08 January 2013

The Self Illusion - Bruce Hood (2012)

Quick review: typos, rehashes, some good points.

Bruce Hood is a UK professor in psychology, and he studies child development.  The Self Illusion is his 2012 book, subtitled 'How the Social Brain Creates Identity' - but unfortunately he doesn't actually spend all that much time directly focused on ideas of the 'social brain'.  Too much of the book tells of well-worn research findings from Libet, Milgram, Zimbardo, etc.  And the book feels rushed and a little sloppy due to the many typos (at least a dozen), along with the format which feels like a compendium of longish blog posts not fully tied together.

That said, there are a few things I felt worth covering from the book.  Hood makes it clear that his meaning of 'illusion' is not that there's nothing there, but that it is not what it seems.  The main point of the book seems to be that there is no truly singular, consistent 'self' - we all behave in different ways depending on the social & environmental context we find ourselves in, plus we are frequently driven by forces and incentives of brain processes that we aren't directly aware of.  However we all tend to feel that we are autonomous beings with some level of free will - and there appear to be very healthy psychological benefits from that mindset.

The information on certain aspects of child development were interesting.  Hood writes on p. 46 "So long as our interactions are timed to the babies' activity, they pay attention to us." In a sense babies are selecting the adults that are most attentive to them, those likely to be good care-givers.  There's also interesting material on critical periods of development, which can be devastating if not fulfilled.

There is a bit of coverage on split-brain patients, and I found the internal inconsistency of the book to be kind of typical, I'd say based on the mind/brain confusion.  On page 130 there's a section titled 'Being in Two Minds' that introduces the split-brain idea and research by Michael Gazzaniga.  But later on page 233 he notes "Gazzaniga has proposed that there are not two separate minds or selves in these split-brain patients."  I think this is an important point - if mind is the subjective experience, then even though communication between the lobes of the brain is incomplete, and behavior is not fully coordinated, the subjective mind experience is singular.

The book includes a chapter of musing about the impact of the internet and social media in particular.  It's probably too early to draw conclusions, but I think Hood is right to question how this context will influence the social development of people, and what it may do to one's sense of self.

Here's a short interview between Hood and Sam Harris.

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