This is the interview with Bruce Hood from episode 004 of the You Are Not So Smart Podcast.
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 the Director of the Bristol Cognitive Development Centre in the Experimental Psychology Department at the University of Bristol.
David: Bruce, in your book, you propose that science has uncovered a lot of evidence to suggest our sense of self is an illusion. What do you mean when you say “illusion?”
Bruce: Well I think that’s probably the first big question that people ask me. Because there are different connotations of the word illusion. I prefer the idea that an illusion is an experience that is not what it seems. So I’m not saying that there isn’t an experience of having a self. But that experience is – it’s not what it seems is what I’m arguing. So we know this really is true, because if you think about other kinds of illusions such as visual illusions, we can measure 2 lines that look different and show they’re in fact the same or vice versa. Or we can see figures which aren’t really there. So this is a common experience in visual perception, to talk about the way that we can see illusions. But in fact, a lot of perception is illusory, because the brain is always constructing some interpretation of the event. And that interpretation is not always faithfully true. So there is an argument to sort of even claim that actually all of perception is an illusory kind of experience to some extent. And that’s not saying that there’s no connection to reality at all, but it is one which is interpreted and abstracted. So what I’m saying is the self, this common experience that everyone has, typically we usually think of our self as inhabiting a body, being coherent, being an individual, having free will. All these components of the self is our common experience, but I would argue that the science reveals that each of those to some extent illusory.
David: So when move my arm, and I will myself to move my arm, what is doing the willing?
Bruce: That’s right, and this is also one of the big questions. Who – it’s very difficult to actually not use the language of self all the time, when we’re thinking about this. Well, in the case of moving your arm, there is a series of unconscious processes – an example came to mind, triggered by what I had just said. You thought of an example to address that. Probably one that you had been mulling over, not necessarily consciously, but one which had been processed. And at some point, this urge to move your arm happened. You’re probably familiar with the work of [Benjamin] Libet who’s shown that motor acts typically – such as wanting to move your arm. The conscious point where you, when you think you’re doing it is a good half second after your brain has already prepared the action. So in that particular instance, that would be an example where your conscious self is actually not initiating the movement. It’s actually occurring to some extent after it. I’m not suggesting that all actions and thoughts work that way. I’m just saying that there can be quite a disconnect between what you think you’re doing and what’s actually happening.
David: That’s probably one of the weirdest things in the world, is to – is when you read about the fact that there was something happening before you realized it, whenever you move your parts of your body around. And it makes it seem, it’s a pretty creepy concept really.
Bruce: It’s a pretty creepy concept. But we shouldn’t be too surprised. I mean, the thing is that we experience consciousness as immediate, don’t we? I mean we have the sense of being in the here and now. But conscious experiences typically build up over time. And certainly motor acts have to be built up over time. So there is that single point where suddenly something enters consciousness as it were. So I think that that’s again part of the illusion. Not only that we’re willing the action, but to some extent it’s taking some time to emerge. I agree these are difficult ideas, and they certainly don’t seem to fit with everyone’s common experience. But of course most of – a lot of our common experience is not what it seems. If you just take vision again, yeah we see the world as a unified, rich, detailed environment. But of course, you’re only really processing the central part of your visual field. There are 2 black holes the size of tennis balls often, which is what corresponds to your blind spot. And of course, every time you move your eyes, you’re effectively blind. So every time you make an eye movement, your brain shuts off the visual information. But you’re never aware of that. When you add it up, you’re blind for about 2 or 3 hours of every waking day. But you would never know that.
David: Yes, in the book you talk about – look in a mirror and move your eyes from side to side. And you, you’re unable to see the motion. But if you look at another person and ask them to do the same thing, you will be able to see the motions.
David: You should ask yourself, “Why is it – why is my brain editing that out?”
Bruce: Exactly. It’s very creepy, isn’t it? I mean you basically get them to focus on their left eye, then focus on their right eye. And then move backwards and forwards. And it’s not something people really immediately – when they see it, then they think something’s very spooky. But yes, the brain has to do that, because otherwise you get seasick. Because the visual, if you think about it, it’s like taking a camera and panning very quickly. The whole field would blur. So you’d be constantly seeing this blurred image. So the brain edits that out in order to maintain the perception of a coherent world.
