We Who Are Not As Others

Great piece by Sam Harris a few weeks ago on his blog where he interviews researcher Bruce Hood about his new book, “The Self Illusion: How the Brain Creates Social Identity.” Hood argues, as the hypnotic Sepultura song quoted in the title does, that we may not be who “we” think we are:

There is conscious awareness of the present moment that he called the “I,” but there is also a self that reflects upon who we are in terms of our history, our current activities and our future plans. James called this aspect of the self, “me” which most of us would recognize as our personal identity—who we think we are. However, I think that both the “I” and the “me” are actually ever-changing narratives generated by our brain to provide a coherent framework to organize the output of all the factors that contribute to our thoughts and behaviors.

Hood goes on to summarize that while this realization may not be as fun as coming to term with Achor’s happiness philosophies, it’s necessary: “[b]y rejecting the notion of a core self and considering how we are a multitude of competing urges and impulses, I think it is easier to understand why we suddenly go off the rails.” This leads into some deep thought quickly: who are “we?” who am “I?” Are we a mirror of our five closest friends, as some have suggested, or merely “competing urges and impulses?”

Moreover, Hood has some interesting ideas about social networks and their capacity to form us. Naively, I believe that Facebook, Twitter, and the like allow us to become exposed to new ideas and spread interesting ones. While I don’t always seek out opposing views, they’re still present, albeit sometimes “hidden.” Hood argues we subconsciously associate and group our ideas conservatively, with extremity being the result:

There is evidence of homophily – the grouping together of individuals who share a common perspective, which is not too surprising. More interesting is evidence of polarization. Rather than opening up and exposing us to different perspectives, social networking on the Internet can foster more radicalization as we seek out others who share our positions. The more others validate our opinions, the more extreme we become.

My partner and I like to joke, “validation?” whenever one of us says something remotely emotional. But this isn’t a joke on the Internet – with every like and re-tweet we receive, we are both consciously and subconsciously being validated about our beliefs, whether those beliefs are good, bad, or somewhere in between. Again, this is a lot of meta-talk about a status update, but I found Hood’s point intriguing. In the admirable quest of activism, with its heavy online component, are merely becoming more militant, and exclusive? I like to think not. What’s your take?

Photo: Marcus Vegas