The Illusion of the Self

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
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.

American psychologist, William James, said in The
Principles of Psychology
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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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
example 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.

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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