David: Could you talk a little bit about your hamster study, just sort of explain your interesting copying study and the way people react to it?
Bruce: Right, well this is still under review, so I don’t want to tempt fate on it, but yeah, we have actually talked about this a few times at conferences and presented this data. We’re interested in – it’s really a thought experiment. It comes from the ideas of philosophers like Derek Parfit. But also HG Wells and even Star Trek to some extent. And this is the idea about transporter machines malfunctioning and making identical duplicates. And that’s a kind of interesting idea. If you imagine that you could create a machine which could copy you down to the individual molecule and atom. Would this individual have the same mind? Well if you’re a materialist like I am. And I believe the mind is not a spiritual thing, I think it’s a product of a very complex biological computer that we call the brain. Then it must be the same, but then of course, that introduces all sorts of paradoxes. So we took this idea about the idea of duplicating. And we wanted to test when do children start to have this idea that – or share the notion that many adults have, that you can’t duplicate the mind? And what we did is we convinced them, we had these 2 kind of scientific looking boxes with lots of lights and wires and buzzers and noises. And we put a toy in one, and we’d start the machine up. And then the second box, after a couple of seconds would start by itself. And then when you open it up, there’s an identical toy in the other compartment. So they now see 2 toys, and the children spontaneously think, “Oh, this must be like a photocopier for objects.” Now these are 5 year olds, so they’re quite – we can – they’re quite gullible, but that’s not the point of the experiment. The point is to convince them that we’ve got a machine which can copy anything. And we ask them, “Are they the same?” And they say, “Yes, absolutely identical.” Then comes the interesting part. Then we introduce them to our pet hamster. And we tell them a few things about the hamster. We say that it’s got – I don’t know? It’s got marble in it’s tummy and it’s got a broken tooth. And then we show it a picture or we whisper the name. So we’re giving the hamster physical states – marble in the tummy. But also mental states – telling it a name or showing it a picture. So we pop the hamster into one side of the machine, turn it on again, and lo and behold, when we open up the second compartment, there are now 2 identical looking hamsters. In fact, they’re Russian hamsters that we’ve – they’re siblings that we have. And by the way, it’s all an illusion, it’s a trick. There’s someone feeding in stuff in the back, we don’t actually have a duplicating machine.
David: Good, good.
Bruce: As much as I would like, I wouldn’t be sitting here doing that. I’d be sitting on piles of gold and diamonds. But no it’s an illusion. But it gets – it allows you to kind of– It allows you to create a demonstration to get at what is really a difficult thought, idea, a thought experiment that what – can you duplicate a hamster? So the question we then ask them, “Does this hamster have the same physical attributes as the first hamster? Does it have the same mental attributes?” And what we found is that certainly by 5, 6 years of age, children are already showing the attribution that it doesn’t have the same mind. It can have the same physical parts, so they understand that physical things can be duplicated. But they’re thinking the mind must be something separate. And the effect is even stronger when you give the first hamster a name, an identity. And I think that fits very much with what adults think as well. That there’s something wrong about the idea that you can have somebody else who has exactly the same mind. And so, duplication, we’re happy to think that can happen for physical things, but not for mental states. So this is what we call dualism – mind body dualism. The idea that the mind is separate to the body. And that of course fits with Descartes, the philosopher in the 17th century. He talked about the mind and body being separate. So yeah, we use experiments to tease out these ideas, these complex ideas. And when they start to emerge in children.
David: So would you say your research lends credit to the idea that sense of dualism, the sense that the self is some sort of extra physical thing – is part of our natural intuition, or is it something that’s influenced by culture?
Bruce: Oh I think it’s part of our natural intuition. I think that there’s a good distinction you can draw when talking about the self. Between the I and the me. And this is a distinction that William James drew. So our conscious awareness. Your listeners as they’re listening to my voice and thinking about the odd things I’m saying. That is the I experience of the self. That’s the conscious appraisal. But if I was to ask each listener, “Tell me where you were born? What did you have for lunch yesterday?” That’s the me. That’s the autobiographical memory. And so the I and the me, I think are separate types of ideas. Now I think that I is there very early. And I would hazard a guess that babies, as soon as they’re moving around and becoming aware of their perceptual world around them, they’re experiencing that consciously. But I’m not convinced that they have a me. I don’t think they have an autobiographical sense of who they are. And frankly, how could they when they’re only a couple of minutes old? When you ask people what’s their earliest memories, it’s well known that very few people can remember anything before their second birthday. So I think that the sense of self, the me, starts to emerge as children start to become – get a sense of their own self-identity. So self is-allows you to construct a narrative of who you are, where you’ve been and how it all fits together as a story of who you are. So both the I and the me are aspects of the self, but they involve different components in a sense.
