In 1920, after writing two novels with a conventional Victorian narrator (the kind that, like an omniscient God, views everything from above), Virginia Woolf announced in her diary: “I have finally arrived at some idea of a new form for a new novel.” Her new form would follow the flow of our consciousness, tracing the “flight of the mind” as it unfolds in time. “Only thoughts and feelings,” Woolf wrote to Katherine Mansfield, “no cups and tables.”
The mind, however, is not an easy thing to express. When Woolf looked inside herself, what she found was a consciousness that never stood still. Her thoughts flowed in a turbulent current, and every moment ushered in a new wave of sensation. Unlike the “old-fashioned novelists,” who treated our being like a static thing, Woolf’s mind was neither solid nor certain. Instead, it “was very erratic, very undependable—now to be found in a dusty road, now in a scrap of newspaper in the street, now in a daffodil in the sun.” At any given moment, she seemed to be scattered in a million little pieces. Her brain was barely bound together.
And yet, it was bound together. Her mind was made of fragments, but it never came undone. She knew that something kept us from disintegrating, at least most of the time. “I press to my centre,” Woolf wrote in her diary, “and there is something there.”
Woolf’s art was a search for whatever held us together. What she found was the self, “the essential thing.” Although the brain is just a loom of electric neurons and contradictory impulses, Woolf realized that the self makes us whole. It is the fragile source of our identity, the author of our consciousness. If the self didn’t exist, then we wouldn’t exist.
But one must never forget just how flimsy the self is. In her modernist novels, Woolf wanted to simultaneously affirm our existence and expose our ineffability, to show us that we are “like a butterfly’s wing…clamped together with bolts of iron.”
Bruce Hood, a psychologist at the University of Bristol, picks up where Woolf and the modernists left off. In his excellent new book, The Self Illusion, he seeks to understand how the singularity of the self emerges from the cacophony of mind and the mess of social life. Dr. Hood was kind enough to answer a few of my questions below:
LEHRER: The title of The Self Illusion is literal. You argue that the self – this entity at the center of our personal universe – is actually just a story, a “constructed narrative.” Could you explain what you mean?
HOOD: The best stories make sense. They follow a logical path where one thing leads to another and provide the most relevant details and signposts along the way so that you get a sense of continuity and cohesion. This is what writers refer to as the narrative arc – a beginning, middle and an end. If a sequence of events does not follow a narrative, then it is incoherent and fragmented so does not have meaning. Our brains think in stories. The same is true for the self and I use a distinction that William James drew between the self as “I” and “me.” Our consciousness of the self in the here and now is the “I” and most of the time, we experience this as being an integrated and coherent individual – a bit like the character in the story. The self which we tell others about, is autobiographical or the “me” which again is a coherent account of who we think we are based on past experiences, current events and aspirations for the future.
The neuroscience supports the claim that self is constructed. For example, Michael Gazzaniga demonstrated that spilt-brain patients presented with inconsistent visual information, would readily confabulate an explanation to reconcile information unconsciously processed with information that was conscious. They would make up a story. Likewise, Oliver Sacks famously reported various patients who could confabulate accounts to make sense of their impairments. Ramachandran describes patients who are paralyzed but deny they have a problem. These are all extreme clinical cases but the same is true of normal people. We can easily spot the inconsistencies in other people’s accounts of their self but we are less able to spot our own, and when those inconsistencies are made apparent by the consequences of our actions, we make the excuse, “I wasn’t myself last night” or “It was the wine talking!” Well, wine doesn’t talk and if you were not your self, then who were you and who was being you?
LEHRER: The fragmented nature of the self is very much a theme of modernist literature. (Nietzsche said it first: “My hypothesis is the subject as multiplicity,” he wrote in a terse summary of his philosophy. Virginia Woolf echoed Nietzsche, writing in her diary that we are “splinters and mosaics; not, as they used to hold, immaculate, monolithic, consistent wholes.”) In your book, you argue that modern neuroscience has confirmed the “bundle theory” of the self proposed by Hume. Do you think they have also confirmed these artistic intuitions about the self? If so, how has science demonstrated this? Are we really just a collection of “splinters and mosaics”?
HOOD: Yes, absolutely. When I was first asked to write this book, I really could not see what the revelation was all about. We had to be a multitude – a complex system of evolved functions. Neuroscientists spend their time trying to reverse engineer the brain by trying to figure out the different functions we evolved through natural selection. So far, we have found that the brain is clearly a complex of interacting systems all the way up from the senses to the conceptual machinery of the mind – the output of the brain. From the very moment that input from the environment triggers a sensory receptor to set off a nerve impulse that becomes a chain reaction, we are nothing more that an extremely complicated processing system that has evolved to create rich re-presentations of the world around us. We have no direct contact with reality because everything we experience is an abstracted version of reality that has been through the processing machinery of our brains to produce experience.
I think Nietzsche’s nihilism and Woolf’s depression could have been reflections of their intuitive understanding that the richness of experience must be made up of a multitude of hidden processes and that the core self must be an illusion – and maybe that upset them. But I don’t think appreciating that the self is an illusion is a bad thing. In fact, I think it is inescapable. My critics often dismiss my position as too reductionist or too materialist. Well, if the human condition it is not materialist, then an alternative good explanation must be non-materialist. Show me good evidence for souls and spirits and then I will be forced to change my view. But so far there has been no reliable evidence for souls, ghosts or supernatural entities that inhabit bodies. They are conspicuous by their absence. In contrast, we know that if you alter the physical state of the brain through a head injury, dementia or drugs, each of these changes our self. Whether it is through damage, disease or debauchery, we know that the self must be the output of the material brain.
