The Self Illusion: How the Brain Creates Identity
“For the majority of us the self is a very compulsive experience. I happen to think it’s an illusion and certainly the neuroscience seems to support that contention. Simply from the logical positions that it’s very difficult to, without avoiding some degree of infinite regress, to say a starting point, the trail of thought, just the fractionation of the mind, when we see this happening in neurological conditions. The famous split-brain studies showing that actually we’re not integrated entities inside our head, rather we’re the output of a multitude of unconscious processes.
I happen to think the self is a narrative, and I use the self and the division that was drawn by William James, which is the “I” (the experience of conscious self) and the “me” (which is personal identity, how you would describe yourself in terms of where are you from and everything that makes you up in your predilections and your wishes for the future). Both the “I”, who is sentient of the “me”, and the “me”, which is a story of who you are, I think are stories. They’re constructs and narratives. I mean that in a sense that a story is a reduction or at least it’s a coherent framework that has some causal kind of coherence.
When I go out and give public lectures I like to illustrate the weaknesses of the “I” by using visual illusions of the most common examples. But there are other kinds of illusions that you can introduce which just reveal to people how their conscious experience is actually really just a fraction of what’s really going on. It certainly is not a true reflection of all mechanisms that are generating. Visual illusions are very obvious in that. The thing about the visual illusion effects is that even when they’re explained to you, you can’t but help see them, so that’s interesting. You can’t divorce yourself from the mechanisms that are creating the illusion and the mind that’s experienced in the illusion.
The sense of personal identity, this is where we’ve been doing experimental work showing the importance that we place upon episodic memories, autobiographical memories. In our duplication studies for example, children are quite willing to accept that you could copy a hamster with all its physical properties that you can’t necessarily see, but what you can’t copy very easily are the episodic memories that one hamster has had.
This actually resonates with the ideas of John Locke, the philosopher, who also argued that personal identity was really dependent on the autobiographical or episodic memories, and you are the sum of your memories, which, of course, is something that fractionates and fragments in various forms of dementia. As the person loses the capacity to retrieve memories, or these memoires become distorted, then the identity of the person, the personality, can be changed, amongst other things. But certainly the memories are very important.
As we all know, memory is notoriously fallible. It’s not cast in stone. It’s not something that is stable. It’s constantly reshaping itself. So the fact that we have a multitude of unconscious processes which are generating this coherence of consciousness, which is the I experience, and the truth that our memories are very selective and ultimately corruptible, we tend to remember things which fit with our general characterization of what our self is. We tend to ignore all the information that is inconsistent. We have all these attribution biases. We have cognitive dissonance. The very thing psychology keeps telling us, that we have all these unconscious mechanisms that reframe information, to fit with a coherent story, then both the “I” and the “me”, to all intents and purposes, are generated narratives.
The illusions I talk about often are this sense that there is an integrated individual, with a veridical notion of past. And there’s nothing at the center. We’re the product of the emergent property, I would argue, of the multitude of these processes that generate us.
I use the word illusion as opposed to delusion. Delusion implies mental illness, to some extent, and illusion, we’re quite happy to accept that we’re experiencing illusions, and for me the word illusion really does mean that it’s an experience that is not what it seems. I’m not denying that there is an experience. We all have this experience, and what’s more, you can’t escape it easily. I think it’s more acceptable to call it an illusion whereas there’s a derogatory nature of calling something a delusion. I suspect there’s probably a technical difference which ought to do with mental illness, but no, I think we’re all perfectly normally, experience this illusion.
Oliver Sacks has famously written about various case studies of patients which seem so bizarre, people who have various forms of perceptual anomalies, they mistake their wife for a hat, or there are patients who can’t help but copy everything they see. I think that in many instances, because the self is so core to our normal behavior having an understanding that self is this constructive process, I think if this was something that clinicians were familiar with, then I think that would make a lot of sense.
In fact, it’s not only in clinical practice, I think in a lot of things. I think neuroethics is a very interesting field. I’ve got another colleague, David Eagleman, he’s very interested in these ideas. The culpability, responsibility. We premise our legal systems on this notion there is an individual who is to be held accountable. Now, I’m not suggesting that we abandon that, and I’m not sure what you would put in its place, but I think we can all recognize that there are certain situations where we find it very difficult to attribute blame to someone. For example, famously, Charles Whitman, the Texan sniper, when they had the autopsy, they discovered a very sizeable tumor in a region of the brain which could have very much influenced his ability to control his rage. I’m not suggesting every mass murder has inoperable tumors in their brain, but it’s conceivable that there will be, with our increasing knowledge of how the brain operates, and our ability to understand it, it’s conceivable there will be more situations where the lawyers will be looking to put the blame on some biological abnormality.