David: So when you use the word illusion, are you saying that the self doesn’t exist, or are you saying that the self is a concept and a construct. It’s just an idea and that–?
Bruce: Yeah, it’s a construct, it’s a narrative generated by the brain. It’s a characterization which allows you to make sense of things and plan and actually interact with each other. Because you couldn’t interact with a multitude of influences. It would just be overwhelming for a brain. So we have the sense of identities and self. But I should point out that illusions can still be very real in the brain. So I think I talked about that in the opening. Showing that a typical visual illusion is one of these ones where you see a square which actually isn’t really there. It’s just made of the contours of all the shapes around it. Now the spooky thing is, is that if you go into the brain, you can find – you can find networks of neurons, which are firing to that imaginary square. So the brain is still registering it, even though objectively it isn’t out there in the world. So I think that that’s something that is quite mind blowing. Even though something isn’t actually there, if you’re perceiving it, then the brain is treating it as if it could be.
David: So why did we evolve this self-illusion? What advantage does it provide us broadly?
Bruce: Yeah well, I think this is a– Well we talk about the I and the me again. I think the I, that conscious awareness is a way of keeping track of the outcomes of all the unconscious processes that are driving our behaviors. So we feel the author, the authorship of action. We feel we are the ones instigating. We are making the choices and decisions. Of course, there are lots of unconscious processes which are feeding into that decision making all the time. Yet we feel consciously that we are doing it. And so this enables us to keep track of the multitude of hidden processes. And that’s – that’s how we know what we like and what our preferences are and what we don’t like. So that’s the I. When it comes to the me, again, I think having a characterization of who you are allows you to interact, and know what you like and plan for the future. So having this sort of summary of experiences, both in terms of the unconscious processes which feed into every decision you’ve made. And also a kind of a narrative or autobiography of who you are just makes life a lot easier to live, having these sort of summaries.
David: So why do we not see this sort of self-illusion in other animals? Why is it seen to be something that’s primarily human?
Bruce: Well we don’t know that for sure do we? Because I mean that, it’s getting to the question of measuring conscious awareness. As much as we’d like to try, we really can’t get inside the consciousness of animals. And I suspect, like many other thinkers, that there’s a varying degree of consciousness. I don’t think that worms are conscious or aphids are conscious. But I can imagine that as you move up the animal tree, that you start to approximate more what it is to have human consciousness. But it wouldn’t be the same as chimpanzees or a gazelle. They’re – clearly consciousness – and I don’t know where it came from or how it evolved. So I haven’t got the answer for that. But it is something that we use very effectively to plan our actions. It gives us a lot of flexibility in our controlled behavior, and to be adaptive, which is something that other animals generally don’t have.
David: Okay, so since we’re in this – we’ve wandered off into the realm of speculation.
Bruce: I thought we’re– I was – okay sorry, yeah go on.
David: No, no. I – since you are a super expert in this, I would love to hear your thoughts on one of my favorite concepts in science fiction. Do you think that perhaps a similarly complex interconnected network could give rise to consciousness and be self aware, like a very complex AI or something like that?
David: What are your thoughts on that?
