The Man Who Wasn’t There | Anil Ananthaswamy

Summary of: The Man Who Wasn’t There: Tales from the Edge of the Self
By: Anil Ananthaswamy


Embark on a fascinating journey as we explore the mysterious workings of the human brain in Anil Ananthaswamy’s ‘The Man Who Wasn’t There: Tales from the Edge of the Self’. This summary delves into captivating cases of individuals with brain disorders that disrupt their sense of self, including Cotard’s syndrome, Alzheimer’s, body integrity identity disorder, schizophrenia, depersonalization, autism, and the doppelgänger effect. Each of these conditions sheds light on the intricate mechanisms that underpin our sense of self, identity, and reality. Gain a deeper understanding of the remarkable processes that construct our perception of the world and the self, as we uncover the secrets residing at the edge of human consciousness.

The Delusion of Being Dead

Our sense of self is a result of elaborate work by our brain. However, some people with Cotard’s syndrome are convinced that they’re dead due to disrupted brain regions vital for our sense of self. Neurologist Adam Zeman reported a case of a middle-aged patient, Graham, who suffered from severe depression and lost all vividness of emotions. As a consequence, he claimed that he was brain-dead. Despite being informed about the truth, he refused to believe it. Physicians discovered that his disconnected awareness of internal activities caused him to lose perception of his emotions and physical needs.

The Impact of Alzheimer’s on Identity

Alzheimer’s disease can have a devastating effect on the narrative self of an individual. The inability to maintain their self-representation system and episodic memories means that patients can no longer form a story of who they are. However, research has shown that the embodied self, which comprises memories inscribed into the body, can persist even with the disease. For example, a patient who had lost the ability to speak was able to recite a Jewish prayer during a holiday, a ritual he had participated in for years. This implies that part of the patient’s sense of self is preserved in the body, and it is not entirely lost as is commonly believed. It is crucial to understand the impact of Alzheimer’s on identity to provide proper care and support to patients.

The Power of Perception

Our sense of ownership towards our body parts is easily manipulated and can lead to disorders like Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID). A study by scientists at Carnegie Mellon University showed that stroking a rubber hand simultaneously with the real hand resulted in some subjects feeling the brush on the fake hand. When the brain’s mapping of body parts is incomplete, BIID can manifest with sufferers obsessing over amputating a limb that feels foreign to them. Awareness of the brain’s ability to construct our sense of ownership can help us understand our perceptions.

Understanding Schizophrenia and the Sense of Agency

Schizophrenia is a mental disorder characterized by the disruption of the sense of agency. People with this condition often feel that they are not in control of their bodies, making them susceptible to delusions and hallucinations. The brain mechanism responsible for generating the sense of agency is impaired in schizophrenic individuals, making it difficult for them to distinguish their thoughts from reality. This explains why they may hear strange voices or feel possessed by another being. The inability to make predictions about their actions also makes them more ticklish, creating a paradoxical situation where they can tickle themselves more easily than others. This book summary sheds light on the complex nature of schizophrenia and how it affects the mind and body.

Disconnected from Reality

The experience of depersonalization involves feeling detached from one’s body, emotions, and surroundings. This condition can result in a sense of alienation from oneself and the world, as emotions and perceptions feel dreamlike and unreal. Malfunctioning brain mechanisms that affect the processing of emotions and predictions about sensory signals are to blame for this phenomenon. The brain is a prediction machine that constructs a sense of self based on accurate predictions about body states and emotions. However, in cases of depersonalization, the brain fails to make reliable predictions about emotional signals, leading to a feeling of detachment and loss of self.

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