Where is the line to be drawn? I think that’s a very tough one to deal with. It’s a problem that’s not going to go away. It’s something that we’re going to continually face as we start to learn more about the genetics of aggression.
There’s a lot of interest in this thing called the warrior gene. To what extent is this a gene which predisposes you to violence? Or do you need the interaction between the gene and the abusive childhood in order to get this kind of profile? So it’s not just clinicians, it’s actually just about every realm of human activity where you posit the existence of a self and individuals, and responsibility. Then it will reframe the way you think about things. Just the way that we heap blame and praise, the flip side of blaming people is that we praise individuals. But it could be, in a sense, a multitude of factors that have led them to be successful. I think that it’s a pervasive notion. Whether or not we actually change the way we do anything, I’m not so sure, because I think it would be really hard to live our lives dealing with non-individuals, trying to deal with multitude and the history that everyone brings to the table. There’s a good reason why we have this experience of the self. It’s a very sort of succinct and economical way of interacting with each other. We deal with individuals. We fall in love with individuals, not multitudes of past experiences and aspects of hidden agendas, we just pick them out. (…)
The objects are part of the extended sense of self
I keep tying this back to my issues about why certain objects are overvalued, and I happen to believe, like James again, that objects are part of the extended sense of self. We surround ourselves with objects. We place a lot of value on objects that we think are representative of our self. (…)
We’re the only species on this planet that invests a lot of time and evaluation through our objects, and this has been something that has been with us for a very, very long time.
Think of some of the early artifacts. The difficulty would have been to make these artifacts, the time invested in these things, means that from a very early point in our civilization, or before civilization, I think the earliest pieces are probably about 90,000 years old. There are certainly older things that are tools, but pieces of artwork, about 90,000 years old. So it’s been with us a long time. And yes, some of them are obviously sacred objects, power of religious purposes and so forth. But outside of that, there’s still this sense of having materials or things that we value, and that intrigues me in so many ways. And I don’t think it’s necessarily universal as well. It’s been around a lot, but the endowment effect, for example, is not found everywhere. There’s some intriguing work coming out of Africa.
The endowment effect is this rather intriguing idea that we will spontaneously overvalue an object as soon as we believe it’s in our possession, we don’t actually have to have it physically, just bidding on something, as soon as you make your connection to an object, then you value it more, you’ll actually remember more about it, you’ll remember objects which you think are in your possession in comparison to someone else. It gets a whole sense of attribution and value associated with it, which is one of the reasons why people never get the asking price for the things that they’re trying to sell, they always think their objects are worth more than other people are willing to pay for them.
There was the first experimental demonstration by Richard Thaler and Danny Kahneman, and the early behavioral economics, was this demonstration that if you just give people coffee cups, students, coffee cups, and then you ask them to sell it, they always ask more than what someone’s willing to pay for it. It turns out it’s not just coffee cups, it’s wine, it’s chocolate, it’s anything, basically. There’s been quite a bit of work done on the endowment effect now. As I say, it’s been looked at in different species, and the brain mechanisms of having to sell something at a lower price, like loss aversion, it’s seen as quite painful, triggers the same pain centers, if you think you’re going to lose out on a deal.
What is it about the objects that give us this self-evaluated sense? Well, I think James spoke of this, again, William James commented on the way that we use objects to extend our self. Russell Belk is a marketing psychologist. He has also talked about the extended self in terms of objects. As I say, this is something that I think marketers know in that they create certain quality brands that are perceived to signal to others how good your social status is.
It’s something in us, but it may not be universal because there are tribes, there are some recent reports from nomadic tribes in central Africa, who don’t seem to have this sense of ownership. It might be a reflection more of the fact that a lot of this work has been done in the West where we’re very individualistic, and of course individualism almost creates a lot of endowment ideas and certainly supports the endowment, materialism that we see. But this is an area I’d like to do more work with because we have not found any evidence of the endowment effect in children below five, six years of age. I’m interested: is this something that just emerges spontaneously? I suspect not. I suspect this is something that culture is definitely shaping. That’s my hunch, so that’s an empirical question I need to pick apart.
