YANSS Podcast – Episode Four – The Self Illusion

The Topic: The Self

The Guest: Bruce Hood

The Episode: Download – iTunes – Stitcher – RSS – Soundcloud – Transcript

Russian Dwarf Hamster – Photo by cdrussorusso

You are a pile of atoms.

When you eat vanilla pudding, which is also a pile of atoms, you are really just putting those atoms next to your atoms and waiting for some of them trade places.

If things had turned out differently back when your mom had that second glass of wine while your dad told that story about when he sat on a jellyfish while skinny dipping, the same atoms that glommed together to make your bones and your skin, your tongue and your brain could have been been rearranged to make other things. Carbon, oxygen, hydrogen – the whole collection of elements that make up your body right down to the vanadium, molybdenum and arsenic could be popped off of you, collected, and reused to make something else – if such a seemingly impossible technology existed.

Like a cosmic box of Legos, the building blocks of matter can take the shape of every form we know of from mountains to monkeys.

If you think about this long enough, you might stumble into the same odd questions scientists and philosophers ask from time to time. If we had an atom-exchanging machine, and traded one atom at a time from your body with an atom from the body of Edward James Olmos, at what point would you cease to be you and Olmos cease to be Edward James? During that process, would you lose your mind and gain his? At some point would each person’s thoughts and dreams and memories change hands?

The weird feeling produced by this thought experiment reveals something about the way you see yourself and others. You have an innate sense that there is something special within living things, especially people, and most especially yourself. Even if you are a hardcore materialist, you can’t prevent the little tug in your gut that makes you feel something might exist beyond the flesh, something not made of atoms. To you, living things seem to have an essence that is more than the sum of their parts. According to Bruce Hood, this is an illusion.

He created an experiment in which scientists introduced a hamster to a group of 6-year-olds. The researchers told the children that the hamster had a marble in its belly, a missing tooth, and a blue heart. They also showed the hamster a picture, tickled him, and whispered in his ear – these events, the children believed, would be remembered by the hamster. Everything the kids learned about the furball was an invisible trait. The difference was some things were physical aspects and other things were mental states.

Next, they told the children that the scientists had invented a duplicating machine, and revealed two boxes. They then put the hamster in the first box, pretended to copy it, and opened both boxes revealing two identical hamsters. Unbeknownst to the kids, the second box already contained a twin. They asked the dazzled tikes if the copied hamster had all of the same qualities as the original. About a third said it had all, and a third said it had none, but the remaining third said that only the physical properties had been copied. The memories, they assumed, were impossible to duplicate. When they repeated the experiment with digital cameras, telling the kids the cameras had photos inside in addition to blue batteries. The kids saw no problems. The majority assumed everything in the camera could be copied, including the photos.

Hood’s experiment produced evidence to support the notion that at a certain age you begin to see minds and bodies as different things. As you grow up, you grow into believing in selves, in identities that are intangible and can’t be exchanged or copied at the atomic level. The problem, says Hood and other materialists, is that the self is generated by the mind, and the mind is generated by the brain, and the brain is just a sack of atoms, and atoms can be exchanged and rearranged, and maybe, one day, copied.

In this episode of the podcast, Bruce Hood talks about his book The Self Illusion and how ideas of materialism and dualism are being explored by modern science. Hood is a superstar of psychology and the Director of the Bristol Cognitive Development Centre in the Experimental Psychology Department at the University of Bristol. I love this interview, especially the part where he talks about consciousness within an artificial intelligence.

After the interview, as in every episode, I read a bit of self delusion news and taste a cookie baked from a recipe sent in by a listener/reader. That listener/reader wins a signed copy of the YANSS book, and I post the recipe on the YANSS Pinterest page. This episode’s winners are Andrea Niosi and Michael Burke who submitted a recipe for Crispy and Chewy Chocolate Oatmeal Cookies. You can see the recipe at their website here.  Send your recipes to david {at} youarenotsosmart.com.


Download – iTunes – Stitcher – RSS – Soundcloud

Transcript of interview with Bruce Hood

Cookie Recipes

The Therapeutic Touch Study

Bruce Hood’s Website

Bruce Hood discusses essentialism

The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity