Psychology and philosophy intersect in a study of mental states that raises the question of what we refer to when we say “myself.”
Ananthaswamy (The Edge of Physics, 2010, etc.) based this book on interviews with neuroscientists, psychologists, psychiatrists, and a number of people who experience a range of mental conditions that include Alzheimer’s, autism, and schizophrenia. Each of these involves a departure from what we think of as normal consciousness; with Alzheimer’s, for example, the loss of memory can be equated to the erasure of much of what makes the victim a distinct individual. Many schizophrenics report that their actions are directed by someone outside themselves. More interestingly, Ananthaswamy looks at victims of several less-familiar conditions, such as Cotard’s syndrome, in which the patient believes they are dead, or victims of body integrity identity disorder, in which the patient seeks to have a body part amputated because it “doesn’t belong to them.” A network has sprung up to connect BIID patients with surgeons who will remove the offending limb; the author interviewed several who had the operation, and from their reports, it ended their distress. A different perspective on the nature of the self comes from those who report out-of-body experiences. For some of these conditions, researchers have studied brain scans to determine what regions of the brain are involved. Ananthaswamy also spends a fair amount of time on theoretical discussions of the nature of selfhood, which does little to shed light on the issues at stake. Perhaps more useful are literary connections, such as discussions of Dostoyevsky’s portrayal of ecstatic epilepsy, Aldous Huxley’s use of psychedelics, and Buddhist texts that raise the question of what the self is. But the main portions of the book are accounts of the experiences of specific patients, intriguing and disturbing at the same time.
A provocative examination of deep questions—not easy reading but worth sticking with, if only for the fascinating case studies.