A multiangled exploration of the slippery notion of self-identity.
Levine (Psychology/California State Univ., Fresno; The Power of Persuasion: How We're Bought and Sold, 2003, etc.) explains that contrasting the physical existence of the brain and the ethereal notion of the self cannot provide the answer he seeks. He believes it to be not only inadequate, but also claustrophobic, since it fails to address the “malleability of the self—its multiplicity and plasticity.” The author offers an intriguing set of examples of how frequently we experience multiple identities without recognizing them as such. He begins by examining our physical sense of self and the experience of pain in a phantom limb after amputation of the actual limb. He then moves on to phantom personalities: people who experience multiple shifting personalities or simply fail to recognize their own mirror image. Levine also explores the relationship between thinking—listening to one's inner voice—and the experience of hearing voices, which is sometimes a normal experience but can also be symptomatic of mental illness. We also often fail to account for our future selves in our daily lives. He gives the amusing example of having casually invited acquaintances to visit without expecting them to accept and being astonished when they showed up, and he offers a more distressing instance of how people look forward to retirement and then are bored without employment. The author also refers to a classic psychological experiment in which subjects were asked to play the role of prison guards and were easily induced to behave sadistically toward their prisoners. Out of these varied examples, Levine creates an engaging tapestry that illustrates how, often, what we think of as our fixed identity is an illusion.
A provocative and convincing case of the malleability of what we think of as “our self, which in reality is a multiplicity of characters” developed through time and circumstances.