Bruce: Yeah, I’d have to say I agree with you. Because there’s – I’m a materialist, so I don’t believe that there are spirits and souls. And if you are a materialist, and you believe the brain is a very complex system of structures and neural networks. And frankly, the number of potential patterns is almost infinite. You can’t say infinite, but it’s almost infinite. Then yes, there’s no reason why a sufficiently sophisticated system couldn’t become self-aware. Because otherwise you’d have to have a non-materialist account, which would then introduce pixie dust and spooks and souls and stuff like that. And whilst they may exist – I’m not denying that they don’t exist, I just haven’t seen any reliable, good evidence for them. And we do know that if you change the brain, you change the self. So there’s a lot of good evidence from materialism and precious little for non-materialism. But, don’t get me wrong. I mean, that might sound very reductionist, and people don’t like reduction-ism, they don’t like the idea that you’re simply kind of a meat machine. We’re a very complex meat machine. Because we’re a machine which has evolved in a sea of meat machines. Our brains are sharing information. Which is why we have such a long childhood. If you think about it, we have proportionally the longest childhood of any animal on this planet. And I don’t think that’s just so we can play football or sit around loafing about. It’s because we need to learn to become selves. We need to learn to become socialized, to become integrated. So we’re sharing information, and that information is non-material, clearly, because this is this is – it doesn’t have a material base. It’s word of mouth, it’s imitation, it’s instruction, it’s knowledge. And that’s the information which has been distributed on these brains that each of us have. So it’s – I don’t find it as reductionist as people initially think when they hear this. It’s much more the case of we’re a very integrated system. And I think we’re one of the most social animals on the planet that way.
David: I like the label of meat machine. I’m going to use that. That’s a–
Bruce: Oh I didn’t think, I think it was Marvin Minsky, the AI – that’s why, when you mentioned AI, I immediately thought of Marvin.
David: They’re made of meat.
Bruce: They’re made of meat, yeah we’re wet and squishy.
David: So when we see 2 identical twins, and we notice that they have different personalities–
David: And if we know the self is an illusion, then what is it that we’re actually noticing there in that situation?
Bruce: Yeah, that’s a good question actually. Why isn’t the– ‘Cause in part, in the book I make a big argument that because we are social animals, we’re socially constructed. So a lot of the aspects of who we are really stand in stark reflection to those around us. The way that we evaluate our self-esteem for example, is by comparing our self to others. And of course that varies from culture to culture. In the West, we’re very individualistic. And so when I say that we’re socially constructed narratives, people say, “Well how come then kids – how come twins aren’t – why are they not–? How come children are so different?” And so then we get into the whole issue about genetics and so forth. Well clearly genes and temperaments – and you do inherit a lot in your biology. I’m not denying there is a component which is nativist. There’s a component which we inherit. But that is, always plays out in a social environment. And if it was the case that it was always genetic, then identical twins should be absolutely identical and everything – and yet they’re not. On all measures of personality, they’re generally no more than 50% the same. So there’s a lot of variants, even with genetically identical individuals. Which suggests that the environments are playing an important role. So I think that there’s got to be an explanation of the combination of the biology – what you get from your parents, and the environments in which you’re raised. And I explore this to some extent in the book, talking about the differences between concepts of self in the far East and in the West. Because they are different.
David: Could you speak more to that? What are some of the differences of self from culture to culture?
Bruce: Okay, so if you just – if I say, “David, tell me about yourself.” As a typical Westerner, you will probably describe yourself in terms of attributes and what you own – things like that for example. Your hobbies. If you pose that question to people who don’t live in individualistic societies, more collectivists, which typically is in the far East. But you don’t even have to go – the far East, in Africa for example, there are some tribes – are very collectivist. So for example, they wouldn’t value individual objects in the way that we do. We use objects as a way of kind of extending our self. This was a claim that’s been made by William James again. But other marketing people have known that – we buy things to signal to others who we think we are. We’re using this as a way of advertising who we are. And collectivist societies, if I said, “Tell me about yourself,” they’re much more likely to describe them self in terms of their colleagues, the communal activities. So they see themselves embedded much more socially than an individualistic society. Now that doesn’t mean their brains are different, it’s just the way they’re used to talking about themselves. But here’s an interesting fact. I was telling you about infantile amnesia – that you can’t remember things from your early childhood?
Bruce: Well if you try that same test with children from the East, they’re much better. They have a much better memory about their early childhood. And it turns out the one, the interesting idea is that because the parents speak to them and talk to them about their day much earlier, and they will describe it – who they did what with whom. What they’re doing is they’re helping the child construct their identity. And I think when you facilitate that identity through the narrative telling, that enables you to link all the facts together in a more meaningful way. And that’s why I think they’ve got a bit – much richer sense of who they are. So that’s intriguing.
David: It’s amazing. You also talk in the book about this very specific illusion. You actually write that – you say that our self exists, or your self exists as the reflection the world holds up to us. Could you help me understand that concept?
