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The Man Who Wasn't There

Investigations into the Strange New Science of the Self

By Anil Ananthaswamy
15-minute read
The Man Who Wasn't There: Investigations into the Strange New Science of the Self by Anil Ananthaswamy

The Man Who Wasn’t There (2015) explores the mechanisms that form our fundamental sense of self, and shows what happens when things go awry. By examining the surprising effects of disorders like schizophrenia, depersonalization and autism, the book shows just how flimsy the human sense of self can be.

  • People intrigued by the human sense of self
  • Students of neurology, psychology and philosophy
  • Anyone interested in learning about bizarre neurological disorders

Anil Ananthaswamy is a science writer and author of the highly acclaimed book The Edge of Physics. He is also a consultant for New Scientist in London, where he once worked as deputy news editor.

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The Man Who Wasn't There

Investigations into the Strange New Science of the Self

By Anil Ananthaswamy
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Contains 9 key ideas
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The Man Who Wasn't There: Investigations into the Strange New Science of the Self by Anil Ananthaswamy
Synopsis

The Man Who Wasn’t There (2015) explores the mechanisms that form our fundamental sense of self, and shows what happens when things go awry. By examining the surprising effects of disorders like schizophrenia, depersonalization and autism, the book shows just how flimsy the human sense of self can be.

Key idea 1 of 9

Studying people who feel like the walking dead teaches us how the brain constructs our fundamental sense of self.

Who are you? Most of us consider the self – the subject, the "I" – as an unchanging part of who we are. We feel an attachment to this self, as well as the body it inhabits, and have no concern as to whether we are really in control of our bodies or actions; we feel that we are.

This sense of self is the result of our brain’s elaborate work. But what if your brain fails to provide you with a proper sense of self? And what if, as a consequence, you come to the conclusion that you’re actually dead?

As bizarre as it sounds, individuals who suffer from Cotard's syndrome are truly, unshakeably convinced that they’re dead.

Neurologist Adam Zeman reported a particularly interesting case of Cotard’s syndrome. Graham, a middle-aged patient at a psychiatric hospital, claimed that he was brain-dead. After a divorce and a failed suicide attempt, Graham suffered from severe depression and his emotions had lost all vividness. His conclusion: he must be dead. He also claimed to have lost the need to sleep, eat or drink – although he continued doing all these things – and he even stopped brushing his teeth.

When he was informed that he was, in fact, still living, he refused to believe it.

Certain regions of the brain are vital for our sense of self. In the brains of people with Cotard’s syndrome, some of these regions are damaged or misfire, thus disrupting fundamental elements of a person’s sense of self, such as the feeling of being alive.

Physicians scanned Graham’s brain to see what was going on. They discovered that his frontoparietal network, an area of the brain that is involved with conscious awareness, was hardly showing any metabolic activity.

The network concerned with awareness of internal activities (such as emotions) was especially affected, causing him to lose awareness of his emotions and physical needs. Detached from this awareness, he concluded that he was dead.

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