The concept of ‘Dualism’ is an ancient concept that found a deep entrenchment in the Greek mode of thinking. Plato and Aristotle reasoned that the human mind or soul could not be identified with the physical body. This belief was lent its greatest resonance and boost 2000 years after the time of its proponents when Rene Descartes became its Messiah. In fact, the word “Dualism” was coined by Descartes. Since the word “Cartesius” is simply the Latin form of the name Descartes, the concept of dualism formulated by him came to be known as Cartesian dualism.
At the heart of Cartesian Dualism lies the philosophy that the immaterial mind and the material body are two completely different types of substances and that they interact with each other. This is encapsulated by Descartes’ immortal saying “cogito ergo sum,” or “I think therefore I am.” More than 350 years after Descartes, an intrepid consultant for New Scientist , a renowned science journalist and freelance editor for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reignites the debate involving the existence or the lack of it of the self in a riveting book that is guaranteed to keep you, or your mind at least awake through the nocturnal hours.
Anil Ananthaswamy’s work titled, “The Man Who Wasn’t There: Investigations Into The Strange New Science Of The Self”, (“the book”) is a tantalizing masterpiece that is moving in its intent, methodical in its approach and memorable in its outcome. Anil Anathaswamy’s search for the self has its edifice in thinking about the same in terms of two categories: “the ‘self-as-object’ and the ‘self-as-subject.’…. For instance, if you were to say ‘I am happy’ – the feeling of happiness, which is part of your sense of self at that moment, belongs to the self-as-object category. You are aware of it as a state of your being. But the “I” that feels happy – the one that is aware of its own happiness – that’s the more slippery, elusive self-as-subject. “
Ananthaswamy, in his quest to find answers, hones in on the lessons and insights that are gleaned from certain neuropsychiatric disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease, Cotard’s Syndrome and schizophrenia, that ultimately serve to thaw our identity. While dwelling on Cotard’s Syndrome, Ananthaswamy recounts, the story of a patient who demonstrated the clinical symptom of Cotard’s: he insisted he was brain-dead despite being alert enough to make that declaration. Cotard’s thus cocks a snook at the classic Cartesian philosophy of the self: “I think, therefore I am.” Studies reveal that sufferers show abnormally low metabolic activity in the frontoparietal network, which is involved in generating conscious awareness. The connection suggests that these neural networks may be at least partially responsible for our sense of self.
Ananthaswamy chronicles how people with schizophrenia face a twisted version of reality. Losing agency over thoughts, experiencing hallucinations and paranoia are some of the unfortunate manifestations of this vile disorder. Functional MRI studies show that patients with auditory hallucinations exhibit hyper connectivity among brain regions involved in speech production, speech perception, hearing and threats. These overactive neural networks, Ananthaswamy says, transform our beliefs of the world and of ourselves.
Whether Ananthaswamy succeeds in unearthing the Holy Grail behind the existence (or the lack of it) of the self, he singularly and triumphantly succeeds in conveying an indelible message to his readers. A poignant, pertinent and perennial need to inculcate the attributes of empathy and emotion. While Einstein’s God might not have played dice, there are some unfortunate individuals in the world who seem to have drawn the short end of an uncompromising stick. These are our brethren whose lives have been turned topsy- turvy by a cruel contrivance of fate and inexplicable workings of their bodies. We, the fortunate ones can only count our blessings the right way by being beacons of hope and help for the more unfortunate number of our fellow citizens. Once we realise that – in my personal opinion at least – we would have realized our true self.