Bruce: Sure, yeah, yeah. Well of course, actually I happened to have a chance reading of your blog by the way. And I see you had a – you did a piece on Baumeister on ego depletion.
David: Right, right.
Bruce: A fascinating piece by the way, and I’m not just sucking up to you, it’s really well–
David: Oh thanks so much.
Bruce: But you talk about ostracism there. And this is a really important thing. One of the most important things to us as a social species is not to be excluded. Now I know there’s some people who don’t like other people and they’re hermits, but they are the exception – they’re the weirdos, okay? The rest of us want to be accepted. And so we will do anything to ingratiate ourselves into the group. And how we feel about ourselves, our happiness is reflected by those around us. We are so sensitive to criticism. One of the greatest anxieties that people have, and this is based on data from the American Psychiatric Association, is public speaking. Speaking in public is one of the greatest fears that people have. Because they fear that they’re going to be evaluated. And the fear of rejection is so much that we, we just – we can’t abide that. So our self is a constant characterization of how we would like to be seen by other people. So that’s what I mean by the reflected self. That we – and we will shift that of course, we will change the nature of that character depending on the circumstances. So I talk about multiple selves, not to say that there are actually individual selves. But just the way that that characterization can shift from context to context. And I think that explains a lot of anomalies. It explains for example when people say, “I wasn’t myself last night.” Well if you weren’t yourself, then who were you? Or if you say, “Oh it was the wine talking.” Well wine doesn’t talk, does it? I mean, basically when we do things which are so out of character with a characterization, then we try to excuse it, and say that, “It’s not who I really am.” But I think, again, this is a problem of the way that we think about the self as an individual.
David: Yeah it’s as if you have a – and this is just my speculation, but you have a character that you aspire to be. Whenever you fall short of that, that’s when you get that icky feeling and you need to explain it to yourself and other people.
Bruce: Yeah absolutely. I don’t know if you saw – there’s a book, it’s just out by – I think it’s Bronnie Ware, or something like that. She’s an Australian palliative nurse, so she looks after the terminally ill. And I think it’s called, “5 Regrets of Dying.” Where she basically interviewed all these people who are on their death beds about if they had any regrets. And the number 1 regret, by far – was the sense that people didn’t think that they had been themselves, and that they were always trying to please other people. So when you have the clarity of death looming, people sort of look back on their lives and they realize the extent to which they have been living a life shaped by others around them.
David: It’s so fascinating. I had a sociology professor once tell us, tell the class, “Be careful when you label people, because people tend to fulfil the labels that they’re like supposed to.”
Bruce: Absolutely, yeah. And that work on ostracism, it’s fantastic. People, when they’re ostracized, will become obsequious – they’ll do anything to try ingratiate themselves back into the group. And we’ve seen that happen. And frankly, that’s what the problem of teenagers are. They’re trying to establish their self-identity. They’ve got the pecking order. And that’s why it becomes so self-conscious. It’s why boys take risks. It’s nothing to do with this brain being immature. I’ve heard this before. I mean there might be some brain maturation, but I think it’s more to do with the need to establish yourself as bravado, and need to get yourself different to your parents. In a sense, trying to find who you are is really trying to stake your territory out as being different to your parents. Which is why teenage rebellion is so common in the West. Because this is what is culturally what we’re supposed to do. And then that’s – it also explains why you turn into your parents when you reach your mid 20’s. Your biology wins out.
David: That’s true. Oh my God, I am my dad. That happens a lot.
David: Let me ask one last question before we sum everything up. Because this is something I have noticed. You see videos like this on YouTube. When you undergo anaesthesia, you can really feel what you – what I would assume is my sense of self slipping away. And if you’re someone who is sort of babysitting a person who’s getting an operation, you can actually watch as they wake up.
David: Their sense of self return to them. What it is that we’re experiencing? What is it that we’re seeing in those situations?