The irrational superstitious behaviors
Another line of research I’ve been working on in the past five years … this was a little bit like putting the cart before the horse, so I put forward an idea, it wasn’t entirely original. It was a combination of ideas of others, most notably Pascal Boyer. Paul Bloom, to some extent, had been thinking something similar. A bunch of us were interested in why religion was around. I didn’t want to specifically focus on religion. I wanted to get to the more general point about belief because it was my hunch that even a lot of atheists or self-stated atheists or agnostics, still nevertheless entertained beliefs which were pretty irrational. I wasn’t meaning irrational in a kind of behavioral economics type of way. I meant irrational in that there were these implicit views that would violate the natural laws as we thought about them. Violations of the natural laws I see as being supernatural. That’s what makes them supernatural. I felt that this was an area worth looking at. They’d been looked at 50, 60 years ago very much in the behaviorist association tradition.
BF Skinner famously wrote a paper on the superstitious behavior of pigeons, and he argued if you simply set up a reinforcement schedule at a random kind of interval, pigeons will adopt typical patterns that they think are somehow related to the reward, and then you could shape irrational superstitious behaviors. Now that work has turned out to be a bit dubious and I’m not sure that stood the test of time. But in terms of people’s rituals and routines, it’s quite clear and I know them in myself. There are these things that we do which are familiar, and we get a little bit irritated we don’t get to do them, so we do, most of us, entertain some degree of superstitious behavior.
At the time there was a lot of interest in religion and a lot of the hoo-ha about The God Delusion, and I felt that maybe we just need to redress this idea that it’s all to do with indoctrination, because I couldn’t believe the whole edifice of this kind of belief system was purely indoctrination. I’m not saying there’s not indoctrination, and clearly, religions are culturally transmitted. You’re not born to be Jewish or born to be Christian. But what I think religions do is they capitalize on a lot of inclinations that children have. Then I entered into a series of work, and my particular interest was this idea of essentialism and sacred objects and moral contamination.
We took a lot of the work that Paul Rozin had done, talking about things like killers’ cardigans, and we started to see if there was any empirical measures of transfer. For example, would you find yourself wanting to wash your hands more? Would you find priming effects for words which were related to good and evil, based on whether you had touched the object or not? For me there had to be this issue of physical contact. It struck me as this was why it wasn’t a pure association mechanism. It was actually something to do with the belief, a naïve belief there was some biological entity that can somehow, moral contamination can transfer.
We started to look at, actually not children now, but looking at adults because doing this sort of work with children is very difficult and probably somewhat controversial. But the whole area of research is premised on this idea that there are intuitive ways of seeing the world. Sometimes this is referred to as System One and System Two, or automatic and control. It reappears in a variety of psychological contexts. I just think about it as these unconscious, rapid systems which are triggered automatically. I think their origins are in children. Whilst you can educate people with a kind of slower System Two, if you like, you never eradicate the intuitive ways of seeing the world because they were never taught in the first place. They’re always there. I suppose if you want to ask me if there any kind of thing that you can have as a theory that you haven’t yet proven, it’s the idea is, I don’t think you ever throw away any belief system or any ideas that have been derived through these unconscious intuitive processes. You can supersede them, you can overwrite them, but they never go away, and they will reemerge under the right contexts. If you put people through stressful situations or you overload it, you can see the reemergence of these kinds of ways of thinking. The empirical evidence seems to be supporting that. They’ve got wrinkles in their brains. They’re never going to go away. You can try and override them, but they’re always there and they will reappear under the right circumstances, which is why you see the reemergence under stress of a lot of irrational thinking.
For example, teleological explanations, the idea that everything is made for a purpose or a function, is a natural way to see the world. This is Deb Kelemen’s work. You will find that people who considered themselves fairly rational and well educated will, nevertheless, default back to teleological explanations if you put them under a stressful timed kind of situation. So it’s a way of seeing the world that is never eradicated. I think that’s going to be a general principle, in the same way that a reflex, if you think about reflexes, that’s an unlearned behavioral response. You’re born with a whole set of reflexes. Many of them disappear, but they never entirely go away. They become typically reintegrated into more complex behaviors, but if someone goes into a coma, you can see the reflexes reemerging.
What we think is going on is that in the course of development, these very automatic behaviors become controlled by top-down processes from the cortex, all these higher order systems which are regulating and controlling and suppressing, trying to keep these things under wraps. But when the cortex is put out of action through a coma or head injury, then you can see many of these things reemerging again. I don’t see why there should be any point of departure from a motor system to a perceptual system, to a cognitive system, because they’re all basically patterns of neural firing in the brain, and so I don’t see why it can’t be the case that if concepts are derived through these processes, they could remain dormant and latent as well.
The hierarchy of representations in the brain
One of the things that has been fascinating me is the extent to which we can talk about the hierarchy of representations in the brain. Representations are literally re-presentations. That’s the language of the brain, that’s the mode of thinking in the brain, it’s representation. It’s more than likely, in fact, it’s most likely that there is already representation wired into the brain. If you think about the sensory systems, the array of the eye, for example, is already laid out in a topographical representation of the external world, to which it has not yet been exposed. What happens is that this is general layout, arrangements that become fine-tuned. We know of a lot of work to show that the arrangements of the sensory mechanisms do have a spatial arrangement, so that’s not learned in any sense. But these can become changed through experiences, and that’s why the early work of Hubel and Weisel, about the effects of abnormal environments showed that the general pattern could be distorted, but the pattern was already in place in the first place.
When you start to move beyond sensory into perceptual systems and then into cognitive systems, that’s when you get into theoretical arguments and the gloves come off. There are some people who argue that it has to be the case that there are certain primitives built into the conceptual systems. I’m talking about the work of, most notably, Elizabeth Spelke.
There certainly seems to be a lot of perceptual ability in newborns in terms of constancies, noticing invariant aspects of the physical world. I don’t think I have a problem with any of that, but I suppose this is where the debates go. (…)
Shame in the East is something that is at least recognized as a major factor of identity
I’ve been to Japan a couple of time. I’m not an expert in the cultural variation of cognition, but clearly shame is a major factor in motivation, or avoidance of shame, in eastern cultures. I think it reflects the sense of self worth and value in eastern culture. It is very much a collective notion that they place a lot of emphasis on not letting the team down. I believe they even have a special word for that aspect or experience of shame that we don’t have. That doesn’t mean that it’s a concept that we can never entertain, but it does suggest that in the East this is something that is at least recognized as a major factor of identity.
Children don’t necessarily feel shame. I don’t think they’ve got a sense of self until well into their second year. They have the “I”, they have the notion of being, of having control. They will experience the willingness to move their arms, and I’m sure they make that connection very quickly, so they have this sense of self, in that “I” notion, but I don’t think they’ve got personal identity, and that’s one of the reasons that they don’t have much, or very few of us have much memory of our earlier times. Our episodic memories are very fragmented, sensory events. But from about two to three years on they start to get a sense of who they are. Knowing who you are means becoming integrated into your social environment, and part of becoming integrated into your social environment means acquiring a sense of shame. Below two, three years of age, I don’t think many children have a notion of shame. But from then on, as they have to become members of the social tribe, then they have to be made aware of the consequences of being antisocial or doing things not what’s expected of them. I think that’s probably late in the acquisition.”
— Bruce Hood, Canadian-born experimental psychologist who specialises in developmental cognitive neuroscience, Director of the Bristol Cognitive Development Centre, based at the University of Bristol, Essentialism, Edge, May, 17, 2012. (Illustration source)
The Illusion of the Self
“For me, an illusion is a subjective experience that is not what it seems. Illusions are experiences in the mind, but they are not out there in nature. Rather, they are events generated by the brain. Most of us have an experience of a self. I certainly have one, and I do not doubt that others do as well – an autonomous individual with a coherent identity and sense of free will. But that experience is an illusion – it does not exist independently of the person having the experience, and it is certainly not what it seems. That’s not to say that the illusion is pointless. Experiencing a self illusion may have tangible functional benefits in the way we think and act, but that does not mean that it exists as an entity. (…)
For most of us, the sense of our self is as an integrated individual inhabiting a body. I think it is helpful to distinguish between the two ways of thinking about the self that William James talked about. There is conscious awareness of the present moment that he called the “I,” but there is also a self that reflects upon who we are in terms of our history, our current activities and our future plans. James called this aspect of the self, “me” which most of us would recognize as our personal identity—who we think we are. However, I think that both the “I” and the “me” are actually ever-changing narratives generated by our brain to provide a coherent framework to organize the output of all the factors that contribute to our thoughts and behaviors.
I think it helps to compare the experience of self to subjective contours – illusions such as the Kanizsa pattern where you see an invisible shape that is really defined entirely by the surrounding context. People understand that it is a trick of the mind but what they may not appreciate is that the brain is actually generating the neural activation as if the illusory shape was really there. In other words, the brain is hallucinating the experience. There are now many studies revealing that illusions generate brain activity as if they existed. They are not real but the brain treats them as if they were.
Now that line of reasoning could be applied to all perception except that not all perception is an illusion. There are real shapes out there in the world and other physical regularities that generate reliable states in the minds of others. The reason that the status of reality cannot be applied to the self, is that it does not exist independently of my brain alone that is having the experience. It may appear to have a consistency of regularity and stability that makes it seem real, but those properties alone do not make it so.