LEHRER: If the self is an illusion, then why does it exist? Why do we bother telling a story about ourselves?
HOOD: For the same reason that our brains create a highly abstracted version of the world around us. It is bad enough that our brain is metabolically hogging most of our energy requirements, but it does this to reduce the workload to act. That’s the original reason why the brain evolved in the first place – to plan and control movements and keep track of the environment. It’s why living creatures that do not act or navigate around their environments do not have brains. So the brain generates maps and models on which to base current and future behaviors. Now the value of a map or a model is the extent to which it provides the most relevant useful information without overburdening you with too much detail.
The same can be said for the self. Whether it is the “I” of consciousness or the “me” of personal identity, both are summaries of the complex information that feeds into our consciousness. The self is an efficient way of having experience and interacting with the world. For example, imagine you ask me whether I would prefer vanilla or chocolate ice cream? I know I would like chocolate ice cream. Don’t ask me why, I just know. When I answer with chocolate, I have the seemingly obvious experience that my self made the decision. However, when you think about it, my decision covers a vast multitude of hidden processes, past experiences and cultural influences that would take too long to consider individually. Each one of them fed into that decision.
LEHRER: Let’s say the self is just a narrative. Who, then, is the narrator? Which part of me is writing the story that becomes me?
HOOD: This is the most interesting question and also the most difficult to answer because we are entering into the realms of consciousness. For example, only this morning as I was waking up, I was aware that I was gathering my thoughts together and I suddenly became fixated by this phrase, “gathering my thoughts.” I felt I could focus on my thoughts, turn them over in my mind and consider how I was able to do this. Who was doing the gathering and who was focusing? This was a compelling experience of the conscious self.
I would argue that while I had the very strong impression that I was gathering my thoughts together, you do have to question how did the thought to start this investigation begin? Certainly, most of us never bother to think about this, so I must have had an unconscious agenda that this would be an interesting exercise. Maybe it was your question that I read a few days ago or maybe this is a problem that has been ticking over in my brain for some time. It seemed like a story that I was playing out in my head to try and answer a question about how I was thinking. But unless you believe in a ghost in the machine, it is impossible to interrogate your own mind independently. In other words, the narrator and the audience are one and the same.
As the philosopher Gilbert Ryle pointed out, when it comes to the mind you cannot be both the hunter and the hunted. I think that he is saying that the brain creates both the mind and the experience of mind. So you can become aware of a thought, but you are not independent to that thought. Now that is a very unsatisfactory answer for most people because it simply does not accord with mental experience. We entertain thoughts. We consider options. We gather our thoughts together. We play out scenarios in our mind. However, unquestionable as that mental experience might seem to all of us, there can be no one inside our head considering the options. Otherwise, you would then have the problem of an infinite regress – who is inside their head, and so on, and so on.
LEHRER: I get the sense that not all of your colleagues agree with your deconstruction of the self. Some argue, in fact, that the self is a bit like a wristwatch. Just because a watch is a bundle of different parts doesn’t mean it is an illusion. How do you respond to these critiques?
HOOD: For me, an illusion is not what it seems and for most of us, we consider our self as some essential core of who we are. Most of us feel our self is at the center of our existence responding to everything around us – that notion of an integrated entity is what I am challenging, not the experience of self. Must of us, including myself have that experience but that does not make it real. For example, most us think that we see the world continuously throughout the waking day when in fact we only see a fraction of the world in front of us, and because the brain blanks out our visual experience every time we move our eyes in a process called saccadic suppression, we are effectively blind for at least 2 hrs of the day. This is why you cannot see your own eyes moving when you look in a mirror! So conscious experience is not a guarantee of what’s really true.
As for the comparison with a wristwatch…CLearly, it is composed of many parts and the sum of the parts is the wristwatch. However, a wristwatch is only a wristwatch by convention. An alien or a Neanderthal would just consider it to be some form of complex composite object. You could even use the wristwatch as a weapon to kill small animals. It’s a bizarre use of this object I grant you, but there is nothing inherent or essential to the watch that defines what it is. And even then, a microbe living on the watch face may not consider it an object. So a wristwatch is a wristwatch because of a recognized function and to some extent, a convention – both of which do not confer an independent reality to the mind that is considering it. It depends on how you look at it.
When people talk about the reality of the self as the culmination of its constituent parts, I think that they are falling for the trap of thinking that the self exists independently to its parts, which it doesn’t. In the book, I argue that because we have evolved as social animals, those around us construct a large part of our mental life that we experience as our self. We can see the influence of others but often fail to recognize how we too are shaped. I am not denying the role of genes and temperaments that we inherit from our biology. After all, children raised in the same environment can end up very different but even these intrinsic properties of who we are play out in a social world which defines us. If you think about it, many of the ways we describe each other, such as helpful, kind, generous, mean, rude or selfish can only make sense in the context of others. So those around us largely define who we are. I hope this book will remind us of this obvious point that we so easily forget.