Call me Ishmael.
And if you write me
send it by fish mail,
addressed: high seas.
What is the self, and is the self a distinct entity as we feel it to be? Those are questions that philosophers and theologians have been debating for centuries, and they’re the questions at the heart of this book. Ananthaswamy takes a crack at answering by looking at several of the ailments and mental phenomena that seem to steal or morph what we think of as the self.
While there are many distinct views on the self, the predominant view has always been the one guided by the way it feels. And it feels like there is some non-material entity—call it a soul, a spirit, a consciousness—that resides in the body though is–in certain extraordinary circumstances–detachable from the body (e.g. death.) This gave rise to a widespread belief that while our physical bodies may have a shelf-life, this non-material bit is eternal—or at least not governed by physical laws.
However, as science has illuminated the workings of the brain, it looks more and more as though this “non-material entity” is, in fact, an emergent property or illusion that derives from the activity of our material brain / nervous system. One of the phenomena that a materialist explanation would have once had great difficulty in explaining is the out-of-body experience [OBE.] Historically some may have written these off as fraud, but the cases are common enough and described similarly enough that that strains credulity. However, we now have strong reason to believe that the OBE is a specific kind of hallucination, and that reason is that OBEs can now be consistently induced by neuroscientists applying an electrode to a specific point on the brain. As for the old schools of thought, it seems that the Buddhists were by far the closest when they suggested that there is no self—that it’s illusory.
Ananthaswamy’s book consists of eight chapters. Each of the chapters addresses a particular ailment or phenomena of the mind that has something to tell us about what the self is and what it isn’t. If a specific injury, ailment, or consumption of a chemical cocktail makes one feel as though one has lost part of what it feels like to be a person—then we may get some idea where the self resides or where the series of neural activities that feels like a self resides. (Spoiler: There is no single spot in the brain where the self or sense of self resides.)
The first chapter gets straight to the heart of the matter by describing Cotard’s syndrome, a disease in which a person swears that he or she doesn’t exist or is dead. This affliction seems to attack the most fundamental sense of self—the gut feeling that one is a distinct living being. Another way that we think of ourselves as that distinct living being is through our life story. Chapter two looks at how diseases like Alzheimer’s shatter this sense of self-hood.
Another basic level at which we feel the self is in its correspondence to the confines of our body. However, not even this physically rooted approach to self is unassailable. One may be familiar with cases of phantom limb syndrome in which amputees feel a lost limb. Incidentally, this is another reason people have felt there was a soul—one that didn’t know the body was amputated and kept its original non-material shape, an idea that V.S. Ramachandran’s work showed was likely not the case. Ananthaswamy, however, focuses on an ailment that is the exact opposite of phantom limb syndrome, those who feel that one or more of their limbs are foreign entities. This is where the book’s reporting is at its most intriguing as the author manages to speak with a doctor who does amputations for such people at no small risk to his medical credentials.
In chapter two, the author investigated the self as a collection of memories—in other words, the things one has done. Chapter 4 explores people who don’t feel a connection between the actions they are performing and the self even as they are performing said actions. The cases discussed involve patients with schizophrenia.
Chapter five examines depersonalization syndrome. With this syndrome, there’s an emotional disconnect which people feel as being in a dream, but during the patients waking life. The chapter focuses on two cases which give different means by which this can occur. One was an individual who was abused as a child, and the ailment seems to have been a defense mechanism to disconnect from the trauma. The other was chemically induced—though, disconcertingly, the effects went on long after all of the drugs should have been out of the woman’s system. Chapter six explores another set of afflictions involving stunted emotional response, and those are the autistic syndromes. The principle case involves a high functioning Asperger who was intelligent enough to learn how to respond even though he had no emotional cues. A quote from that individual that sums up his experience of the world nicely is, “I love my sister, but it’s done purely at a cognitive level. I think love for her; I don’t feel love for her.”
The penultimate chapter is where the author describes case of OBE and other hallucinations in which the self seems to migrate, split, or wander. The final chapter continues examining the self free of the body by considering cases of epilepsy. Epilepsy can have many powerful mental effects. One may be familiar with the many cases of “spiritual awakening” that have been attributed to temporal lobe epilepsy. And some have speculated that Joan of Arc, St. Paul of Tarsus, and Mohammed all suffered from epilepsy. Ananthaswamy also presents cases of people on psychedelics—most famously Aldous Huxley.
