BOOK REVIEW: Neurotribes by Steve Silberman

NeurotribesNeurotribes by Steve Silberman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars page


A combination of mystery and proclivity for lightening storms of controversy surrounds autism and related conditions (e.g. Asperger’s.) On one hand, it seems like the number of cases has skyrocketed in the past few decades. On the other hand, it’s hard to tell because long after autism began to be seen as a condition in its own right, children were being diagnosed with a range of other conditions from schizophrenia to brain damage to just plain “being difficult.” So, the question of the degree to which autism is more prevalent versus being more visible and readily-diagnosed remains.

Tellingly, Silberman’s first chapter describes an 18th century English scientist named Henry Cavendish as a way of refuting the notion that Autism is a wholly new phenomenon. The appearance that Autism is new and growing at epidemic proportions has facilitated some spurious thinking, most famously the idea that childhood vaccinations cause of autism. [To be fair, it’s easy to see why parents would want to find a simple, single-point cause, given that one of the previous hypothesized causes (which turned out to be also wrong) was that autism was caused by cold and detached parenting.] However, decades of intense investigation without a consensus conclusion suggests that a simple, straightforward cause-effect dynamic is unlikely and that more complexity is involved.

But the controversy doesn’t stop there. As within the deaf community, an argument has been on the rise that autism shouldn’t be treated as a disability to be cured but rather a difference that can be managed and which offers strengths that can be leaned into. And one of the most intriguing aspects of Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome are the mental strengths that can accompany the condition. Anyone who’s seen “Rain Man” (a chapter is devoted to it) will be aware of how savant-like mental capabilities can accompany the immense social difficulties displayed by people on the Autism Spectrum. Silberman takes on all of this and more as he presents a history of Autism.

The book is arranged into twelve chapters. As mentioned, the first chapter proposes that autism is nothing new and can be seen if one looks closely into select biographies, such as that of Henry Cavendish. While appearances in the historical record may be rare, the fact that some autistics have great mental capacities has resulted in instances in which they produced results so impressive that they remain noteworthy across the ages, despite the fact that such people were often socially isolated. The book next looks at modern-day examples of autistics who are changing the world. After that, having hooked the reader, Silberman proceeds chronologically through the advancements in understanding of autism — giving extensive attention to the work of Hans Asperger, Leo Kanner, and Bernard Rimland — but also addressing others such as Oliver Sachs and Bruno Bettelheim. In addition to discussing the research (which presents many of its own controversies,) Silberman shows how societal views of autism have changed from being considered either a form of retardation or of psychosis to being seen as a difference in abilities that should be respected.

Along the way, one learns a bit about the history of eugenics, and not just among the Nazis. (Hans Asperger’s reputation was sullied by the widespread belief that he’d worked with the Nazis.) Silberman explores the Second International Eugenics Congress that was hosted by the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. We also learn about the movie “Rain Man” and how Dustin Hoffman prepared for the role, and how the movie became a game-changer for the autistic community.

The final chapter shifts gears from what has been happening with autism to how to move forward. It presents the idea of neurodiversity, and considers how it can be accommodated. There is a brief epilogue that revolves around the son of Bernard Rimland. Rimland, while already a psychologist, shifted into the study of autism because he had an autistic child of his own.

I found this book quite intriguing. It is a fascinating exploration of the spectrum of states that we think of as autism. If you have any interest in the mind and neurological conditions, you’ll likely find it an educational read.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The Man Who Wasn’t There by Anil Ananthaswamy

The Man Who Wasn't There: Investigations into the Strange New Science of the SelfThe Man Who Wasn’t There: Investigations into the Strange New Science of the Self by Anil Ananthaswamy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page


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.

View all my reviews