Summary and book reviews of The Man Who Wasn't There by Anil Ananthaswamy

The Man Who Wasn't There

Investigations into the Strange New Science of the Self

by Anil Ananthaswamy

The Man Who Wasn't There by Anil Ananthaswamy
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2015, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Aug 2016, 320 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
James Broderick

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Book Summary

A tour of the latest neuroscience of schizophrenia, autism, Alzheimer's disease, ecstatic epilepsy, Cotard's syndrome, out-of-body experiences, and other disorders—revealing the awesome power of the human sense of self from a master of science journalism

Anil Ananthaswamy's extensive in-depth interviews venture into the lives of individuals who offer perspectives that will change how you think about who you are. These individuals all lost some part of what we think of as our self, but they then offer remarkable, sometimes heart-wrenching insights into what remains. One man cut off his own leg. Another became one with the universe.

We are learning about the self at a level of detail that Descartes ("I think therefore I am") could never have imagined. Recent research into Alzheimer's illuminates how memory creates your narrative self by using the same part of your brain for your past as for your future. But wait, those afflicted with Cotard's syndrome think they are already dead; in a way, they believe that "I think therefore I am not." Who - or what - can say that? Neuroscience has identified specific regions of the brain that, when they misfire, can cause the self to move back and forth between the body and a doppelgänger, or to leave the body entirely. So where in 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 human brain.

An allegory about a man who was devoured by ogres first appears in an ancient Indian Buddhist text of the Madhyamika (the middle-way) tradition. It dates from sometime between 150 and 250 CE and is a somewhat gruesome illustration of the Buddhist notion of the true nature of the self.

A man on a long journey to a distant land finds a deserted house and decides to rest for the night. At midnight, an ogre turns up carrying a corpse. He sets the corpse down next to the man. Soon, another ogre in pursuit of the first arrives at the deserted house. The two ogres begin bickering over the corpse. Each claims to have brought the dead man to the house and wants ownership of it. Unable to resolve their dispute, they turn to the man who saw them come in, and ask him to adjudicate. They want an answer. Who brought the corpse to the house?

The man, realizing the futility of lying to the ogres—for if one won't kill him, the other one will—tells the truth: the first ogre came with the ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Ananthaswamy deserves credit for wading into this fraught and fecund arena. His book will strike many as a revelation. He presents a persuasive case that it's time to redefine the way we think of personhood, and that the paradigm of defining who we are by how we appear in the world no longer holds currency. Taken as a whole, the work that Ananthaswamy presents offers a prismatic portrait of humanity that focuses on the interior, not the exterior. The implications of this line of thinking are immensely profound: is our notion of selfhood about to be freed from an historically paralyzing body consciousness? Can conditions like autism initiate us into different and deeper understandings of the world? I don't know that The Man Who Wasn't There provides any specific answers to those bigger questions.   (Reviewed by James Broderick).

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Media Reviews

The Wall Street Journal

An agreeably written travelogue through this mysterious landscape at the frontiers of knowledge.

People

You’ll never see yourself—or others—the same way again.

Science

The gallery of personal, often tender, portraits of patients is impressive and reminiscent of the writings of Oliver Sacks… A skilled science journalist, Ananthaswamy excels at making theoretical concepts and experimental procedures both comprehensible and compelling.

Entertainment Weekly

Anil Ananthaswamy’s exploration of the human ‘self’ is a blazingly original excursion through the brain—as well as a fascinating catalog of bizarre disorders.

Nature

Autobiographies hinging on conditions such as Asperger's syndrome and schizophrenia are proliferating, but there is little to fill the void between such accounts and the scientific literature. Linking experiences with experiments, and individuals with numbers, Ananthaswamy bridges that gap convincingly.

Kirkus Reviews

A provocative examination of deep questions.

Library Journal

If you like Oliver Sacks, you'll love this new work by Ananthaswamy.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Readers will be fascinated by Ananthaswamy's chronicles as he explores, with kindness and keen intelligence, the uncomfortable aberrations that reveal what it is to be human.

Author Blurb Daniel J. Levitin, author of The Organized Mind and This Is Your Brain on Music
A compelling and entertaining look at the last untapped mystery, the true final frontier: the nature of our selves. Science journalism at its best.

Author Blurb Michael Gazzaniga, author of Who's in Charge? and Tales from Both Sides of the Brain
Stunning… poetic and incisive. Each of the patients is unique, special and incredible in revealing something special about the mind, whether healthy or fragile. Ananthaswamy discovers the elusive nature of the very idea of self and makes sense out of it. It is a remarkable achievement.

Author Blurb Nicholas Humphrey, Cambridge University, author of A History of the Mind
Ananthaswamy's remarkable achievement is to make sense of these unhappy individuals' otherness, while holding on to their human sameness. You'll come away enlightened and chastened, asking searching questions about who you are.

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Beyond the Book

René Descartes: I Think, Therefore I Am

Western philosophy since the Renaissance has been governed by an idea so simple it could appear on a bumper sticker: "I think, therefore I am."

René Descartes The idea – originally expressed in French but more often rendered in Latin ("Cogito ergo sum") – came from a French philosopher of the 17th century named René Descartes, who is often called the father of modern philosophy. Among Descartes' many contributions (he was a brilliant mathematician and scientist as well), the "cogito" (as philosophers call it) remains his most significant contribution to the history of ideas.

In Anil Ananthaswamy's The Man Who Wasn't There, Descartes' most famous dictum not only makes an appearance, it serves as the backdrop for the entire work,...

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