Bruce: Well you can see it with just morning, waking up every morning. It’s kind of weird that you kind of lose your consciousness every night, and then somehow the brain reconstructs that character in the morning. Well we lead fairly structured lives, so there’s lots of information out there. Although, I’m sure every listener’s had that experience where they’ve woken up in a strange place, and they just feel that sense of anxiety. When you suddenly find yourself in a new environment? That can be a very anxiety inducing situation. But yeah, I mean, whether it’s through anaesthetic or it’s sleepiness or drunkenness – yeah the brain can generally recreate the characterization of the self. Equally of course, you can see it fractionate under the influence of drugs, under the influence of various psychedelics, even alcohol. People’s behavior changes. Which is, by the way, with anaesthetics – people start swearing and doing all sorts of things, and they become dis-inhibited. Because you’ve basically turned off the frontal lobes. The frontal lobes are the structures which make us so different from the nearest cousins, the chimpanzees. And these are the mechanisms which regulate our behavior. So if you think about all the unconscious processes that drives the urges, the need to swear at people – whatever. They’re generally kept under wraps by your frontal lobes. But when you switch those off, then these behaviors come to the fore. But yeah, generally your brain can reconstruct that character, but that’s a constant process of reconstruction. And as we get older of course, you see the progressive loss of that characterization in dementia. That’s, I think, one of the most distressing aspects of the disease. Is that people that you’ve known all your life, suddenly become a different person as parts of their brain start to break down. So again, I keep coming back to this imperative that it must be an emergent property of the meat machine, which is the brain.
David: It’s so odd though that you, that you can – as you go into unconsciousness, or you watch someone going into unconsciousness. You would think – if it was a very simple machine, you are just hitting the reset button on…
David: …on their personality, and so when they return to consciousness, then perhaps they would be slightly different as a self. But it’s as if – as all the systems come back online, the self that you’re used to seeing, you’re used to experiencing returns back in full force, with nothing lost, it’s a–
Bruce: Yeah it is. But I mean of course, the changes are subtle. I mean it does change, your self-changes over the lifetime. And you only have to read things that you wrote when you were 16 or– You can suddenly – you don’t recognize– I mean there is a sense of continuity. And that’s one thing I talk about in the book. And that’s why the sense of self is so compelling. Because it’s always with us when we’re conscious, and we don’t feel that we’re changing as such. But on one level, we do know we are changing, ’cause we’ve all experienced that. But the brain has a whole set of biases to try and re-frame and keep that continuity of self all the time. So for example, cognitive dissonance. We generally think of ourselves as a lot smarter than most people. Better looking than most people, and a better sense of humor. We’re all above average, but we can’t all be above average. So when we do things which don’t fit with that characterization, we re-frame it, just so we maintain the continuity. So for example, if you’re in a relationship that doesn’t work out, usually – not everyone by the way, but if it doesn’t work out, you’ll say, “Oh the other person was a jerk.” Or, “I didn’t want that job anyway.” So you just re-frame everything to fit with this, this characterization of someone who doesn’t waste time or effort on jobs or people. So we’ve got these ways of changing the story, to tweaking it all the time to keep it consistent.
David: Well so if people are super interested in you, and they want to know more about what you’re up to, how could they find you on the internet?
Bruce: Oh I’m all over the place, I’m like a bad rash. Well what they might find really interesting are the Royal Institution Christmas lectures, which I delivered on the BBC in the UK. This is the biggest kind of science lecture for a general public. In fact, it’s aimed at teenagers. So if they Google me, and “Royal Institution,” they’ll get to that page. Of course I have a book out, “The Self Illusion,” which is getting– I think it’s really working. I think people are really interested by it. Because I just assumed these things were so obvious. But you tend to – when you get specialized, you forget what is common sense knowledge, and what is expertise. So that book’s around. But yeah, I’m on YouTube, so I’m around. You’ll find me quite easily.
David: And what are you working on right now, scientifically?
Bruce: Oh well, I’m doing a couple of things. I’m working with Aardman, you know the production company who made – who make the movies, the animations for Pixar. Well they don’t work with Pixar, but they work with Spielberg. Aardman are a Bristol based company. So we’re analyzing children’s interpretation, understanding of cartoons. Which is a lot of fun. I am doing another book called “Brainstorming.” Which is due in January, and then I’m off to the far East in July to film the television series for the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, for the Japanese and also in Singapore. So yeah, I’ve got a busy summer.
David: Well thank you so much for coming on. I love everything you’re up to. I consider you a kindred spirit out there in the world. And just thank you so much, and if you need anything from us, just let us know.
Bruce: Thank you David, it was a lot of fun.
David: Same here.