You Don’t Exist – You’re Mostly an Illusion
Bruce Hood is the Director of the Bristol Cognitive Development Centre at the University of Bristol.He is the author of several books, including SuperSense: Why We Believe the Unbelievable. In Hood’s opinion, our self-concept is an illusion and illusion is a subjective experience that is not what it seems. Let me re-word that one. Our illusion of self doesn’t truly exist in the world; it is what our brain perceives it to be. Got it. Not that I necessarily agree, mind you.
The Self as an Illusion
Most of us have an experience of a self but that experience is an illusion. The sense of our self is as an integrated individual inhabiting a body and there is also a self that reflects upon our history, our current activities and our future plans. I think it helps to compare the experience of self to illusions such as the Kanizsa pattern where you see an invisible shape that is defined by the surrounding context. It is a trick of the mind but the brain generates the neural activation as if the illusory shape was really there. So let’s get this one straight: there really is no Kanizsa pattern at all; our brain simply creates the illusion of a pattern that doesn’t exist. Psych! watch illusory correlation
That reminds me of another bit of research I did where a neurologist explained that there is no such thing as colour. We don’t see actual colour. Like animals, everything around us is actually seen in black and white. Our brains possess red, white and blue light sources that create the colours we are supposed to see in certain objects. For instance a tree isn’t really brown and green. It’s black, white and shades of grey but we impose colour upon it based upon how our brains think it should appear. Hence the reason colour blindness exists. watch no such thing as colour – what it’s like to be colour blind
The reason that reality cannot be applied to the self, is that it does not exist independently of the brain alone. Artists, illusionists, movie makers, and experimental psychologists have repeatedly shown conscious experience is manipulatable. Memories are also abstracted reinterpretations of events – we all hold distorted memories of past experiences. The jury’s out on this one. Yes memories are often distorted but according to whom? How can the distortion of memory be proven if the self that experienced these past events is merely illusion? watch manipulation through fear
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. We invest effort and time into our children to pass on knowledge and experience. The self continues to develop throughout a lifetime, especially as our roles change to accommodate others. This philosophy seems the most feasible for me. We have to be shaped by other human beings or else our dependency on our families and our childhoods wouldn’t last as long as they do. And certainly we see specific behaviours, beliefs and attitudes passed down through generations. watch lecture of a lifetime
The role of globalization and technology is an intriguing development. There is evidence of homophily – the grouping together of individuals who share a common perspective. More interesting is evidence of polarization. Rather than opening up and exposing us to different perspectives, social networking can foster more radicalization as we seek out others who share our positions. The grouping together of people, the need and drive to find others who share interests and perspectives is more proof that the self is largely shaped by others. Even in a virtual reality (interesting concept) humans feel the need to interact in what they believe to be a mutual and beneficial social order. watch social media and the creation of self
An intriguing, tragic example of the self and the illusion of self is to be found in Alan Turing’s experience of self. Turing was an English mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst, and computer scientist. He was highly influential in the development of computer science, and developed the concepts (love it) of “algorithm” and “computation” with the Turing machine. This played a significant role in the creation of the modern computer. What then is Turing’s true self? Mathematician? Computer scientist? Cryptanalyst? Further, when the British government discovered Turing was homosexual, he was put on trial and eventually subjected to hormone treatments meant to”cure” his homosexuality. Turing grew breasts and his voice became higher. What sense of self was Turing left with then? Clearly not a happy or stable one: he committed suicide two years after the beginning of the hormone treatments. watch the death of alan turing
Free will is a logical impossibility. People cannot make choices independently of the multitude of factors that control a decision. Hence we need to be vigilant about the way our attitudes will be challenged as we come to understand the factors that control our behaviors. To an extent I agree that free will is impossible. If we accept that people are shaped throughout their lives by their interactions with other people, especially those who create our experience of childhood then truly acting on an independent and objective perspective is an impossibility. This is not to say that we cannot control our actions but it certainly attributes many of them to our memories and our learned experiences. watch neuroscience and free will
An example of this is people who are recruited into cults. Their entire concept of self is altered in the extreme by people with whom they have little in common. The latter is changed in order to bring about control and manipulation of the individual and indeed to obliterate individual thought and behaviour (if such a thing exists) entirely. Cultists who claim to have the freedom to come and go from cult compounds and the free will to leave at any time they wish are self-delusional. Their minds and actions are so controlled by the cult community that they have no will to leave or to come and go independent of others in the cult. So devoted are the recruits to these cults that they sacrifice their own lives in order to retain their illusory self-concept. watch on cult recruiting techniques
Abuse and Self-Concept
I agree with a number of Hood’s concepts yet the self being entirely illusory is not something I accept, or else how is it that we interact with others at all? Typical responses to individual choices include, “what about someone who is abused by their parents yet they never abuse their own children because of what they went through” serve to uphold Hood’s theory even more. The determination to not abuse one’s child based on one’s own childhood experiences is indeed the shaping of self from past memories and events. Can this explain the actions of serial killers, rapists, murderers, and criminals in general? I believe so. Even if there was no physical or sexual abuse in the childhood home, certain factors must have been in place to create an individual without empathy and possessing the ability to destroy innocent people who have done them no harm. watch reich propaganda outlet uses nazi brainwashing
Nature vs Nurture
The argument of nature versus nurture is ongoing. Do I believe that certain brain mechanisms can interfere with the development of a healthy (if illusory) self? Yes I do. Yet which came first in such a case? It is a proven fact that abuse shapes the neural pathways in the human brain, helping to formulate one’s concept of reality and one’s role in the world. In other words, abuse shapes the biological development of the brain and helps to create one’s sense of self. Or in the case of nature, were these neural pathways damaged before birth and was the individual born defective? No one will ever answer that question satisfactorily. Perhaps that is because the self is not one of free will, and therefore not a true concept. watch early childhood brain development
Dissociative Identity Disorder
Consider this theory in relation to multiple personality disorder or more aptly dissociative identity disorder. The latter truly connects the concept of self and identity as an illusion. If you believe in DID (jury’s out) then the selves or alters that comprise such a person are superficial, 2-dimensional constructs that are not fully developed human beings. Instead they play specific roles within the human psyche and act them out in the “real world” when needed. Perhaps DID is a prime example of the self as illusory: clearly the experiences of a person with such a profound disorder has been based on ongoing, ritualistic trauma, obliterating the adherence of a single self and a single self-concept. Working through childhood memories and co-relating the ongoing development of a single self (if integration occurs) for those who possess this disorder must be challenging in the extreme. watch you’re not crazy and you’re not alone
Related blogs: You’re not as unique as you think – ask your dreams
Related PowerPoint: Dissociative identity disorder
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