August 18, 2016


The Man Who Wasn’t There: Tales from the Edge of the Self. By Anil Ananthaswamy. Dutton. $16.

     Readers interested in a blending of scientific research with philosophical speculation and forays into artistic endeavors will be fascinated by Anil Ananthaswamy’s The Man Who Wasn’t There, originally published last year and now available in paperback. The front cover gives the subtitle as “Tales from the Edge of the Self,” but the title page is more informative, giving it as “Investigations into the Strange New Science of the Self.” In fact, although there are tales, and parts of tales, in the book, it is the science underlying the anecdotes and stories that primarily interests Ananthaswamy, a consultant to New Scientist, where he was formerly a deputy news editor. Unlike a book that it appears on the surface to resemble, neurologist Oliver Sacks’ 1985 The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Ananthaswamy’s work does not dwell on the personal elements of the stories the author tells, using them instead to set up scientific discussions. Thus, the reports about people with schizophrenia, autism, body image integrity disorder (BIID), and other conditions are less the focus than the conditions themselves – the result being a comparatively clinical and at times dry look at the brain and the way its functions are reflected in everything from mental illness to modern art, rather than a series of human-interest stories told from a foundational scientific perspective.

     The way a reader approaches Ananthaswamy’s book will thus determine a great deal of what he or she gets out of it. Those interested in the neurological and  biological bases of conditions such as autism, ecstatic epilepsy, even Alzheimer’s disease, will absorb more from The Man Who Wasn’t There than those looking for stories about the impact of these conditions of the everyday lives of the people who have them – and on those around them.  Ananthaswamy’s narrative is more textbookish than empathetic. For instance, rather than discussing the tremendous impact of Alzheimer’s disease on caregivers as well as patients, Ananthaswamy prefers to look at what Alzheimer’s indicates about whatever the notion of “self” may be. Referring to a scientist at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute, he writes, “Pia Kontos is not comfortable with claims that Alzheimer’s disease patients ultimately have no self. She argues that even in the face of severe cognitive decline evident in Alzheimer’s patients a form of selfhood persists, a precognitive, prereflective selfhood that’s embedded in the body.” In a similar vein, rather than provide a seamless narrative about a schizophrenic man who eventually committed suicide, Ananthaswamy pauses midway through the story for a paragraph of history: “Schizophrenia was originally called dementia praecox, a term coined in the 1890s by the German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin. It was Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler who renamed it schizophrenia in 1908. …Yet another stereotype, popularized by the antipsychiatry movement and some of the literary avant-garde, was of the schizophrenic as a romanticized wild man, in touch with his deepest desires and instincts.”

     It is difficult to get a handle on where Ananthaswamy is going with the various case histories and scientific analyses he presents, at least until he ties things up in an epilogue that is managed rather neatly. The case-by-case instances are more problematic. For instance, the BIID chapter does not get into what form of selfhood is involved in people wishing to conform externally to their internal identity as amputees. People who have amputations out of necessity are often greatly determined to use prostheses to reduce the chance of being perceived as amputees and evaluated through that lens; but people with BIID wish to match their external appearance to their internal self-image by having amputations done unnecessarily. What this implies about the self, Ananthaswamy does not explore. He has less interest in this sort of individual-person-centered query than in more-general matters: “In adults, a set of brain regions is strongly correlated with theory of mind: the temporoparietal junction (TPI), the precuneus (PC), and the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC). These brain regions are activated when you think about what others are thinking. MIT’s Rebecca Saxe studied these brain regions in children five to eleven years old, ages when they are developing and honing their theory-of-mind abilities. Turns out the same brain regions are implicated in these children in tasks that require theory of mind. In fact, the right temporoparietal junction (rTPI) is most strongly correlated with theory-of-mind abilities in children.”

     This sort of objective, analytical narrative pervades The Man Who Wasn’t There, and readers who find this rather coolly removed style conducive to thoughtful exploration of issues of self and identity will be drawn to the book. So will readers who are interested in philosophical debates that are couched in terms more dense and abstruse than they are transparent and accessible: “One hard-nosed way of looking at the self is to ask whether it can exist independent of all else – as a fundamental part of reality, giving it a unique place in the basic categories, or ontology, of things that make up reality – a self that could not be explained away as being constituted of things with a more basic ontological status.” Readers who find this sort of thinking and argument prolonged to the point of tedium are not the intended audience here; neither are those hoping to learn much of real-world, everyday applicability from Ananthaswamy’s case histories. This is a book for thinkers with a penchant for scientific research into philosophical questions. For others, it is neither particularly accessible nor, ultimately, particularly revelatory.

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