email page print pageAll Topic Reviews
Self-Compassion in Psychotherapy10 Minute Solution: Butt Lift10 Minute Solution: High Intensity Interval Training101 Ways to Meditate3-In-1 Total Body Fitness with Desi Bartlett30 Minute Ab & Butt Blaster5 Day Fit Yoga5 Mega Miles with Toning Band7 Weeks to 100 Push-Ups8 Keys to Practicing MindfulnessA Student's Guide to the History And Philosophy of Yoga A.M. EnergyAgeless Mobility: Pain-Free Wellness For LongevityAlmost MeatlessAlready FreeAlternative Medicine?AltruismAnd BreatheAnywhere, Anytime, Any Body YogaAthlete's Guide to YogaBack in Action: Yoga for a Healthy BackBack To Basics: Fitness with Charlotte OrdBalanced AssetsBedroom Body: Booty Burner, Core & Pelvic Floor WorkoutBeginners Meditation & Mindful StretchingBeginners Yoga DVDBeginning YogaBellyFit ElementsBethenny's Skinnygirl WorkoutBody By BethennyBorn to Balance - Balance BasicsBreath-Centered YogaBrightening Our Inner SkiesCalm Body Clear MindCalm Focus JoyCardio for Beginners with Petra KolberChakra MeditationsComplementary and Alternative Therapies ResearchContemplative Psychotherapy EssentialsCore Fusion - Pilates PlusCore Fusion - Pure Abs & ArmsCore Fusion - Thighs & GlutesCore Fusion Body SculptCore Fusion Lean & TonedCore Fusion Power SculptCore Strength PilatesCore Strength Vinyasa Yoga Power Hour with Sadie NardiniCore YogaCultural Healing and Belief SystemsDance Off the Inches: Cardio Hip Hop PartyDeep ListeningDeep Stretch / Yin YogaDetox YogaDr. Andrew Weil's Guide to Eating WellDr. Yoga House CallEasy YogaElement: Barre ConditioningElement: Targeted Toning Pilates for BeginnersElement: Yoga for Stress Relief & FlexibilityElements of Yoga, Earth FoundationsElements of Yoga, Fire DynamicElements of Yoga: Air & WaterEveryday Workout for the Everyday WomanEveryday Yoga for Stress Release Everything VeganExercise for Mood and AnxietyExhale Core Fusion 30 Day SculptFamily YogaFit Family Fun CircuitFit in 5 DVDFlat Abs PilatesFlow YogaFluid Power Vinyasa Flow YogaFully PresentGaiam Pilates Slide and Sculpt Kit with DVDGaiam Pilates Total Toning KitGaiam Yoga For Weight Loss KitGet Fit Through GardeningGet Ripped & ChiseledGet Stronger Bones: 3 Workouts For OsteoporosisHandbook of MindfulnessHappy Yoga DVDHealing the Heart and Mind with MindfulnessHealing through ExerciseHealing Through Movement: Pilates Head to ToeHealing, Hype, or Harm?Healthy Sexy Beautiful Kundalini YogaHemalayaa: Bollywood BootyHow to Cook Everything VegetarianHow Would Buddha Act?In Defense of FoodInsight Yoga Earth: Balancing Yin EnergyInsight Yoga Heaven: Balancing YangIntegrated YogaKids Teach Yoga - Flying EagleKidYogi - Yoga for ChildrenKripalu YogaKundalini Yoga : DVDKUNDALINI YOGA for Your Week - MONDAYKUNDALINI YOGA for Your Week - TUESDAY - CoreKundalini Yoga MeditationKundalini Yoga Meditation for Beginners & BeyondKundalini Yoga Meditation for Complex Psychiatric DisordersKundalini Yoga on the BallKundalini Yoga Solar Power All-In-One WorkoutKundalini Yoga to Detox and Destress DVDKundalini Yoga Transformer All-In-One WorkoutKundalini Yoga: Green Energy of the HeartLetting Go!LifeForce Yoga to Beat the Blues--Level 1LifeForce Yoga to Beat the Blues: Level 2Living BeautifullyLiving Room Yoga DVDLiving Room Yoga: Twist and BendLunar Flow YogaMake It Fast, Cook It SlowManage Your Depression Through ExerciseMaui PilatesMayo Clinic Wellness Solutions for Back PainMayo Clinic Wellness Solutions for IBSMayo Clinic Wellness Solutions for InsomniaMeditations for BeginnersMindful AmericaMindful ColoringMindfulnessMindfulnessMindfulness for BeginnersMindfulness for CarersMindfulness for TwoMindfulness in Plain EnglishMindfulness-Based Treatment Approaches: Clinician's Guide to Evidence Base and ApplicationsMisadventures of a Garden State YogiNamaste Yoga: Season 3 Part 1Natural FlexibilityNew Good FoodNew VegetarianNew York PilatesNext-Level PilatesNutrition Essentials for Mental HealthPain Free at WorkPeace Is Every BreathPerfect in Ten AbsPerfect in