The Self Illusion by Bruce Hood

Get the book

Summary

What we think we are, our Self, is a coherent story that our brain weaves together from our experiences, from the life events and the people who have influenced us and shaped us. The story does not suddenly manifest one day inside our head, it is slowly sculpted out of the richness of human activity and interaction. Other people are key to weave the story of who we are.

Although it feels continuous and reliable, the Self is a fluid concept. We also adjust the story of who we are depending on the people we interact with. It’s fair to say we use different ‘selves’ when we interact with our spouse, family, boss, colleagues, lover, adoring fans and beggar in the street.

A Self identity has a practical purpose of organizing ourselves into a society. We have 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 economic 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.

The Self is ultimately an illusion in the sense that it is a narrative in our brain. However, the narrative actively shapes our moment to moment experience and how we interact with other Selves in the world.

Book Notes

→ The brain weaves experiences into a coherent story that enables us to interpret and predict what we should do next. It creates a constructed narrative about who we are. It creates a travelling path in time from childhood to adulthood, punctuated by life events and the people along the way who have influenced us and shaped who we are. The story does not suddenly manifest one day inside our head on our second or third birthday. It has been slowly emerging – sculpted out of the richness of human activity and interaction.

→ Other people are key to weave the story of who we are, whether we conform or rebel against them. We also adjust the story of who we are depending on the people we interact with. It’s fair to say we use different ‘selves’ when we interact with our spouse, family, boss, colleagues, lover, adoring fans and beggar in the street.

One way to think about it is to imagine the self constructed like a spider’s web but without the spider. Each strand represents an influence pulling on the overall structure. The self is the resulting pattern of influences pulling together, trying to find a common ground. These are the thoughts and behaviours that compete for our activity. The arrangements of strands are self-organizing by the fact that they are competing.

There is no memory of the infantile self: as an infant we did not have the capacity to integrate our experiences into meaningful stories. Likewise, memory loss due to Alzheimer in old age for example leads to loss of identity because the individual is no longer able to weave a coherent story about himself.  As the brain develops, so does the self. As the brain deteriorates, then so must the self.

→ In a way a story is a more efficient way to remember information from experiences. As Daniel Kahneman explained we have an experiencing self and a remembering self. The experiencing self is the subjective experience of conscious awareness living in the present, but once these moments have passed, they are lost forever. In contrast, the remembered self is our memory of our past experiencing self. These moments are integrated into a story that we keep in memory.

Experiences are fragmented episodes unless they are woven together in a meaningful narrative. Without a focus, the massive parallel processing in our brain means that we would be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of computations if we ever had to deal with them individually.

Self identity has a practical purpose of organizing ourselves into a society. We categorize others because it makes it much easier to deal with strangers when we know where they are coming from. We do not have to do as much mental work trying to figure out how to respond and can react much quicker when we categorize.

We have 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 economic 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. We cannot abandon our morality simply because we decompose the individual self into its myriad of influences. Punishment and praise is heaped on the individual not on the multitude of others who shaped the self.

→  Memories are constantly active – like a story being retold over and over again. Moreover, when we encounter related new experiences, we interpret them in terms of our existing memories, which in turn are transformed by the new experiences.

→ Memories are not like a library full of books but rather like a compost heap in a constant state of reorganization.

→ People tend to want what they look at.

→ The ego is hard work, it takes lots of glucose to keep it up (often by suppressing our true feelings). We end up depleted and with little willpower to say no to temptations.

→ Even if it's an illusion, free will is empowering. Giving people choices, or at least the perception of control, empowers them to tolerate more adversity.

→ We are not special at all. Who is really individual in a species that requires the presence of others upon which to make a relative judgment of whether they are the same or different? By definition, you need others to conform with, or rebel against.

→ Most of us think that we are funnier, smarter, better looking and kinder than the average person, which, of course, is statistically impossible. The Barnum effect reveals that we all entertain illusions of a unique self, which turns out to be remarkably consistent and familiar between different people.

→ We do effectively live in a simulation. Our brain creates a model of the world at all times through what it is capable of detecting via the nervous system.

Want more?

Join my monthly newsletter where I share quality content to nurture your curiosity and wisdom. 😎

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.