Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity

When a newborn baby's eyes scan a room, Hood writes, the infant does not decide where to focus. Instead inborn cognitive mechanisms respond to the environment and focus the baby's attention. Later in life, the child develops self-awareness and the conviction that he consciously controls his body and brain. Yet what if this belief does not reflect reality?
In The Self Illusion, Hood argues precisely that. After exploring various definitions of self--a soul, an agent with free will, some essential and unique set of qualities--he concludes that what we experience as a self is actually a narrative spun by our brain. To see why, consider an experiment in the 1980s by physiologist Benjamin Libet. He showed that neural activity reveals what an individual will do before that person becomes conscious of having made a decision. Perhaps our sense of free will is just a way for our brain to organize our actions and memories, as Harvard University psychologist Dan Wegner has argued. Building on Libet's and Wegner's work, Hood proposes that our sense of self is an after-the-fact organizational trick for the brain. As with a just-so story, our brain synthesizes the complex interactions of biology and environment to create a simplified explanation of who we are....

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