Ananthaswamy probes the mysterious manifestations of self
in 'The Man Who Wasn't There'
By Lou Fancher
Sophisticated science, sensitive storytelling and Nancy Drew-like curiosity are at the heart of science author and journalist Anil Ananthaswamy's "The Man Who Wasn't There" (Dutton, $26.95, 320 pages).
Investigating the mysteries of self for the past six years while dividing his time between homes in Berkeley and his native Bangalore, India, the soft-spoken former software engineer begins his treatise with an eerie Indian Buddhist allegory about a man with replaceable body parts. What follows in the book's eight chapters and thought-provoking epilogue represents a philosopher's pilgrimage -- a search for the nature of self and its connections -- in our brains, bodies, intimate relationships and society.
Reports and theories from scientists who operate on the frontiers of neurology and psychology mingle with theology, philosophy and tenderly told stories of individuals experiencing a range of conditions. From Alzheimer's to autism to out-of-body experiences to less-well-known conditions, including Cotard's Syndrome (a delusion that a living body part or a person's entire self is dead), ecstatic epilepsy (a seizure that induces joy and euphoric visions) and other mind/body "maladies of the self" help us to understand the vulnerabilities and resilience of self.
Ananthaswamy is former deputy news editor and current consultant for New Scientist, guest editor at UC Santa Cruz's science-writing program, teacher at the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore, and author of "The Edge of Physics," a book about his ventures to extreme locations in the universe to answer questions in physics and cosmology.
"In the beginning, my new book was an overarching exploration about aspects of self," Ananthaswamy says. "It wasn't working: I found there was no one clean way into the story. I couldn't corral it."
But after he spoke over the course of months and years to scientists and philosophers worldwide, he says the book's structure "clicked." Examining how the brain forms itself in the first place led to discussions about "malfunctions" that he prefers to call "conditions" because it is the most neutral term. Even so, the search for self that he says is integral to life in India and Indian culture did not remain "neutral," as the people he interviewed shared the real trauma of their experiences.
Scientists may unemotionally suggest that a deep-brain region called the insula is the "seat of sentient self," but it's hard not to feel emotional imagining living as "Graham," a Cotard's patient suffering "robust delusions" and loss of emotional vividness. Or enduring only "islands of memory," as did "H.M.," or traveling to Asia for voluntary leg amputation after failed, DIY attempts left "Patrick" desperate for relief from Body Integrity Identity Disorder.
"The big realization I had is that we shouldn't think of the conditions as illnesses, as disorders," Ananthaswamy says. "Why we do that is a bigger question having to do with what we are as a culture. It isn't that these aren't serious conditions: We shouldn't paper over that. At the same time, we should recognize that the self's experience is real for each one of us."
Concern over possibly mischaracterizing the complex brain conditions and his journalistic preoccupation with accuracy, strong reporting and solid interviewing never overshadowed something he tells his science-writing students: "Paying attention to the emotional content must always be kept in mind."
Ananthaswamy found the case studies primarily through colleagues and experts he interviewed. During initial correspondence, he identified people who would talk about their experience in detail. To select the featured conditions, he looked for considerable completed research and neuroscience that opened new, or different windows on the self. Some people profiled in the book required only a few hours of interaction. "Others were tens of hours; a lot of back-and-forth emails," he says. He started writing in 2009, finished the book proposal in 2011 and had an early chapter published as a feature article in Matter Magazine, an online publication. Dutton accepted his proposal in 2012. Using it as a template, he tackled the remaining obstacle. "The chapters were like silos: they didn't talk to each other," he recalls. "The final draft came together while he was transcribing the interviews. "People ask why I don't give them off to transcribe, but that's key to when I start forming the story. I can't imagine knowing the story beforehand. There's something that's grabbed my attention, but that's just the hook. Once I start interviews, the stories get richer and change." Ananthaswamy says the books of English writer Enid Blyton (who wrote children's adventure stories similar to America's Nancy Drew series) satisfied his childhood curiosity. As an adult, he says writing is his way of paying attention to the world, and science is a way of knowing. Reading is a joy unto itself. His ongoing efforts to write about the body/mind paradigm, he says, are not a struggle. "Writing is calming. It grounds me. The struggle would be if I were not allowed to have this outlet, writing."