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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Sense of self comes more from without than within

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WHAT makes a self? Your treasured memories? Flawed constructions, easily manipulated or even fabricated.

A strong moral compass? Easily swayed to deviance in the midst of an angry mob, or by an authoritative voice on the phone.

Your characteristic chuckle? Not a choice, but a social impulse, stemming more from without than within.

However real it may feel, that sense of unshakeable identity built on behaviours, preferences and experiences is illusory, argues Bruce Hood in The Self Illusion, a provocative work of popular science.

The second book by the University of Bristol developmental psychologist and brain researcher is a determined dismantling of all that we hold personal and intrinsic, from the things that make us laugh to the notion of autonomous decision-making.

None of it is quite what it seems, Hood argues: "We all certainly experience some form of self, but what we experience is a powerful deception generated by our brains for our benefit."

The takedown starts with the behaviour and mimicry learned in early childhood, our every grin, nod, cringe or yawn an involuntary action, or unconscious bid at social integration.

"The self-illusion ensures that we are either oblivious of the extent to which we mimic others, or we think that we deliberately copy others," Hood writes. "When we act socially, we think that we are calling the shots and pulling the strings but this belief in autonomy is part of the illusion."

Subsequent chapters are compilations of ideas, summarized studies and anecdotes examining the innumerable outside influences acting on our minds, shaping our thoughts and lending us our sense of having a core identity, a "self."

Moves rapidly

It's a compendium in turns compelling and distracted, spanning an enormous volume of material and, within loosely organized themes, moving rapidly from topic to topic.

In one chapter, a reflection on "the looking-glass self" gives way to a review of the unreliability of memory before moving on to brief discussions of autism, the development of teenage brains, and gender construction.

Those with short attention spans will find plenty of new entry points, but collectively, the approach can feel at times disjointed and a little cursory.

Hood succeeds in highlighting the wonders and quirks of the human body: the fascinating effects of mirror neurons, for one, or the curious contagions of yawning and vomiting: "It's as if all of our systems, designed to pay attention to others, appear to be set up to resonate with what others are experiencing."

The Self Illusion might, in its totality, be a game changer for those with an unwavering sense of identity and autonomy. But many may find themselves content to accept the notion that what we call a "self" is at best a malleable construct, shaped by experiences, social circles and unconscious brain activity, without rejecting the construct completely.

For those readers, the constant assertions of the "self-illusion" may seem a bit of a straw man even as the evidence rings true.

That said, Hood does say that accepting self as illusion can be very difficult. After 300 pages of identity deconstruction, it's tough for a reviewer to know if her quibble over theme is legitimate or just a grasp at self-preservation.

For readers not quite ready to cede their sense of identity, The Self Illusion still functions as a thoughtful exploration of how that identity is constructed, and the external influences and biological quirks that help make us who we are -- or, at least, the selves we think ourselves to be.

 

Lindsey Wiebe is social media reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press, or thinks she is.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 21, 2012 J8

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