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jun 2, 2012 2:18:58 PM PDT
Bruce Hood says:
thank you for a fair and constructive review of my book. I really appreciate it

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 14, 2012 8:59:12 AM PDT
Tom says:
Your point gets to the argument found in phenomenological philosophers since Hegel: for the self-concept, "becoming" supersedes the categories of "not being (being a 'mere appearance')" versus "being (a real substance)". That is, for our self-concept there comes a logical point where it makes no practical sense to label it a 'mere illusion'. The self-concept has become more 'real' and more significant than the realm of nature as a strictly physical realm studied by natural science.

Posted on Aug 13, 2012 12:45:50 PM PDT
I have not read the book, but if the summary of the reviewer is fair, then none of the points 1-3 are convincing: 1. We do not always behave as we expect because of incomplete self-knowledge and because the self is more selfish than desireable. 2. We often behave as we think others expect us to behave - because we enjoy being accepted or lack the courrage required to disagree. 3. When we are in a group, we MAY, but need not, engage in group behaviour; we may engage in group behaviour rather than behaving as individuals - because of group agitation, group solidarity and/or the fear of disagreeing, for example.

Behaviour is sometimes caused by a mental disorder. The revieweris is also right, I believe, in believing that the self is hardly an illusion. In fact, the non-scientific assumption thet the self is a delusion is dehumanizing: without any self we are non-persons, robots.

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 20, 2012 5:24:42 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Aug 21, 2012 6:04:48 AM PDT
"without any self we are non-persons, robots"

And, I would argue that we live lives in fact mostly as that non-person, or as what I call Zombies looking to the group for what to believe and say and do (search the concept of mobbing). I would argue this is but the most common way to create an identity - one that is founded but in our selfish Id. But, I would add idealizing can create a second identity, or Freud's Super-ego (literally for ourselves as well as figuratively for our relationships), that our ego (and Team Charter, perhaps) can integrate into this base robot self. It is only in this small window allowing us to exceed the programming from the nature vs nurture forces that there is any real humanity and free will. Such exists but much less than our heavily rationalizing mind (or you) would like to admit.

Rosenthal (and Livingston, 1962) showed (see Pygmalion in the Classroom: Teacher Expectation and Pupils' Intellectual Development) grades have little to do with the student - and yet, 50 years later we still yell at kids for poor grades. Why? Because kids are small and teachers and big and we are basically "non-person" cowards. "The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance (Cambridge Handbooks in Psychology) (2006) makes a rather startling assertion: the trait we commonly call talent is highly overrated. Or, put another way, expert performers 'whether in memory or surgery, ballet or computer programming' are nearly always made, not born." (Drs. Steven Leavitt and Stephen Dubner, The New York Times Magazine, authors of Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything (P.S.)).

David DiSalvo similarly tells in What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite how many people will create a false memory and confess to doing things they've never done if told they did it and how most people will likewise create a false memory after seeing some falsified evidence. The Rampart investigation was formed when it became clear LAPD divisions regularly sold drugs or robbed banks and then convinced up to 30,000 people using such "interrogation" techniques to confess to the crimes. Little was done (one cop did 13 months) specifically because we don't like to face who we are (which is also why Dr. Stanley Milgram's experiments showing two thirds of us would torture a stranger to death if firmly told to by an authority and the rest would go at least half way are illegal).

Malcolm Gladwell suggests in Outliers: The Story of Success that lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages (like rich parents and being born on the right day) are generally the real source of most successes. He tells how Dr. Barnsley showed the best hockey players are five times more likely born in January than November, baseball players are almost twice as likely born in August than July, and soccer players are most likely born in September (now January), due to the arbitrary age cut offs done in respective kid's leagues. Why is this? Young children born just after the cut off age are naturally larger than those born just before and so perform better. Those who perform better are called "natural" athletes and receive the most encouragement and training - what is in reality essential for any success.

If a HIV infected mother does nothing to protect her baby during 1) pregnancy, 2) delivery, and 3) breast feeding, the child has close to 100% chance of being infected. Similarly, if a 1) young teenager has a 2) parent who is unable to express the truth, offers excessive praise, and is emotionally distant and 3) does not get 9-10 hours of sleep every night is guaranteed to develop a narcissistic personality disorder. There is only the illusion of free will for the child in either the case of the physical or the idea virus (check out any Intro to Psychology text on the illusion of Common Sense).

As Hood notes, we "need a pretty strong sense of self to survive."

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 29, 2013 9:46:47 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Oct 29, 2013 9:47:28 AM PDT
Pete Ashly says:
"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"
- That's the key little bit isn't it?

Buddhists work hard to overcome that.

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 29, 2013 11:20:49 AM PDT
[Deleted by Amazon on Feb 10, 2015 8:19:56 AM PST]

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 25, 2013 10:20:39 AM PST
Ptp McGrath says:
The reviewer misses fundamentally the point, an illusion means a misunderstanding of what is understood to be true. Humans believe they are their bodies and their minds which is an illusion, they mis-identify with the body/mind as an object separate from the external world. Non duality is humans' true nature, where consciousness is the self and there is no external world.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 25, 2013 4:57:53 PM PST
Pete Ashly says:
Perhaps you should read the book.

Posted on Aug 26, 2014 8:05:13 PM PDT
Just a guy says:
From the book, "Psychologist Susan Blackmore makes the point that the word "illusion" does
not mean that it does not exist-rather, an illusion is not what it seems."

You missed the basic premise of the book, but it's nice that you take yourself so seriously.

Posted on Jun 23, 2015 7:05:21 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jun 23, 2015 7:09:05 AM PDT
Your third paragraph nicely captures the intellectual vacuity on display in this (and many other) psychologically superficial treatment of conceptually challenging issues.

BTW: To whom is the self an illusion? To itself?
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