Similar ideas about the self can be found in Buddhism and the writings of Hume and Spinoza. The difference is that there is now good psychological and physiological evidence to support these ideas that I cover in the book. (…)
There are many cognitive scientists who would doubt that the experience of I is constructed from a multitude of unconscious mechanisms and processes. Me is similarly constructed, though we may be more aware of the events that have shaped it over our lifetime. But neither is cast in stone and both are open to all manner of reinterpretation. As artists, illusionists, movie makers, and more recently experimental psychologists have repeatedly shown, conscious experience is highly manipulatable and context dependent. Our memories are also largely abstracted reinterpretations of events – we all hold distorted memories of past experiences. (…)
The developmental processes that shape our brains from infancy onwards to create our identities as well as the systematic biases that distort the content of our identity to form a consistent narrative. I believe much of that distortion and bias is socially relevant in terms of how we would like to be seen by others. We all think we would act and behave in a certain way, but the reality is that we are often mistaken. (…)
Q: What role do you think childhood plays in shaping the self?
Just about everything we value in life has something to do with other people. Much of that influence occurs early in our development, which is one reason why human childhoods are so prolonged in comparison to other species. We invest so much effort and time into our children to pass on as much knowledge and experience as possible. It is worth noting that other species that have long periods of rearing also tend to be more social and intelligent in terms of flexible, adaptive behaviors. Babies are born social from the start but they develop their sense of self throughout childhood as they move to become independent adults that eventually reproduce. I would contend that the self continues to develop throughout a lifetime, especially as our roles change to accommodate others. (…)
The role of social networking in the way we portray our self
There are some interesting phenomena emerging. There is evidence of homophily – the grouping together of individuals who share a common perspective, which is not too surprising. More interesting is evidence of polarization. Rather than opening up and exposing us to different perspectives, social networking on the Internet can foster more radicalization as we seek out others who share our positions. The more others validate our opinions, the more extreme we become. I don’t think we need to be fearful, and I am less concerned than the prophets of doom who predict the downfall of human civilization, but I believe it is true that the way we create the narrative of the self is changing.
Q: If the self is an illusion, what is your position on free will?
Free will is certainly a major component of the self illusion, but it is not synonymous. Both are illusions, but the self illusion extends beyond the issues of choice and culpability to other realms of human experience. From what I understand, I think you and I share the same basic position about the logical impossibility of free will. I also think that compatibilism (that determinism and free will can co-exist) is incoherent. We certainly have more choices today to do things that are not in accord with our biology, and it may be true that we should talk about free will in a meaningful way, as Dennett has argued, but that seems irrelevant to the central problem of positing an entity that can make choices independently of the multitude of factors that control a decision. To me, the problem of free will is a logical impasse – we cannot choose the factors that ultimately influence what we do and think. That does not mean that we throw away the social, moral, and legal rulebooks, but we need to be vigilant about the way our attitudes about individuals will be challenged as we come to understand the factors (both material and psychological) that control our behaviors when it comes to attributing praise and blame. I believe this is somewhat akin to your position. (…)
The self illusion explains so many aspects of human behavior as well as our attitudes toward others. When we judge others, we consider them responsible for their actions. But was Mary Bale, the bank worker from Coventry who was caught on video dropping a cat into a garbage can, being true to her self? Or was Mel Gibson’s drunken anti-Semitic rant being himself or under the influence of someone else? What motivated Senator Weiner to text naked pictures of himself to women he did not know? In the book, I consider some of the extremes of human behavior from mass murderers with brain tumors that may have made them kill, to rising politicians who self-destruct. By rejecting the notion of a core self and considering how we are a multitude of competing urges and impulses, I think it is easier to understand why we suddenly go off the rails. It explains why we act, often unconsciously, in a way that is inconsistent with our self image – or the image of our self as we believe others see us.
That said, the self illusion is probably an inescapable experience we need for interacting with others and the world, and indeed we cannot readily abandon or ignore its influence, but we should be skeptical that each of us is the coherent, integrated entity we assume we are.”
— Bruce Hood Canadian-born experimental psychologist who specialises in developmental cognitive neuroscience, Director of the Bristol Cognitive Development Centre, based at the University of Bristol, interviewed by Sam Harris, The Illusion of the Self, Sam Harris blog, May 22, 2012.
☞ Existence: What is the self?, Lapidarium notes
☞ Paul King on what is the best explanation for identity
☞ David Eagleman on how we constructs reality, time perception, and The Secret Lives of the Brain
☞ Professor George Lakoff: Reason is 98% Subconscious Metaphor in Frames & Cultural Narratives
☞ Daniel Kahneman: The Marvels and the Flaws of Intuitive Thinking