Thursday, 14 April 2016

The Man Who Wasn’t There

This post is by Anil Ananthaswamy, science journalist and author, and consultant for New Scientist magazine. He has previously worked as a staff writer and deputy news editor at New Scientist’s London offices. He teaches an annual science journalism workshop at the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore, India, and has been a guest editor at the University of California Santa Cruz’s science writing program. In this post, Anil presents his new book, The Man Who Wasn't There.

Many people have asked me why I wrote The Man Who Wasn’t There (which examines what neuropsychological conditions such as Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia tell us about the human sense of self), especially since neuroscience is far removed from the topic of my previous book, The Edge of Physics, which dealt with cosmology and astroparticle physics. Curiosity and a desire to write brought me to science journalism—and I went where they took me. The quest to understand the universe and our place in it, and indeed our quest to understand ourselves, has no boundaries.

Oddly, the human sense of self is about boundaries—between the self and non-self, between me and the not-me. How real is this perceived boundary? How much of it is fabricated? Is there a fabricator? Our phenomenal self—the self that each one of us perceives oneself to be—is obviously real. The phenomenal self has a perceived unity to it. There’s the unity of experience in the present moment—where all experiences feel as if they are being had by the same entity. There’s also the unity of experience over time: if you were to remember a younger self or imagine a future self, the remembering or imagining also feel as if they are being experienced by the same entity. But is this entity, or self, real, in the same way that fundamental particles of nature are real? Philosophers and theologians have been trying to ask and answer such questions.

To understand how neuroscience is answering such questions, I turned to maladies of the self, conditions that change our experience of who we are. Each condition, whether it’s autism, or depersonalization disorder, or ecstatic epilepsy, alters our sense of self. By examining the phenomenology of the altered selves and the correlated neurocognitive mechanisms, we can delineate the self (the subjective experience of being an “I”) from aspects of the self, or, we can separate the experiencing “self-as-subject” from everything else that constitutes our experience of being a phenomenal self.

The empirical evidence that neuroscientists are accumulating by studying neuropsychological conditions can even hold philosophers and theologians accountable by requiring that their ideas and theories explain why maladies of the self feel the way they do. For instance, some philosophers have argued that our sense of being an “I” comes about because of the narratives or stories spun by the brain’s cognitive machinery and that if our narratives were to disappear, so would the “I”. But Alzheimer’s challenges this assumption. The neurodegenerative condition destroys memory, cognition and hence one’s narrative self, but it’s far from clear that people even in the very late stages of the disease are devoid of an “I”. Most neurologists and caregivers would agree that there is still an “I” that can feel pain or hunger as its own. Who or what is that “I”. That question is at the heart of The Man Who Wasn’t There.

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