The Illusion of the Self

the self

No one really doubts that there is a self. In our day to day lives, it always appears that there is an ‘I’ who is thinking, perceiving, and interacting with the world. Even the language we use assumes that there is a self – a distinct, separate entity – which exists. When we talk to each other we say, “I think…”, “You are…” etc. However, appearances can be deceiving. The cognitive scientist Bruce Hood defines an illusion as a subjective experience that is not what it seems. In his book, The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity, he uses this definition, and from it argues that the self is an illusion. His point is that everyone experiences a sense of self, a feeling that we have an identity and it is this identity which does our thinking and perceiving. Hood admits that the experience of the self is real, but that beyond this experience, there is nothing we can identify as the self.

The American psychologist, William James, said in The Principles of Psychology (1890), that we can think of there being two kinds of “self”. There is the self which if consciously aware of the present moment – we represent this self by using the pronoun “I”. Then there is also the self which we recognise as being our personal identity – who we think we are – which we represent by using the term “me”. According to Bruce Hood, both these selves are generated our brain in order to make sense of our thoughts, as well as the outside world. The self (both “I” and “me”) can be thought of as a narrative or a way to connect our experiences together so that we can behave in an appropriate way in the world.

A helpful way to understand how the brain creates the illusion of the self is to think about perceptual illusions. One of the most famous perceptual illusions is the Kanizsa triangle. In this pattern, we can see a full triangle even though no triangle has been explicitly drawn. This is due to the surrounding lines and shapes which give the impression of there being a triangle – our brain essentially “fills in the gaps”. Many evolutionary psychologists argue that our brain is hard-wired to “fill in the gaps” in this way because it was much more useful for our ancestors, for their survival, to spot patterns all the time.

Hood relates this point to the self. He states that our sense of a self is like the Kanizsa triangle: it is a hallucination which seems to be real, but which is created through the combination of separate parts. We perceive to have a self because this is the subjective experience that results from different regions in our brain trying to add a narrative to our experiences, thoughts, and behaviours. He is saying that the self depends on its constituent parts: it cannot exist without them. There is no “I” or “me” which can be located in the brain – so in that sense, it does not exist in reality.

All of this does not mean that the self, as an illusion, is pointless. It is clearly the most powerful and consistent illusion that we experience, so there must be some purpose to it. In evolutionary terms, it is useful to think of ourselves as separate and distinct from everyone else. There is much more of an incentive to survive and reproduce if it is for my survival, and for my genes to remain in the gene pool. Furthermore, if selfishness (or even altruism which some think is selfish by nature – “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine”) is what drives evolution, then it should come as no surprise that our brains would evolve a sense of self. How can you be selfish without a sense of self? If we there was no sense of self, and we perceived everything as “one” and inter-connected, then what would be the point of competition? Many spiritually inclined people might argue that we should accept the reality of there being no self, view others as being fundamentally the same as us, and treat them as we treat “ourselves”. Perhaps some important moral lessons can be drawn from the fact that the self does not exist.

The main thrust behind Bruce Hood’s argument is that our brain naturally creates narratives in order to make sense of the world. This is why stories, myths, folklore, tales, movies, and plays are so popular. It is also why humans tend to look for meaning in the world when it is not really there. Our brains are essentially always thinking in terms of stories: what the main character is doing, who they are speaking to, and where the beginning, middle, and end is. Our self – which we think of as an integrated individual – is a fabrication which emerges out of the story-telling powers of our brain. The Scottish philosopher, David Hume, made a similar point. He said that the self is not a concrete thing – it is merely a collection of experiences.

Likewise, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said that: “My hypothesis: the subject as multiplicity”, while the novelist Virginia Woolf wrote that “we are splinters and mosaics; not, as they used to hold, immaculate, monolithic, consistent wholes”. This belief has actually been backed up by some case studies in neurology. For example, the famous neurologist Oliver Sacks describes in many of his books, patients who suffer some damage to a region of their brain, and they literally lose a part of themselves.

In Dr Sacks’ most well-known book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, Dr Sacks describes a patient (known as Jimmy G) who lost the ability to form new memories (if anyone has seen the film Memento, the protagonist suffers from the same condition). Due to this condition, however, Jimmy has almost lost his sense of self, since he cannot form a complete and coherent narrative of his life. This loss of narrative is deeply troublesome and means that Jimmy struggles to find meaning, satisfaction, and happiness in his life – he is constantly forgetting what he is doing from one moment to the next. Cases like this go to show that not only does the self depend on a multitude of brain regions and processes, but that the self is also an illusion which our happiness depends on.

Other evidence from neuroscience also supports the claim that the brain is a narrative creating machine. Oliver Sacks reports many different patients who will make up stories to explain their impairments. Likewise, the neuroscientist, V.S. Ramachandran recounts patients who are paralysed but who deny that they have a problem. These extreme examples show that even in the face of obvious and compelling evidence (e.g. that our arm will not move) our brain is determined to make up stories which we perceive as real.

The idea that the self is an illusion is not really a new idea either. It can be traced back to early Buddhist thought. In the early Buddhist texts, the Buddha uses the term anatta, which means “not-self” or the “illusion of the self”. The Buddha taught his followers that things are perceived by the senses, but these things are not perceived by an “I” or “me”. These things (such as material wealth) cannot belong to me (if there is not “me”), therefore we should not cling to them or crave them. The Buddha considered the concept of a self as both illusory and a source of unhappiness in life. Buddhism rejects the idea that there is a permanent entity that remains constant behind our thoughts. This contrasts to Cartesianism which says that there is a static conscious thinker behind all of our thoughts. One interpretation of Buddhism is very similar to the ideas behind Bruce Hood’s book. This particular interpretation says that the terms “I” and “me” do not refer to anything in reality, but they are used (and should be used) because they are useful and convenient.

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