The Ego Trick's notes, summary and lessons

By Julian Baggini

Rating: 8/10

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  • It is one thing to say that we need bodies to live, another to say that it is our bodies which define who we are. The fact that bodies are essential does not mean they define our essences.

    Page: 11
  • Bodies are hugely important for who we are, because they matter to how we think and experience the world. Identity cannot float free from the physical. But it does not follow that it is in our bodies that we find the pearl of self. Our sense of self is rooted in what we think and how we feel. Our bodies at least in part shape this sense of self, as a plaster cast moulds a statue. But just as no one would confuse the cast with the work of art, so we should not misidentify the body with the core of self.

    Page: 15
  • 'cognitive dissonance': the mental discomfort caused by holding incompatible beliefs. In such situations humans are very good at eliminating the dissonance by means of rationalisation.

    Page: 27
  • The central insight is that the sense of self is constructed from a variety of different brain systems working together. Some of these are very old and are shared with very unsophisticated animals. Others are unique to higher mammals. A now standard model for categorising those different functions is known as the triune brain, and was proposed by Paul D. MacLean.

    Page: 30
  • If the unified self is an illusion, it is a very persistent one.

    Page: 38
  • We all tend to think there's a connection between the four-year-old child on our first day at school and us now. However, if you try to identify wherein that sameness lies, you find very little. Physically we’re not the same, psychologically we’re not the same, genetically we’re the same but that doesn’t mean anything really; we may have certain patterns of brain organisation that predispose us temperamentally in certain ways, so we’re the same in that sense but then lots of other people probably have the same organisational patterns, so every which way you look at it we’re not really the same. What makes us the same is that we believe we’re the same.

    Page: 38
  • The fragility and robustness of the self is therefore no paradox, but another riddle that makes perfect sense when you understand enough about it. In short, the robustness of the self lies in the fact that it is not a thing at all, but a product of the complex interaction of parts of the brain and body. If something has no essence, then it is hard to destroy it by removing any given part. This means that very few, if any, parts are critical to its existence, and so it can adapt to sometimes massive losses. However, self does still depend on that functioning brain, and the wrong kind of malfunction can dramatically change it or completely destroy it. To put it another way, the self is a construction of the mind, one flexible enough to withstand constant renovation, partial demolition and reconstruction, but one that can be brought down if the foundations are undermined.

    Page: 41
  • We now know that memory works very differently. Each time a memory is recalled, it is changed in some way. Memories are not passive chunks of information. Rather, memory is an active process, the contents of which are forever in flux.

    Page: 47
  • Every time we recall an event, we must reconstruct the memory, and with every recollection the memory may be changed … Truth and reality, when seen through the filter of our memories, are not objective facts but subjective, interpretive realities.

    Page: 48
  • We all ignore and do not commit to memory facts and events that conflict with the way we see ourselves and the world. We remember selectively, usually without conscious effort or desire to do so. And yet because we believe memory records facts, objectively, we fail to see that all this means that we are constructing ourselves and the world. Memories are therefore rather complicated building blocks of the self.

    Page: 49
  • To put it in broader terms, the self is not a single thing, it is simply what the brain and body system does.

    Page: 83
  • You can’t just live in your private reality. What this suggests is that, like the body, the social matters primarily for how it helps frame and shape our psychological sense of self.

    Page: 101
  • The fact that we play different roles does not profoundly challenge the unity of identity, if these roles simply reflect different facets of the self.

    Page: 104
  • What makes for a single person over time is therefore, in the formulation of contemporary philosopher Derek Parfit, psychological connectedness and continuity. That is why a person remains the same person, even when their bodies radically change. That is why we doubt whether the person we once knew still exists when the continuity has been severely disrupted by disease or brain trauma. That is why memory seems intuitively to be so important to personal identity, but is not enough to fix it, because it is the primary but not only source of psychological connectedness and continuity.

    Page: 118
  • The unity we experience, which allows us legitimately to talk of ‘I’, is a result of the Ego Trick – the remarkable way in which a complicated bundle of mental events, made possible by the brain, creates a singular self, without there being a singular thing underlying it.

    Page: 123
  • Both our bodies and our unconscious desires, beliefs and so forth therefore matter to psychological continuity to the extent to which they shape conscious life.

    Page: 131
  • These are the three central facts about ourselves that we have to accept, if we believe that the Ego Trick has done its job and created unified individuals out of a bundle of mental, neural and physial activity. First, the unity of the self is psychological. Second, we are no more than, but more than just, And third, our identity is not what matters.

    Page: 141
  • The central truth is not that character is a myth, but that it varies more according to situation than we tend to assume.

    Page: 161
  • It is often said that the primary purpose of fiction set in the future is not to speculate about what possibly will be, but to shine a light on our human nature.

    Page: 198
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