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addabook - The Man Who Wasn't There
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The Man Who Wasn't There
Investigations into the Strange New Science of the Self
Anil Ananthaswamy
read on September 1, 2015

This book is in the tradition of Oliver Sacks, in that it's broken into separate chapters that each touch on a specific topic, and then drill down into a patient or acquaintance of the author who had the condition described. The purpose of the book is to try to tease out what it is the defines the self, and that makes us "us", but it never really hits that mark. The book straddles science and philosophy without ever committing wholly enough to either to really make a dent.

The overviews of the various diseases was very interesting - particularly Alzheimers and schizophrenia (which, I just found out that I am quite certain I've never had to spell in my whole life until now). Things didn't really heat up until the end though, and a few particular things got me.

  • There was a great description of a theory on how the brain experiences time - essentially the way a compiler would compile a computer program, doing that once every X milliseconds, and bringing in current data states from different parts of the brain. The implication was that, there really isn't any physical reason why it would do that every X milliseconds instead of every Y milliseconds, and that changes in that parameter can cause dilation in how an individual subjectively experiences time. I thought that was fascinating and it made we wonder to what extent different people do this every day. There is an old saying that you can't describe color to someone without using other color terms as a reference, and that the logical consequence is that we may all see things in completely different colors from each other, but just have consistent names for them. Anyway, this was sort of the same thing. What if we all subjectively experience time passing at wildly different speeds? What if one of the properties shared by super smart people is that they actually experience time slower than we do? What if they essentially live in slow motion?
  • Anxiety. He describes a supported theory that there is a specific part of the brain that is constantly predicting the future. Not like lotto numbers, but things all around you. You always have a contextual model in your head of what is happening around you and what to expect next. Like, if you're indoors, you shouldn't see a bird. Something like that. Anyway, one part of your brain is constantly making predictions, and then another part is assessing those predictions. Typically, the delta between those two should be pretty small, since these predictions are on a super short time scale. But, if you suffer from chronic anxiety, that means the function of your brain that judges the performance of your predictions is broken. Your predictions might actually be just fine, but your brain is receiving the message that the predictions are constantly way off! So essentially you're walking around feeling as though your predictions are wrong. Put another way, you would feel like a person who is sitting in their living room when all of a sudden the floor opens up into a lava pit.
  • Lastly, there is a great metaphor in the book about the nature of the self by Dan Dennet, text below. I thought this was very well put.

The self is the same kind of thing as the center of gravity in physics - an abstraction that is, in spite of its abstractness, tightly coupled to the physical world. Any physical system has a center of gravity. It's not a thing, but a property of the system. There is no one atom or molecule that makes the center of gravity. Nonetheless, this mathematical abstraction has real consequences. The self is the center of narrative gravity. A fiction posited in order to unify and make sense of an otherwise bafflingly complex collection of actions, utterances, fidgets, complaints, promises and so forth, that make up a person.

Author Bio:

Anil Ananthaswamy is a consultant for New Scientist in London. He has worked at the magazine in various capacities since 2000, most recently as deputy news editor. He is also a contributor to National Geographic News. Ananthaswamy worked as a software engineer in Silicon Valley before training as a journalist at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He's the author of The Edge of Physics (published as The Edge of Reason by Penguin in India).