The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity
by Bruce Hood
Oxford University Press 2012 368 pp., $29.95 (cloth)
The Self Illusion, by British psychologist Bruce Hood, offers a systematic deconstruction of the idea of the self as an essential entity. It redefines the self as a bundle of socially influenced narratives that emerges gradually during early development and undergoes continual modification. This is familiar territory for Buddhists, who have been making a similar point for millennia.
The idea of a self is fundamentally a confused idea. It’s a folk belief, a conceptual reflex, a linguistic habit, a flawed assumption. This is why the Buddha stayed away from it as much as possible, even remaining silent when pressed upon the subject. To say the self does not exist is just as problematic as saying it does, because the whole notion of self is thoroughly flawed. It has a certain utility—socially, linguistically, legally—but breaks down when examined with any scrutiny.
Once it was believed the rain god made it rain, or that God made it rain. But surely now most people will allow that rain occurs when certain conditions (temperature, humidity, etc.) come together in a particular combination. And when those conditions alter, the rain stops. It doesn’t “go” anywhere; it just no longer manifests. Every single thing in the natural world occurs in the same way: when certain factors come together in certain ways, certain things happen. When the factors change, those things dissipate and other things happen. There is no intrinsic identity in anything. There are only the labels we decide upon to refer to things: clouds, raindrops, puddles. All beings, places, and things are merely names that we give to certain patterns we call out from the incessant flux of natural events.
Humans are no exception. “Joe” is just something that occurs when conditions come together in certain ways, and that no longer occurs when those conditions change enough. Sometimes, when certain things are happening, Joe is a nice guy; at other times, when other things are happening, Joe can be a real jerk. Under some conditions Joe is living; when the conditions supporting Joe’s life no longer occur, Joe will no longer be living. All this is as natural as a rainstorm in the summer.
The Self Illusion gently but relentlessly dismantles the assumed notion of self as it chronicles the progress of cognitive neuroscience and related fields over the previous several decades. We are left with the simple but astonishing insight: the self has been carved through experience by the environment it inhabits and by the other selves (or self illusions) that surround it. “You only exist as a pattern made up of all the other things in your life that shape you,” Hood concludes. Yet, he reassures us, just as the Buddhists have done, “This does not mean that you do not exist at all, but rather that you exist as a combination of all the others who complete your sense of self.”
As gratifying as it can be to see ancient Buddhist ideas corroborated by cutting-edge neuroscience and experimental psychology, one cannot help but sense that the two approaches to understanding the self are not entirely engaged in the same enterprise. A considerable gap remains between modern Western and ancient Eastern perspectives on the subject, and it is naturally difficult for each to conceive the territory that lies beyond the point where its own approach leaves off.
The remarkable successes of scientific research and theorizing come from the powerful methodologies of science, one of which is to engage in a close study of an object from an objective or third-person perspective. Instead of merely accepting traditional viewpoints without question or theorizing from abstract principles, science examines an object carefully, records its properties and functions, and then induces explanatory principles from the evidence at hand. But as we bring this approach to the study of the mind, we notice that for the most part it involves the study of other people’s minds. We look at other people’s behavior in various controlled situations, we scan other people’s brains in our imaging devices, and we dissect, probe, and stimulate other people’s neurons. The modern study of the self is essentially a third-person enterprise and thus follows in the mold of all previous scientific research.
But it seems consciousness is something that cannot be sufficiently comprehended in this way. We can study the structure and function of the brain’s neurons, transmitters, and other components, and we can study behavior. But the subjective phenomenology of human experience seems fundamentally inaccessible to existing methods of objective inquiry. There is no instrument that can measure what it feels like to have an experience; there is no data set that can adequately record the nuances of a felt sensation; there is no theorem that can encompass the many idiosyncrasies of a unique human being. It may be that no third-person explanation can ever address the phenomenon of selfhood, insofar as it will always be imbedded in a first-person perspective.
This is a philosophical problem rather than a scientific one. There may be plenty of ways we can describe the workings of the mind, body, and behavior, but it may also be true that something essential to understanding the self will remain forever out of reach to scientific explanation. no matter how good the microscope or telescope, such instruments can never be turned upon the one gazing into the eyepiece.
According to classical Buddhist thought, self is a view. Perception is the function of the mind that creates meaning, that paints a picture or constructs a model of what is going on every moment. It does so by creating signs or concepts or views—symbols of some sort to represent what is seen with the eye, heard with the ear, smelled with the nose, tasted with the tongue, touched with the body, or thought with the mind. The view of self is just an illusion, as are all of our perceptions.
