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THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE by Anil Ananthaswamy. Hardcover. 320 Pages. Dutton. $15.12 on Amazon.

Graham, a 48-year old man, is convinced that his brain has died. No amount of empirical evidence can shake him from his belief in his non-existence. He suffers from Cotard’s syndrome and is the inspiration behind the book’s title.

For millennia, mystics and philosophers have grappled with the most existential of questions—“Who am I?” The Upanishads, sacred Indian texts said to have been composed between 800 and 300 BCE, approach the answer by a process of elimination. We cannot be our physical selves, goes the refrain, we cannot be our minds, our memories, or our experiences because all such identities are mutable. Therefore, these ancient thinkers reason, the self must be an immutable form of consciousness that just is, with no defining qualities or characteristics. The phrase they use to describe this consciousness reflects their struggle to grasp this slippery entity—“Neti, Neti” (not this, not that).

In The Man Who Wasn’t There author and journalist Anil Ananthaswamy attempts to wrench this question out of the realm of metaphysics into hard science. Instead of the question “Who am I?” Ananthaswamy asks “What is ‘I’?” What in the human brain creates self-identity? When the sense of self we take for granted gets disrupted by illness or disease, what remains?

In a fascinating parallel to those philosophers of yore, Ananthaswamy’s search for the answer to that is also a process of clarification by elimination as he methodically breaks down the different parts of the brain that are involved in conditions like schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, and autism to see if we can identify where and how the sense of self is created and whether it persists even when the bricks used to construct it are displaced, damaged, or unavailable.

The book begins with a Buddhist parable about the nature of the self. A man who is caught in a fight between two ogres has all his body parts swapped with that of a corpse. Though a completely different person now, he still retains his identity and, upon meeting some Buddhist monks, asks them whether he exists or not. In reply, the monks throw back the question—Who are you?

Though modern science has not yet reached the full capabilities of those limb-swapping ogres, we do encounter phenomena such as phantom limbs, doppelgangers, and ecstatic epilepsy. Each is a disturbance of the self, and each gives a clue to how the brain approaches its own existence.

Sufferers of Cotard’s syndrome, like Graham, the patient mentioned earlier, feel not just that they are dead but that they do not exist at all, even though they are aware that they eat, drink, and perform other actions that are the provenance of living persons.

On the other end of the spectrum is the case of the Alzheimer’s patient who, despite having regressed to a state where he is unaware of himself and his bodily functions, can recite passages from the Torah perfectly, given the right set of circumstances.

These disorders, as well as other maladies of the brain, have resulted in a fracture of the perceived self, yet they are wildly different from each other. Philosopher Rene Descartes suggested that “I think, therefore I am,” yet in the case of the Cotard’s patient the trouble seems to be “I think, therefore I am not,” whereas for the Alzheimer’s patient it is “I do not think, yet I still am.”

Science buff Ananthaswamy does a wonderful job of corralling these disparate conditions into a cohesive and riveting exploration of the self, an entity that spans the gamut from an implicit being to a creation of narrative.

Despite the depth of scientific knowledge plumbed in the book, the language is simple and accessible in the tradition of the late, great neuroscientist Oliver Sacks (The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat). The series of stories that illustrate the complexity of the brain and its creation of selfhood are imbued with emotion and compassion for the sufferers, even as their conditions are explained in scientific terms.

Ananthaswamy unveils the map of the brain as we know it so far, but scrupulously stays away from proclaiming that all the answers can be found in science, accepting that the manifestations found in the brain in the disorders he highlights may be a case of correlation and not causation. By the end of the book, we are asking the same questions of ourselves—What are the minimal parameters to create a sense of self? Is the concept of self a “property of the system?” Are we merely a summary of the inferences of our brain?

The Man Who Wasn’t There may be a scientific journal, but it makes philosophers of us all.

Vidya Pradhan is a freelance writer and a published author of children’s books. She was the editor of India Currents from June 2009 to February 2012. She hosts the popular Safari Quiz Show every Saturday on 1550 AM in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Vidya Pradhan

Vidya Pradhan is a freelance writer and political activist who lives and works in California. She has worked as the editor of India Currents previously. Currently she volunteers as an English tutor to...