- Paperback: 368 pages
- Publisher: Oxford University Press; Reprint edition (September 1, 2013)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0199988781
- ISBN-13: 978-0199988785
- Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 1.2 x 6.1 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 56 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #383,116 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity Reprint Edition
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"After exploring various definitions of self--a soul, an agent with free will, some essential and unique set of qualities--he concludes that what we experience as a self is actually a narrative spun by our brain." -Daisy Yuhas, Scientific American
"Bruce Hood, professor of Developmental Psychology at the University of Bristol, marshals an expanse of research to convincingly argue that the self - while very much real in our experience - is in fact a useful illusion, one necessitated by the brain that gives it life." -David DiSalvo, The PopScience Review
"Bruce Hood's The Self Illusion is a thoroughly researched and skillfully organised account of the developments in psychology and neuroscience that are helping to substantiate this unsettling vision of selfhoodELHood is well placed to tackle all this: he is an experimental psychologist and expert on child development." -Michael Bond, CultureLab
About the Author
Bruce Hood is currently the Director of the Bristol Cognitive Development Centre in the Experimental Psychology Department at the University of Bristol. He has previously been a research fellow at Cambridge University and University College London, a visiting scientist at MIT, and a faculty professor at Harvard University. He has been awarded an Alfred Sloan Fellowship in neuroscience, the Young Investigator Award from the International Society of Infancy Researchers, the Robert Fantz memorial award, and was recently voted to Fellowship status by the society of American Psychological Science.
Top customer reviews
I have no major concerns about the theory put forth. It is well-considered and, if you take a step back and come at it objectively, intuitive (though some might argue this is by definition not intuitive!). To give a very general overview - the self is an illusion (note: often times when people hear this sort of phrase they assume it means X doesn't exist; it just means it does not exist *as we naturally understand it), a malleable narrative that relies almost entirely on external, unchosen factors in defining itself. And he makes clear to point out that this fiction fluctuates wildly, in real time, depending on the external environmental and social factors (some great examples of this are prison experiments).
He does a great job in breaking down the popular conception that we have some persistent, "ghost in the machine" style of self. There is a chapter that also deals with the necessarily related concept of "free will;" I was briefly concerned when he started a section regarding quantum mechanics as a possible refuge for free will (quantum mechanics in non-physics texts is generally a red flag for bulls***!), but it turned out to be a false alarm as he provided the convincing arguments against that idea.
The issues I had with the book were minor, but I think worth discussing. I felt that the overarching theory and argument was, relatively, unassailable and uncomplicated (conceptually). The feel of the book was more of "here is how it is," with a footnote (numerous footnotes) to experiments and references and a general overview of the experiment. I would have preferred that, rather than briefly address a fairly large amount of evidence, he was more selective but went into more detail - addressing finer points, possible alternative interpretations, etc. While, in theory, anyone interested in such details could simply look up the experiments for themselves... realistically nobody actually does that! I think this approach would have been more enjoyable to me and made it feel less like knowledge handed out and more like knowledge explained.
The other problem I had is the terminology and phrasing used to talk about the brain. And before I start here, I'd like to point out that I only find this an issue because the book is intended for the general audience; professionals aren't in danger of taking away the wrong impression but most people, who experience and believe in the dualistic sense of mind and self, can. I completely agree with the author that it is essentially impossible to talk about the self without invoking language and concepts that are dualistic in nature, and I appreciate the separation into "our selves," "my self," etc.
But the processes of the brain, while suffering from similar issues, can be talked about more carefully. At numerous points in the book I would read something like (this is a conceptual paraphrasing, not quote) "the brain represents X," when I could easily rephrase it into language that did not apply the same level of agency and intention. That sort of language encourages and does not challenge our natural inclination to think dualistically about the mind and brain - it implies that there is some central figure that things are being represented TO.
Anyway, I'm just quibbling at this point. Great and excessively cheap book for a general audience that does a great job at deconstructing our natural understandings of the self. Would recommend!
What’s left is the notion that “our brain creates the experience of our self as a model—a cohesive integrated character—to make sense of the multitude of experiences that assault our senses throughout a lifetime and leave lasting impressions in our memory.” In other words, “the self is an illusion created by our brain…,” a tool, a construct, that increases the odds of our survival. And rather than actively, faithfully taking in all of the stimuli around us, the brain takes shortcuts to prevent overload, to speed learning and to navigate risk, eventually able to “anticipate the most likely world” without checking with the self first. And, with a brain that’s comfortable operating at a distance from the construct of self, and evolution driving us (by maximizing success) to embrace our social existence—that we are reliant upon others and upon our understanding of others—our brains and bodies tweak the construct of self depending on the external social conditions around us.
He uses many examples and studies to bring this to life, but I was struck by the almost throwaway lines related to tickling as an example of the distance between mind and body. Generally speaking, we can’t tickle ourselves. “…you could tickle yourself with a tickling machine when there was a delay inserted between the action of operating the lever and the probe that did the tickling. When the self no longer seems in control, we surrender to the illusion of an external agent. This also explains why schizophrenic patients can tickle themselves: their self-monitoring is believed to be disrupted, and they attribute sensations and experiences generated by their own brains and bodies as coming from somewhere else.”
Like that passage, the entire book is stuffed with fascinating insights and often clever writing: “Some of us became evil. Some of us became good. Some of us became bankers.”
Some may be put off by the foundational theory, rather fancying instead to be a self in control of a body. I’m mostly fine with being a body in control of a “self,” and knowing that self is shaped by external forces — from those around me to what I had for breakfast. It doesn’t make me feel less distinct or less in control; it actually gives me insights into how to be more of my “self” in the world.
Check this book out if the topic appeals. You won’t be disappointed.