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.