There’s an epilogue that both tells us what the Buddha had to say about self during his first sermon at Sarnath, and sums up what’s been learned about what the self isn’t and what it seems to be. The book is annotated, but there are no graphics or other ancillary matter. It’s really not needed as the focus throughout is narrative, the telling of fascinating cases that illuminate the experience of the self. I appreciate that the author went out and sought some unique cases. I read a fair number of pop neuroscience books, and there are a few cases that get rehashed ad infinitum (Phineas Gage, H.M. etc.) It’s not that Ananthaswamy doesn’t go retell a few of the classics, but he also does some original investigation. The chapters on depersonalization disorder and amputation show this distinct touch.
I’d highly recommend this book for those who want insight into the nature of the self from a scientific perspective. I’ve read many books that touch upon the subject as part of a broader theme, but this is the first I’ve read that focuses entirely on this subject from a scientific rather than philosophical or spiritual perspective.
This is the book that started me on a fascination with the science of the subconscious mind. In it, Eagleman explains that our subconscious mind has a much bigger role than our consciousness lets us believe. We feel that the conscious mind is in charge of the whole enchilada of our mental being, but in reality the conscious is often late to the party while still managing to weave a narrative about how it saved the day. The conscious has an important role, but one much more limited than it seems, but because consciousness Is the frame through which we are aware the world, it’s easy to miss how much the subconscious handles.
The book is organized into seven chapters. The first chapter sets up the notion that the mind is like an iceberg, the subconscious is the more massive portion that lies below the waterline, and the conscious is the peak that lies above.
The second chapter explores the interface of the senses and the mind. We think that our sensory experience of the world is like looking through a spyglass, but it’s much more a secondary rendering—subject to editing and corruption. Eagleman discusses many illusions that serve to show us that our sensory experience is not as true as we feel it to be.
Chapter three investigates why it is that in some cases the more we think about a task the worse we do with it, and how biases show up even among those who swear they don’t have a racist notion in their body. A number of interesting cases, such as chicken sexing, are used to convey where our conscious mind is of no use to us. Anyone who’s practiced a martial art is aware that sometimes thinking is death.
The fourth chapter explains concepts like instinct and our perception of beauty and attractiveness. It’s entitled, “The Kind of Thoughts That Are Thinkable,” and that gives some insight into the theme.
The next chapter covers one of the most important ideas of the book, that our brains are not all on one page on any given idea. This is one thing that our conscious mind dupes us into believing, that we have a certain belief and that we are uniformly of that view. In fact, our reasoning and emotional systems often have quite different perspectives on a matter. As I mentioned earlier the people who think they don’t have a racist notion in their body. In one sense, they are correct in that they can reason that it’s illogical to think of people differently based on skin color, but such a person still often shows a marked bias when asked to make associations that are made more quickly when they are not at odds for the subconscious.
Chapter 6 gets into the policy ramifications of what has been discussed to this point. If decisions aren’t a product of the conscious mind, then are we right to send people to prison for crimes that they didn’t consciously decide to commit and couldn’t have consciously overruled? The case of Charles Whitman who took up a sniper position in the University of Texas clock tower in 1966 takes center stage in this discussion. Whitman suffered a great change of behavior that was posthumously (by autopsy) linked to the development of a tumor. Eagleman proposes that the traditional question of blameworthiness is the wrong one.
The last chapter reflects upon what it means to be a human person in light of a mind arising from material activity. A central idea is the self as an emergent property rather than the “thing” we feel it to be.
The book presents many monochrome graphics of various types to support the text. It’s also annotated and has a substantial bibliographic section.
I’d recommend this book for anyone interested the nature of the subconscious mind. Eagleman uses interesting cases to demonstrate his points. This makes it quite readable while conveying some challenging ideas.
Addiction? That seems harsh. It feels like I’m equating a person who has his phone in hand several times every hour with a heroin junky or a nymphomaniac. But, the difference is in the word “Manage.” I wouldn’t write a post entitled “How to Manage your Heroin Addition.” I’d write one called, “Quit that Shit Before it Kills You.” I’m not suggesting that one needs to do away with checking email and social media. These are great tools that allow us to be much more productive (potentially.)
