by Anil Ananthaswamy
Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.
Anil Ananthaswamy offers an intimate look at the latest neuroscience of schizophrenia, autism, Alzheimer’s disease and Cotard’s syndrome among others to reveal the awesome power of the human sense of self. Extensive in-depth interviews venture into the lives of individuals who offer remarkable, sometimes heart-wrenching insights. One man cut off his own leg while another became one with the universe.
Where the brain or mind, or body is the self actually located? As Ananthaswamy elegantly reports, neuroscientists themselves now see that the elusive sense of self is both everywhere and nowhere in the brain. The Man Who Wasn’t There takes readers on an emotional, scientific, and intellectual journey, arriving at a new visceral understanding of something we have wondered about since humans existed.
By eschewing Cartesian dualism, I’m not suggesting that the mental can be ultimately reduced to the material. That’s a different debate and neuroscience is a long way off from explaining how the mental arises from the material. But what is clear is that if we understand that the mental and the physical are not as distinct as our intuition leads us to believe, and especially understand that the mental is not lording over the physical, and the body underpins our sense of self (and hence the disturbance of the self), then we can learn not only to coopt the body for treatment but we can start to destigmatize mental illnesses. They ae illnesses like all else.
More than anything else, the writing of the Man Who Wasn’t There brought up an understanding that no matter how severe the condition, there is always an “I” experiencing the condition, its potentially illusory nature notwithstanding. It’s by paying attention to the phenomenology, the lived experience, of a condition that we can really understand what it means to have say, schizophrenia or autism. That means paying attention to the whole brain, body, mind, self and even culture. And instead of referring to someone as a schizophrenic, it’s important to appreciate that there’s someone experiencing schizophrenia. It’s a subtle distinction, but it makes all the difference when relating to, and treating, those suffering. It is a compelling book that helps us understand suffering in neuroscientific terms.