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The Self Illusion: How Our Social Brain Constructs Our Identity

Psychologists are catching up with what existential writers and psychotherapists have known for some time – that notions of stable character and fixed personality are a myth. And yet, our culture is wired for labels and checkboxes, eager to neatly file people away into categorical cabinets which become problematic if they are too outside of the norm of what society expects. This is particularly the case in the labelling of mental illness.

Bruce Hood’s exploration of the ‘self’ in The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity, reminds us that every day when we wake up, we are propelled into a rich explosion of consciousness – the sounds, smells and familiar sights move us quickly into a sense of separation and self-identification of Self. We move from ‘being’ to recognising ‘What is I from not I’ so to speak. For a few moments after waking we don’t know who we are and then that sudden recognition of ourselves and expectations upon us propel us out of the present to the future – a sense of separation occurs where we become the observers rather than ‘the experience’. We automatically label ourselves and others around us and organise it into what we believe has to be done or achieved. We gather our thoughts so that the ‘I’ who is conscious becomes the ‘me’ — the person with a past. The memories of the previous day return. The plans for the immediate future reformulate and we realise we have things to do which remind us that it is a workday. We become a person whom we recognise.

This daily ritual is so familiar we don’t even think about and yet this sense of the self is an illusion. Psychologist Susan Blackmore reminds us that the word ‘illusion’ does not mean that it does not exist — rather, an illusion is not what it seems. We all certainly experience some form of self, but what we experience is a powerful depiction generated by our brains for our own benefit.

In my own book The Myths of Life and the Choices We Have (2007), I identify the ubiquitous nature of this illusion. Like Hume, I agree that the sense of the self as being illusory is very hard to accept because ‘If I do not exist as nothing more than consciousness, then who is observing the consciousness?’ Existential writers like Sartre throw more light on this perspective, saying we are ‘Nothingness masquerading as something’. Hood points out that neuroscience supports the self as a bundle of sensations, perceptions and thoughts lumped together. The Self Illusion tells the story of how that bundle forms and why it sticks together, revealing the brain’s own storytelling as the centripetal force of the self.

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