The stream of perceptions, flowing along with the stream of consciousness, provides an ongoing interpretation of experience, moment after moment, as each episode of cognition is constructed and then fades away. As with every other aspect of the mind and body, perception is an event that occurs rather than a thing that exists. As such, individual views of what is happening arise and vanish one after another in rapid succession and have no enduring substance. Yet such fleeting images are patched together in our minds like a filmstrip to create a relatively stable and coherent perceptual narrative.
Ultimately the entire Western scientific enterprise is one of creating and refining conceptual models of the world we inhabit. It’s about constructing ever more accurate and useful perceptions. The collective enterprise of furthering the subtlety and explanatory power of these models yields immense practical benefits and can also give rise to a profound intellectual and aesthetic satisfaction. The progress of human understanding is indeed impressive and has provided us with the means of radically shaping our world. Buddhists, however, aren’t particularly interested in this agenda.
There’s nothing wrong with coming up with more sophisticated ways of conceptually representing the world, and certainly it’s better to have right view than wrong view, but according to Buddhist thought this is not where the action is. Perception isn’t
primarily responsible for the arising of suffering and it plays only a supporting role in the cessation of suffering. Instead, it’s within the aggregate of emotional formations that both the causes of and solutions to suffering are found. The content of perception is not nearly as important as how we respond to it. The Buddha was thus addressing a very different issue than the contemporary scientist.
The five aggregates (skandhas) are always co-arising and working together to forge who we are and what we do. The first aggregate is materiality, and it’s foundational, as is the second, consciousness, which provides the basic function of knowing or awareness of an object. These are augmented by the third, perception, and the fourth, feeling tone, which together create a sense of what is happening and how pleasant or painful it is for us. The fifth aggregate involves our emotional response to the object of the moment, the liking or not liking of it, the wanting or not wanting it, or a whole range of other possible responses toward what we experience. We never just notice an object; we engage with it emotionally.
Such engagement with experience is intrinsically immediate and personal—not personal in the sense of our narrative self, which is a story woven by perception, but in the most intimate and existential sense of the word. The self is created by our emotional responses as they unfold each moment: when we crave an object of experience, then “the person who” wants it is constructed; when we generate aversion toward an object, then “the person who” hates it comes into existence. The person we are in each moment is forged by these emotional responses, which is why they are so much more immediate and constitutive of identity than are perceptions.
Since perceptions and emotions arise and pass away interdependently, they influence and shape one another. but it matters little whether you hate someone because they hurt your feelings or because you think they are a threat, or simply because they are called Joe—it’s the hating as an emotional response that causes suffering for yourself and those around you. often enough, perception simply offers a rationale for an emotion that has its real origin in the unexamined depths of the unconscious.
In the Buddhist model, therefore, refining perception is not itself going to be transformative. If perception can help guide and mold our emotional responses, such as occurs when certain phrases are used to help develop loving-kindness for all beings (“May they be happy, safe, and healthy”), that’s a good thing. But it’s the emotion of kindness itself that is unraveling the bonds of suffering, with perception playing only an auxiliary role.
Third-person scientific knowledge doesn’t get underneath what’s most important to modify human behavior. As Socrates says in the Phaedo, the philosopher’s explanation of how the bones and sinews bind his body together can never explain why he has chosen to drink the hemlock rather than flee to Megara. or, as the Buddha says, knowing who shot the arrow or from what bird the feathers are made will not contribute to the urgent task of pulling the arrow out and healing the wound.
Wisdom in Buddhist thought is not the forging of proper conceptual ideas as much as it is an unbinding of the mind from the clutches of desire. Insight into non-self is transformative not because it counters the mistaken ideas of self by providing a better conceptual model (though it does this too), but rather because it loosens the emotional bonds of clinging—clinging to sense desires, to views, to conventions, to self. This loosening will always be a first-person experience, accessed through the first-person technology of moral action, mental development, and direct insight. Listening to teachers will only take you so far; one must know for oneself what is harmful and then abandon it in order for such knowledge to be transformational.
We know, for example, in increasing detail how our economic, political, and social systems are contributing to the dramatic degradation of the global environment. We don’t have a clue, however, how to help people disengage from the root instincts that are causing this: greed, hatred, and delusion. In short, we understand increasingly well the harm we are causing, but have very little understanding of how to keep ourselves from doing it.
Perhaps Bruce Hood’s book can contribute to this larger, more important project. Dismantling the essential self is a good start, and The Self Illusion does much to help do this in terms that are not foreign to most readers. Just as Mindfulness-Based Stress reduction was able to infiltrate the mainstream medical profession to make meditation practices more accessible to all, perhaps a new wave of psychologists, neuroscientists, and philosophers can help penetrate the defenses of the inviolable autonomous self and allow greater access to the healing powers of Buddhist wisdom. This in turn might help loosen some of the bonds preventing the evolution of a more altruistic species.