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The Sense of SelfReview - The Sense of Self
Perspectives from Science and Zen Buddhism
by Richard W. Sear
Palgrave Macmillan, 2017
Review by Joseph Higgins
Sep 19th 2017 (Volume 21, Issue 38)

Throughout The Sense of Self, Richard Sears writes with the assurance of someone who is a true expert in their field. In this instance, the 'field' in question is the profound and timeless musing, 'who am I? – a question that plagues both scientists and philosophers. Rather than taking the typical approach to answering this multifarious question, which is to parse it down to an esoteric perspective, Sears is content to embrace the matter from all angles, resulting in a richly multi-disciplinary monograph that breaches diverse insights from empirical research and principles of Eastern wisdom traditions.  

          Thankfully, due to Sears' positions as a Clinical Psychologist, an Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioural Neuroscience, and a Zen master (to name but a few!), he is perhaps uniquely qualified to indulge in such a panoramic examination of the sense of self. In keeping with the title of the book, Sears draws on his varied professions to consider general existential questioning of the self (chapter 1), the neuroscience of selfhood (chapters 2 and 3), mental health disorders (chapther 4), insights from natural sciences (chapter 5), Zen Buddhism (chapter 6), and how all of these subjects interconnect to produce a cohesive sense of self (chapter 7). Moreover, Sears' intentions go beyond mere exegesis: he also hopes "to introduce you very directly to yourself" (p. 13), and chapter 8 is a procedural exposition of how one may use one's newfound knowledge in everyday life.   

            Thus, the scope of the book goes far beyond what one may expect from a typical neuropsychological or existential investigation into the nature of the self, such as Susan Greenfield's The Private Life of the Brain or Alan Watts' The Book, both of which Sears' readily references. Interestingly, it is this wide-reaching scope that is both the boon and bane of Sears' work.

          On the one hand, the book's diversity is a clear strength. Early on, we are provided with "a new[…] definition of self" (p.14) and the subsequent content is devoted to clarifying and expounding this definition. We thus glean certain key aspects of Sears' views prior to any in-depth analysis or argumentation. These key aspects can be broadly split into three: (i). 'self' is a label for a dynamic ontological process of "consistently repeating patterns" (p.14) of behaviour and cognition; (ii). the sense of self emerges from neural processes, which are both innate and environmentally conditioned, giving rise to the epiphenomenal experience of independent agency (which persists in spite of one's organismic interdependence with a worldly context); (iii). the strength of one's sense of self depends on the intensity of perception- and memory-based feedback loops. Of these three aspects, the latter two seem to harmonise most seamlessly with Sears' expertise. For instance, the discussion across chapter 2 of the "many different brain regions and functions [that] operate together to create the sense of being an independent self" (p.18) is not merely an expository account of typical neural structures and functionality, but a detailing of cutting-edge research into neural plasticity and memory processes, which are later elucidated as being influenced by both genetic 'programming' and "society and culture" (p.167). Similarly, the overview of psychopathologies in chapter 4 does not merely focus on neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer's disease, but also considers environmentally induced issues such as social anxiety and body dysmorphia. This combination of 'inner' and 'outer' contributors to the sense of self is further strengthened by considerations of emotions and their connection to memory (pp.47-49), language (pp.50-55), bodily 'illusions' (pp.26-28), and the psychology of sociocultural roles (pp.110-115). There are also frequent referrals to the various forms of memory (pp.32-34, 64-66, 108, 117) which are responsible for the internalisation of repeating evaluative thought patterns that lead to a fixed sense of identity (pp.170-171). As readers, we are thus taken on a journey that straddles neuroscientific- ('subpersonal') and personal-level insights into 'self'.

          Interspersed amongst these explorations of the neuropsychological emergence of the sense of self and the dependence of the sense of self on the internalisation of repeating thought patterns, we find areas in which Sears' interests in clinical psychology and Eastern wisdom are being empirically combined. For instance, the Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT; pp.52-54) and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT; pp.25-26, 49, 75) studies that are discussed clearly endorse Sears' belief that the self is a "dynamic and fluid" phenomenon that can be appreciated in a more enlightened way by avoiding harmful ruminations and achieving a "dropping off of body and mind" through meditative practice (p.171). As this is the kind of juncture at which Sears' dual expertise in clinical psychology and Buddhist practices is most keenly felt, there perhaps could be more on exactly what ACT and MBCT can tell us about the self. That is, whilst mindfulness allows one to attain a more content and universally connected sense of self, there is little on the neural drivers behind this attainment, nor is it clear that mindfulness facilitates escape from perception-memory feedback loops (rather than simply engendering new ones).

          Likewise, there are other areas where a little more nuanced detail regarding the exact nature and manifestation of the self would be beneficial. Returning to Sears' broad claim stated in (i), above, there are some philosophical specifics that are left unanswered. For example, we are told that "self is only a label", yet there is only a short discussion of the Buddhist notion of Anātman (pp.139-141), which finds its Western counter-part in the 'no-self' view of Hume (1738/2004) and others. The manner in which there is no real self, yet there is a 'conventional self', is in need of ontological clarification. Moreover, it is unclear if our sense of self is essentially manifest, or if it is multi-dimensional. The idea of a 'label' suggests the necessity of language, so can only linguistic beings be 'selves'? Or do pre-linguistic factors such as proprioceptive awareness encompass some sort of 'minimal' self that is later labelled? And if 'self' is the outcome of self-labelling, what is the significance of the narratives and views of others in reference to any given being?

          I have no doubt that Sears could satisfactorily answer the questions and issues raised here. Indeed, I think that the only reason that the issues arise at all is the constraints of producing a normal length book on such a complex topic. Perhaps if chapter 5, which serves to emphasise the uncontroversial view that any 'self' is a small aspect of an interconnected universe, had been abridged, then there would be more room for Sears to iron out some of the philosophical particulars about the (sense of) self that he is concerned with.

          Ultimately, however, these are the most minor of gripes. On the whole, this book can only be considered a success in its illuminating explanation of how a fluctuating collection of interacting cells within an unceasingly mutable environment give rise to a cohesive, persistent sense of self. Has it helped me to answer the age-old question, 'who am I?'? It's certainly made me think deeply about it – and what more could an author ask for?



- Greenfield, S., 2000, The Private Life of the Brain: Emotions, consciousness, and the secret of the self, New York: Wiley

- Hume, D., 1738/2004, A Treatise of Human Nature, Oxford: Oxford University Press

- Watts, A., 1966, The book: On the taboo against knowing who you are, New York: Random House


© 2017 Joseph Higgins


Joseph Higgins, Edinburgh.


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