The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity
by Bruce Hood. Oxford
University Press, 2012 ($29.95)

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.

Hood likens this fragile, malleable creation to a spiderweb being tugged in many directions at once. In the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, for example, college students transformed into brutal guards who abused fellow students playing inmates. A milder illustration comes from the questionnaires used to assess personality traits: respondents alter their answers when imagining themselves in different social contexts. Hood argues that our protean personalities allow us to adapt to new surroundings.

Although Hood believes the self may be the greatest trick our brain has ever played on us, he concludes that believing in it makes life more fulfilling. The illusion is difficult--if not impossible--to dispel. Even if we could, why deny an experience that enables empathy, storytelling and love?