Still, if we’re honest about it, most of us at some point get caught up in the compulsive checking of emails, social media, internet feeds, click-bait sites, sale pages for online retailers, and stats pages. There’s no denying it. A pile of evidence has accumulated about the extent to which people are dismayed by their own e-world activities. I just started reading Kotler and Wheal’s “Stealing Fire” (out February 21, 2017) and they site a study that found that about 2/3rds of those surveyed admitted checking their status page when they woke up in the middle of the night. It might seem off topic for book about altered states of consciousness to report on such matters, but its not because it’s all about the pursuit of a neurochemical bump. (Also, as I’ll discuss, a major problem of this addiction is in keeping one from slipping into the Flow with one’s work, family, or hobby activities.)
So, below are five methods I’ve found useful in my own on-going struggle with this addiction.
5.) Set a timer: The problem with this addiction is that when one falls into habitually checking one’s status, one isn’t able to stay on task, and that means that one won’t achieve that elusive state of optimal performance called Flow. One needs time to immerse oneself in a task.
When I’m writing and editing, I set a timer, and until it beeps I do nothing off topic. I don’t make it some Herculean effort. I use 60 and 90 minute intervals. After the alarm rings, I can check email, do Tai Chi, get a cup of coffee, or work on my handstands. A longer time period may be more–or less–beneficial for you. (Isaac Asimov was said to only take a break after 5,000 words, but few writers have that in them.) The point is to make it long enough that one can get into a focused state of mind, but not so long that you become distracted and run down.
4.) Know your high energy period: This point relates to the last because it’s about blocking one’s productive time, and putting the more Flow-demanding activities when one is at one’s best. e.g. Are you a lark or an owl? (i.e. morning person or evening person.)
For example, I’m a morning person. This creates a potential problem. While I find it easy to get up with the sun, I’m at risk of saying, “Oh, I’ll just check emails, Facebook, my blog stats, a couple YouTube channels, and then I’ll get to work.” Then it’s noon, and the hours in which my mind was at its very best are gone. From 7pm until I go to sleep is when I should check these feeds because by that time my mind isn’t good for editing or writing tasks that require a high level of attention to detail.
3.) Go Cold Turkey [for a few days]: Sometimes it’s easier to make changes when one is forced by circumstance to quit. Then one can be more conscientious in resumption of the activity in question. (Moving to India helped me break a lot of bad habits.) If nothing else, this will help to give you confidence that the Earth won’t roll off it’s axis just because you aren’t checking on it twice an hour.
I can offer two examples from my own life. Every year my wife and I go on an extended trek in a place where there are no bars and saving batteries is essential. The past couple years, this has been in the Himalayas because we’ve been living in India, but anywhere remote will work. I also did the Vipassana Meditation Course last year. (If you’re interested in the latter, you can read my account of it here.)
2.) Meditate: Why? Because when you start meditating regularly, you tend to do less and less out of mindless habit. You become conscious of what you’re doing, and that’s the first step to making changes. You also start to become attuned to those very subtle dopamine bumps, and in that way you aren’t fighting it the impulse blindly. The high of the click is infinitesimally more subtle than taking mind altering substances, and so it’s easy for this all to take place below the waterline (analogizing the mind to an iceberg but instead of the majority of the mass of ice below the waterline, it’s the conscious mind above and the subconscious below.)
1.) Substitute: In the immortal word of the rock band “The Who.” If your problem is so extensive that it does more than block your attempts to hit the Flow, you may need to find a healthier alternative to wean yourself away.
What does one look for in a substitute? If it’s going to fill the same space, it requires immediate feedback and a mix of “fails” mixed in with “successes.” These are the components that make the e-world so addictive. We know immediately whether we got something or not, and that keeps us clicking–not unlike the famous rats that would keep pressing a button for pleasure even to the point of forgetting to eat.
Some people may work on games that will help build their brain. (Warning: just don’t trade one unproductive addiction for another.) I’m an advocate of working on physical activities (e.g. trying to develop new capabilities in calisthenics or yoga), but these often involve a demoralizing amount of fails to reach the optimal level (the optimal being that one has enough fails to keep it from being boring but not so many that one is brutalized.)