Am ‘I’ Really ‘Me’?
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Photo from Bruce Hood’s archive
Science, World + People

Am ‘I’ Really ‘Me’?

An Interview with Bruce Hood
Tomasz Stawiszyński
Reading
time 27 minutes

Psychologist Bruce Hood explains to Tomasz Stawiszyński that such ideas as parallel universes or 23 dimensions of reality are not meant to be grasped by our limited brains – unlike religion or magic.

Guided by some mysterious impulse, I leave my hotel two hours before the scheduled time of the interview. I Initially thought that the Department of Experimental Psychology of the University of Bristol was not very far away, but Google Maps shows that it is a good distance from the hotel.

I use public transport to get there, and I arrive 30 minutes early. What I see is… a beautiful estate of single-family brick houses. In a word, nothing that appears to have anything to do with the field of psychology, let alone its experimental branch.

Getting slightly anxious, I walk up to a couple passing me by. “Do you happen to know,” I ask, “where the Department of Psychology is located? I have a meeting with Professor Bruce Hood in half an hour.” As it happens, they turn out to be Ania and Robert, originally from Poznań, Poland, and they have been living in Bristol for five years. The university is in a completely different part of the city, though the street names are the same.

When I reach for my phone to order a taxi, Ania and Robert suddenly tell me that they happen to be going there by car, and they offer to give me a lift.

Phew!

And so I reach the campus 10 minutes before the meeting. When I look around to find the exact address, I can feel someone grabbing me gently by my shoulder. “Are you lost?” asks a man with the looks of a classic British gentleman. When I tell him I am looking for Bruce Hood, he gives me a wide smile and points straight towards a building across from us.

The impression that some invisible force is trying very hard to make sure this interview comes to fruition becomes even stronger when I run into Bruce Hood himself, by coincidence, on the stairs near the entrance. He looks like he has been waiting for me, as if he knew that I would walk in precisely at this moment.

As I enter Hood’s office, I am again caught by surprise. All in all, the man I am about to talk to is a professional sceptic, a psychologist and neuroscientist who methodically dispels various illusions. Like Morpheus from the memorable movie The Matrix, he offers us access to the world as it is, not as it seems to be. In his books, Hood shows that our various metaphysical convictions – for example, beliefs in ghosts, destiny, or some hidden structure lying behind apparently random events – follow directly from how our brains are built. In other words, we believe in these invisible forces because we were ‘designed’ to do so by evolution, not because they actually exist.

Meanwhile, Bruce Hood’s office is filled with symbols of those very powers. What a collection of old horror-movie posters! With their eyes all ablaze, green monsters, werewolves and phantoms all glare down at me from the walls. Plaster skulls decorated with some bizarre inscriptions perch proudly on the shelves. On the desk, there is a piece of paper with mysterious symbols scrawled on it, with the partly-covered word ‘magic’ being particularly eye-catching.

My initial conviction regarding Hood’s views and the possible course of this conversation grows somewhat shaky…


Tomasz Stawiszyński: Are you one hundred percent sure that is no such thing as ghosts?

Bruce Hood: One can never be one hundred percent certain of anything, because that would definitely be unscientific [laughs]. What we can

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Photo by Rose Lincoln/Harvard University
Dreams and Visions, World + People

The Gospel According to Pinker

An Interview with Steven Pinker
Tomasz Stawiszyński

Steven Pinker reveals a terrible mystery to Tomasz Stawiszyński: we are living in the best of all possible worlds. As for our challenges, we are dealing very well with them. There is progress everywhere: less poverty, less starvation, less misery. The optimists are right and the pessimists should despair, because their apocalyptic visions aren’t coming true.

“We are facing a nuclear Armageddon,” said Noam Chomsky. “The Middle Ages are coming back,” declared Anthony Giddens. “A fight for liberal democracy awaits us – and so far we’re losing,” warned Carlo Strenger. “Man is and always will be an irrational being,” stated Tanya Luhrmann.

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