Author: Chris Niebauer, Ph.D.

ISBN: 978-1-4787-0043-2

This is one of those books in which every sentence seems important. I don’t dare call it a self-help book, as the author shows how futile seeking for one’s “self” is. If the book is an aid to anything, it is to destroy all illusions. I think that’s supposed to be a good thing. But at the end of the book, I still am not sure, for it is by finding patterns in things that we survive. So how can I make a useful commentary on a book that is utterly frustrating – on purpose? Let me try with a few ideas this college professor specializing in cognitive psychology presents:

First: The “self” is not a real person but a person’s perception of who he/she is. In other words, trying to describe one’s self is an exercise in self-delusion, even when trying to be totally honest.

Second: There are no facts that cannot be challenged. Of course we agree on sets of standards in order to live together, but when it comes to doctrine, we have to accept that beliefs are also just perceptions.

Third: “You recognize that no situation can make you feel anything; it is the interpretation of the situation that defines the experience.”

Before you decide the book is not for you, let me say Professor Niebauer does some serious teaching here (on ego, notably). He is a gentle counselor, wanting us to understand we can live with uncertainty and ambiguity. In the very first chapter, he allows that the reader need not be familiar with the workings of the brain to get something from his book. You just think through the exercises. It is a matter of “getting lost in the empty sky.”

We’re not alone. The right and left “halves” of the brain are cross-wired. They are not specialized, but work together to make sense. When we see something, for example, the left half of what we see goes to the right side of the brain and vice versa. We now know that the left brain actually is the better interpreter of experience – the right brain lives in the moment – but the left brain isn’t always correct. It guesses. This is necessary for our survival.

There’s much icing on the cake. I learned new terms, such as “MUSTerbation,” coined by Alfred Ellis, whose psychotherapeutic method of Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT) influenced treatment of emotional health problems to focus rationally on goals for the “here and now.” He said rigid philosophical and illogical beliefs, including what one MUST do, are self-defeating.

I enjoyed the visual exercises, as they show how the brain operates. Niebauer leads us to fulfilling explorations, such as looking up the lyrics for John Lennon’s song, “Imagine,” and watching an animation of the Heider-Simmel Demonstration (how we make up stories). One of my highlighted Niebauer-isms I will copy and place where I can be reminded is this: “Most people take pictures only to enjoy the pictures the next day more than they enjoyed the actual event.” ( What does that say about a “selfie”?)

I especially liked reading of a renewed interest in Henry James’s idea of “the fringe” – the “feeling of knowing” without having clear sensory direction. It’s the “tip of the tongue” experience. It shouldn’t frustrate us or make us feel bad, because that’s our lively brain making connections.

This book of philosophical challenges is well-grounded, culling wisdom from a variety of respected thinkers, but visually, it falls short, even with fascinating illustrations. There are no bullet points and the paragraphs malinger. Still, I do think it is worthwhile, if for no other reason than to be reminded that, “Only about .0000000000000000000042% of the universe is made up of matter.”

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