Ten: PilatesPerfect in Ten: StretchPerfect in Ten: YogaPilates AnatomyPilates for BeginnersPositivityPower to the Peaceful YogaPower YogaPower YogaPower Yoga: Core PowerPower Yoga: Fat BurnerPower Yoga: Strength and FlexibilityPrenatal FlowPrescriptive StretchingPresence Through Movement: Yin YogaPsychology Moment by MomentPure and Simple YogaPure SculptQi Gong Fire & Water With Matthew CohenQi Gong Flow for BeginnersQi Gong for Low Back PainQi Gong for Upper Back and Neck PainQi Gong for Weight LossQi Workout AM/PMQiGong for Healthy Joints & BonesQiGong IllustratedQuick Blast MethodRadiant Heart Yoga DVDReach - Upbeat Toning & Flexibility for a Dancer's BodyRelax Into Yoga for SeniorsResistance Stretching With Dara TorresRestorative Yoga PracticeRestorative Yoga PracticeSara Ivanhoe's Taste DVDSelfless InsightSoupsSparkSpontaneous HappinessStep By Step Strength TrainingStep by Step Tai ChiStrength & SpiritStress Relief to GoStretchStrong & SculptedStrong Body, Ageless BodySuper Seniors: Box, Balance, & Lift Surf Yoga SoulSybel's Yoga For Sports & FitnessSybel's Yoga For Sports & Fitness Vol 2Tai Chi for Beginners with Grandmaster William C. C. ChenTeen YogaTeenYogi DVDTen Zen Tummy TonersThe 6 Qualities of ConsciousnessThe Accidental VeganThe Art and Science of MindfulnessThe Athlete's Guide to YogaThe Best Things You Can EatThe Booty Barre -Total New BodyThe Complete Book of Raw FoodThe Get Healthy, Go Vegan CookbookThe Harvard Medical School Guide to YogaThe Healing Remedies SourcebookThe Healing Remedies SourcebookThe Kettlebell BoomerThe Light of DiscoveryThe Mandala of BeingThe Meat Lover's Meatless CookbookThe Mindful Way through DepressionThe Nature FixThe Perfect ExerciseThe Psychology of LifestyleThe Qi Healing KitThe Road to Calm WorkbookThe Science of YogaThe Sense of SelfThe Spirit of Buddhist MeditationThe Spirit of Tibetan BuddhismThe Ultimate BALLET YOGAThe Ultra MindsetThe Well-Tuned BrainThe Yin Yoga KitTotal Health the Chinese WayTotal-Body ToningTransform Yourself with Jivamukti YogaTransformative YogaTrudie Styler's Cardio Dance FlowTrudie Styler's Warrior YogaV-Core WorkoutVegan ExpressVegan for LifeVegetarian Visitor 2008Viniyoga Therapy for the Low Back, Sacrum and HipsViniyoga Therapy for the Upper Back, Neck and ShouldersViva Vegan!Walk It Off in 30 DaysWalk to the HITS Radio RemixesWatch Me Do YogaWeight Loss Cardio KickWeight Watchers: Ultimate Belly SeriesYin and Yang YogaYin Yoga DVDYogaYogaYoga - Philosophy for EveryoneYoga : Beginners Flow for EveryoneYoga AnatomyYoga as MedicineYoga Bliss HipsYoga BodyYoga Body : Lean & Defined Total Body WorkoutYoga By Teens DVDYoga Emergency DVD: Arms & ShouldersYoga Emergency DVD: BackYoga Emergency DVD: Full Leg StretchYoga Emergency DVD: HipsYoga Emergency DVD: PregnancyYoga Flow DVDYoga for AnxietyYoga for Back CareYoga for BeginnersYoga for Energy & Stress ReliefYoga for FitnessYoga for MeditatorsYoga for OsteoporosisYoga for Pain ReliefYoga for Strength & EnergyYoga for Strength & FlexibilityYoga for Your WeekYoga in BedYoga Inside Out: Go DeeperYoga Inside Out: The Healing WayYoga Journal's Yoga for StressYoga Journal: Yoga for Strength and Toning DVDYoga Link: Core IntegrationYoga Link: Hip HelpersYoga Link: Shoulder Shape-UpYoga Nidra for Complete Relaxation and Stress ReliefYoga Quick FixesYoga Skills for Therapists:Yoga TherapyYoga Therapy for Back PainYoga Therapy Prescriptions - 60 Health Restorative SequencesYoga to the Rescue - Feel Good from Head to ToeYoga to the Rescue for Back PainYoga to the Rescue for Neck & ShouldersYoga to the Rescue for Pain-Free Back, Neck & ShouldersYoga, Karma, and RebirthYoga: Freedom from Back PainYoga: Relief from Neck and Shoulder PainYoga: Spirit of Vinyasa FlowYogabodyYogawomanYou Can Think Yourself ThinYour Body Breakthru - Your Best Body Circuit DVDYour Brain on Food: How Chemicals Control Your Thoughts and Feelings,Your Brain on YogaZen Encounters with Loneliness
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.