The multiplicity of the self

Stranger in the Mirror: The Scientific Search for the Self by Robert V. Levine (Robinson; £14.99). Reviewed by Chris Fullwood, University of Wolverhampton.

It was the venerated 20th century philosopher, Popeye the Sailor, who once uttered the immortal line ‘I yam what I yam’. It may not be the most profound statement, yet it accords with one school of thought on the self; that each of us has a core ‘true’ self, which is stable, authentic and consistent. There’s certainly something comforting in the belief that each of us has a unique set of persistent characteristics which help to define us as individuals, particularly in an ever-changing and unpredictable world. But discoveries in the field of neuroscience are starting to cast doubts on this perspective, and this is one of the areas Levine delves into in Stranger in the Mirror.  

If you’re looking for a ‘whodunit’ type revelation to the question: ‘Where does our sense of self come from?’ (Was it the ‘brain’ in the pantry with the lead pipe or the ‘collection of our lived experiences’ in the kitchen with the rope?), you might be disappointed. The answer seems to be, we don’t really know quite yet. If you’re looking for a cliff-hanger about how academics prefer to conceptualise the self, you won’t need to take a sneaky peak at the last page to get your answer. Indeed, Levine gives the game away in the opening chapter – ‘we are more like a republic than an individual, a collection of the many, diverse and sometimes adversarial’, or using my girlfriend’s favoured analogy, the self is a collection of ‘boroughs’. I’ve found that the trick is in knowing which particular ‘borough’ you are interacting with at the moment.

The self is multifaceted, it is dynamic and it is ephemeral. But that’s not to say that the journey to understanding the nature of self is not a fascinating one and in Stranger in the Mirror Levine guides us expertly through the diverse research endeavours which have sought to answer one of the human race’s most enduring existential questions; ‘who am I?’. Levine draws upon assorted case studies, theoretical perspectives, philosophical treatises and cutting-edge research to shed light on the multiplicity of the self.

Given my background in cyberpsychology, I was particularly enthralled by the section in which he discusses the use of virtual reality for body swapping. The ease with which users seem to readily accept another’s body part as their own throws up thought-provoking questions about the extent to which we define ourselves by our physical appearance, and how easily we could adapt to extreme body modifications. From mirror-self misidentification syndrome to dissociative identity disorder, Levine highlights the fragility of the self and how the notion of a fixed identity may in fact just be an elaborate illusion.

This book will certainly get you thinking and there is so much to like; it is engaging and it is uncompromisingly diverse in its coverage. I found the book to be an immaculate combination of challenging yet accessible (although at times it feels like, as a social psychologist, Levine is more outside of his comfort zone with the ‘harder’ neuroscience literature).

You may come away feeling much less sure about who you are than when you started. Old hands like myself, who teach and research the self, have started to become more comfortable with these ideas, but for those who cling to the notion of a unitary and stable self, this can be a disturbing and difficult to reconcile revelation. To quote another deep-thinking fictional character, Detective Rust Cohle from the TV series True Detective, ‘I think human consciousness, is a tragic misstep in evolution… we are things that labour under the illusion of having a self; an accretion of sensory, experience and feeling, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody is nobody’.

A charming, engaging and always intriguing exploration of the nature of self – recommended reading.

- Reviewed by Chris Fullwood, Reader in Cyberpsychology, Department of Psychology, University of Wolverhampton

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