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In a science journalism workshop at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bengaluru, Anil Ananthaswamy demonstrated to us—a motley batch of wannabe science writers—a mind trick called the “rubber hand illusion".

The volunteer for this demonstration, a young postdoctoral student, sat at a table facing the rest of us. Ananthaswamy placed a rubber hand in front of her on the table and a vertical cardboard screen next to it. He then asked the volunteer to place her left hand on the table, on the other side of the cardboard screen such that it was hidden from her view.

With her vision focused entirely on the rubber hand, Ananthaswamy, standing across her, started stroking her hand as well as the rubber hand simultaneously with synchronized strokes using paint brushes. As we watched with growing intrigue, the smooth strokes of the brushes across the fingers of the fake and real hand, the volunteer suddenly gave out a small shriek.

The reason for her startled reaction was at one point she could actually feel the brush on the rubber hand as if it were her own hand. The combination of sense of touch, sight and position of the two hands had tricked her brain into believing that the fake hand was actually a part of the body.

This “rubber hand illusion" experiment published in 1998 by American psychologists M. Botvinick and J.D. Cohen is now considered one of the foundations of self-awareness and an example of how our sense of self can be changed or disturbed.

Our beliefs, our thoughts, our actions are all part of the “self". But what is the self? How does it manifest into our consciousness?

In his new book, The Man Who Wasn’t There, Ananthaswamy, an award-winning science journalist and author, attempts to understand the self by delving into the psychology and neuroscience of neuropsychological conditions. (Read an excerpt from the book in Mint on Sunday here.)

Ananthaswamy travels around the world, meeting people affected with commonly known conditions such as schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, autism and some rare ones such as Cotard delusion (the person thinks he/she is dead), body integrity identity disorder (wherein the affected individuals feel that a part of their body, usually a limb doesn’t belong to them and have a strong urge to get rid of that body part) and ecstatic epilepsy (the epileptic fits bring on a pleasant, almost divine and magical experience).

The book takes us on a scientific and impassioned journey into the profound aspects of the human sense of self through the heart-wrenching experiences of these affected individuals whose definition of self is different from the norm.

Edited excerpts from an interview:

How did you get interested in the philosophy of the self?

I have always been curious about the nature of the self—and somewhere along the way, it morphed into a neuroscientific curiosity.

How did you get the idea of understanding the nature of the self through the study of psychological and neurological conditions?

The idea came serendipitously. I was interviewing a neuroscientist for an article about the self, and he was explaining some aspect of it by taking as an example the phenomenology—the lived experience—of depersonalization disorder. I thought to myself, “What if I identified a range of neuropsychological conditions, each of which illuminated a different aspect of the self?" That led to a book proposal and eventually The Man Who Wasn’t There.

You talk about the narrative self and the bodily self. How do the two relate to our overall sense of self?

Our overall sense of self is what we feel we are at any moment. The narrative self (the story in our heads about who we are) and the bodily self (the sense of being a body here and now) are just two convenient ways of thinking about aspects of our sense of self. You can slice and dice the sense of self in many different ways—the psychological self and the spiritual self, for example. 

The categories you choose to identify then lead you towards studying the neurocognitive mechanisms that give rise to those aspects. There are no clear boundaries in these divisions.

You interviewed doctors who have treated patients with Cotard’s syndrome. Can you explain what the nature of the self in such people is?

They have a sense that they don’t exist. If our normal sense of self comes with an implicit feeling of existing—we take it for granted—then someone with Cotard’s syndrome is left with a sense that they don’t exist. 

It’s worth pointing out that in both cases—normal and Cotard’s—there’s always an “I" that remains. The “I" says it exists or it doesn’t exist. The real question for science, religion or philosophy is to figure out how the feeling of being an “I" emerges.

You mention that the self is dynamic—it is forever changing. Can you explain what this means?

Consider aspects of our sense of self, such as the sense of being a body, which is a sense that includes feelings of body ownership (the feeling that my body and its constituent parts belong to me) and self location (the feeling each one of us has of looking out at the world from within the head). 

You’d think that these are immutable. But experiments (such as the rubber hand illusion) and neuropsychological conditions (such as body integrity identity disorder or out-of-body experiences) show that this is not the case. Even something as basic as the bodily self has to be constructed by our brain and body moment-by-moment—and this can be disrupted. 

The same is true for our narrative self—our stories of who we are can be altered (for example in mid-stage Alzheimer’s).

You accompanied a man suffering from body integrity identity disorder (BIID), who was travelling to an Asian country to have his healthy leg amputated secretly. What was it like to see a person take such drastic measures?

It was difficult. For anyone who does not suffer from BIID, the idea of amputating a healthy limb is very disturbing. But I also understood that the suffering of people with BIID is very real, which is what leads them to such extreme measures.

Your book also describes out-of-body experiences, doppelganger phenomena and ecstatic seizures. In all of these conditions, is there some sort of disconnect of the self from the body?

Not really. These disconnects are illusions. That’s the whole point—that the basic attributes of the sense of self, the feeling of being embodied, the feeling of self-location and first-person perspective are all constructed by the brain and body together. 

The brain has to constantly integrate all the senses, both internal and external, to create the sense of self, and when things go awry, it can seem to become disembodied. The apparent duality is an illusion.

In Hindu philosophy, the self is considered to be non-material and eternal. How does this relate to the neuropsychological conditions such as Cotard’s or Alzheimer’s where the self is disturbed?

Hindu philosophy is not monolithic in its conception of the self. There are many traditions within Hinduism. There are those that think that the individual self is an illusion and there is only the one eternal self, but there are also traditions that grant validity to the individual self. 

It’s hard to square these differing notions with the scientific understanding of Cotard’s or Alzheimer’s. If you think of the self as being composed of the self-as-subject (the one that experiences) and the self-as-object (the aspects of the self that are experienced, such as the sense of being a body), then it’s clear from Cotard’s or Alzheimer’s that the self-as-object can be disturbed. 

But the self-as-subject—the “I" that experiences—is never lost, at least in any known neuropsychological conditions.

Certain Western philosophers and Buddhist philosophy does not recognize the self as an entity. What is your opinion of the self?

It’s not just some Western and Buddhist philosophers, certain traditions within Hinduism also have the same idea. 

I think it’s important to rely on empirical evidence—and at this point, the neuroscientific evidence is unable to tell us how the sense of being an “I", the self-as-subject emerges. It might be closely related to the hard problem of consciousness, which is the problem of trying to explain how a material brain generates a seemingly immaterial mind. 

If I had to take an educated guess, based on current neuroscientific evidence and some well-argued philosophy (whether Western or Eastern), I’d lean towards the idea that there is no such thing as the self—it’s an illusion created by the brain and body, to help the organism survive and thrive.

You are an alumnus of IIT Madras. Your narrative self changed from that of a computer engineer to a science writer. What were the challenges you faced in this transition?

That’s a long story. I love writing and I love science, much more than I did software. Still, the transition required retraining, starting at the bottom and becoming an intern again in my mid-30s. The hardest thing, compared to the relatively cushy profession of software engineering, is coping with a profession (journalism) that is constantly under threat.

Comments are welcome at feedback@livemint.com

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