The Man Who Wasn’t There


The title sounds Sacksian and sure enough this book focuses on some challenging neurological conditions by way of case examples, very much in the genre of Oliver Sacks.  In a way its author, the science journalist Anil Ananthaswamy, has adopted a style that is a fusion of Oliver Sacks with V.S. Ramachandran.  If you enjoy that style, and I place myself firmly in that camp, I suspect you’ll like this eclectic book immensely.  The shock value of some of the case types is what reviews of the book seem to focus on, including the author’s NPR Fresh Air Interview.

Each of the book’s eight chapters is immensely well written, but the one most relevant to the patients that touch us is Chapter 6 entitled The Self’s Baby Steps, which focuses on Autism.  There are numerous clinical insights in this chapter, and I’ll share with you a handful of the pearls here.

  1. Theory of Mind is not just for accessing the mental states of others.  It is crucial for knowing one’s own mind and hence for aspects of one’s sense of self.
  2. The ability to fathom other people’s emotions, and to pay attention to body language and facial expressions, something that most neurotypicals do on autopilot, is stressful and draining for many individuals on the autistic spectrum.
  3. Failure to accurately perceive one’s own body and the sensory stimuli that it is receiving will disrupt one’s sense of bodily self, and may reside at the heart of Autism.
  4. At some level, all therapeutic approaches to Autism help train the body to reduce noise in its feedback mechanisms.
  5. The brain’s ability to modify its prior beliefs based on actual sensory input is impaired in autism due to the high level of internal noise, hence the insistence on sameness, predicability and repetition.

Anil Ananthaswamy became a science writer to help humans understand their place in the universe, and to communicate the joy in that journey.

In this brilliant new book he turns the spotlight inward, and graces us with an equally exhilarating exploration of the sense of self.

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