Saturday, June 2, 2012

Use Your Illusion

The Self Illusion, by Bruce Hood (Oxford University Press, 2012) 

“ Sanity is a cozy lie. ”
- Susan Sontag

Among the most popular topics fueling cognitive science and psych books in the last 20 or so years has been the origin, role and future of the "self"  and, I'd argue, deservedly so.

Consciousness and the self, or selves, has been a preoccupation of the human mind since recorded time began, and no doubt well before then.  From Socrates' admonition to "Know thyself," to the present-day philosophies of mind, we have always wanted to know if there really is an "I" within, or if we're just fooling ourselves into believing so. Advances in understanding how the brain functions have intensified those questions exponentially, and the answers have in some ways become even more elusive.

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.

But, Hood submits, it is not only our individual brains that are doing the creating, but the intersocial web of brains that constitute much of our life experience. Our sense of self is, you might say, a group project, because it only fully develops within the social context, and that starts before we can speak a word. Hood states:
Our self is a product of our mind, which in turn is a product of our brain working in conjunction with other brains. As the brain develops, so does the self. As the brain deteriorates, then so must the self.

But why did we evolve a sense of self at all?  Why do we experience our internal landscapes from a singular perspective?  The reason is, in a word, adaptation. If we had to manage the enormous complexity of the brain's activity a la carte, we'd become hopelessly engulfed. So the brain fosters an illusion that connects the dots  a more or less fluid narrative that pulls it all together.
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. Rather we get a summarized headline that relates all the outputs from these unconscious processes.
What makes The Self Illusion an especially engaging and relevant book is that its conclusions, hinted at in the portions I quoted, are themselves only headlines of a much bigger, richer story, told without cutting credibility corners. The book is experienced as a well-woven survey of what cognitive science has uncovered about how our brains work, while also being a disquieting argument that you and I are living an illusion, albeit one that is necessary for our survival.

As with some recent books dispelling the notion of "free will," one could come away from The Self Illusion with a preoccupying sense that each of us lives in our own self-styled halls of smoke and mirrors, connected in turn to the halls of everyone else in our lives. Or, one could come away convinced that knowing what our brain is up to is better than living a mystified existence. Of course, those takeaways are not mutually exclusive.

Either way, Hood's thesis will challenge your perspective and keep you thinking through the implications of what he presents, however unsettling they may be. It's very much that sort of book    the sort you'll be glad you accepted the challenge to read.

-David DiSalvo

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