Before I begin, I thought I'd let you know: You don't exist. Hope you don't mind me telling you that. Just thought it might be helpful in your dealings with the world . . . which in its own way, I guess, also does not exist. Oh . . . and by the way, I'm not joking. You really don't exist. But don't feel bad because either do I. And like you, I sure feel like I exist.
"It seems outlandish that the centerless universe, in all its spatio-temporal immensity, should have produced me, of all people . . . There was no such thing as me for ages, but with the formation of a particular physical organism at a particular place and time, suddenly there is me, for as long as the organism survives. . . . How can the existence of one member of one species have this remarkable consequence?"--Thomas Nagel.
The author Ani Ananthaswamy uses different real individuals to discuss the belief in self. He includes among others: epilepsy, alzheimer's disease, schizophrenia, and so on.
"Men ought to know that from the brain, and from the brain only, arise our pleasures, joys, laughters, and jests, as well as our sorrows, pains, griefs, and tears. . . . These things that we suffer all come from the brain. . . . Madness comes from its moistness."--Hippocrates.
I try to avoid using the word "mind" and instead refer to the "brain." I'm a total monist. There is only a brain. The mind is only a function of the brain.
"If I try to seize this self of which I feel sure, if I try to define and to summarize it, it is nothing but water slipping through my fingers."--Albert Camus.
"All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain."--Replicant Roy Batty in Blade Runner.
"The leg suddenly assumed an eerie character--or more precisely, if less evocatively, lost all its character--and became a foreign, inconceivable thing, which I looked at, and touched, without any sense whatever of recognition or relation. . . . I gazed at it, and felt, I don't know you, you're not part of me."--Oliver Sacks.
"Theoretically you can have a phantom of almost any part of the body, except of course the brain; you can't have a phantom brain, by definition, because that's where we think it's all happening."--V. S. Ramachandran.
The most interesting chapter was about the man who didn't want his leg. He tried to amputate it because it didn't feel like a part of him. He was obsessed by it. And he knew if he didn't do it, his life would never be okay. This illness is called body integrity identity disorder (BIID). Some have called it xenomelia, from the Greek for "foreign limb." Some freeze the limb until doctors have no choice but to amputate. What is also amazing is that sufferers can point to the exact spot where they want the cut to be made.
The condition was first referred to in 1977 as "apotemnophilia" or the desire to be an amputee. It was listed as a paraphilia, a catchall term for deviant sexual desires. The term has long been a convenient label for misunderstanding. Although it is true that most people who desire such amputations are sexually attracted to amputees.
There are surgeons now who will perform the amputation in secret. The patients always want the surgery and are happy afterwards.
Neuroscience has shown over the past decade that this sense of ownership over our body parts is strangely malleable, even among normal healthy people. Cognitive scientists at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh in 1998 performed an ingenious experiment. You rest your left hand on a table. A rubber hand is placed next to it. A screen between the two allows you only to see the rubber hand. Two brushes are used to stroke both hands, the rubber one and the real one, at the same time. The subjects claim they feel the brush on the rubber hand. Many feel like that it is their hand.
Of course, there is the "phantom limb" sensation. Amputees still feel like they have a limb. Maybe this explains BIID. A part of the brain is not developed enough to claim the limb. It is not adequately represented in the brain.
"What gives me the right to speak of an 'I,' and even of an 'I' as cause, and finally of an 'I' as cause of thought? . . . A thought comes when 'it' wants, not when 'I' want.--Friedrich Nietzsche.
Depersonalization can be a defense against danger. Our brain protects us. Thus we can go into shock in a terrible situation.
"How far do our feelings take their colour from the dive underground? I mean, what is the reality of any feeling?--Virginia Woolf.
"Forever I shall be a stranger to myself."--Albert Camus.
Some people are not sure if they are alive. They could order a pizza and worry it never happened. They think they are actually dead. The arrival of the pizza fills them with a bit of relief.
Eventually, as the brain developed, the next stage was an autobiographical self. We group memories to produce subjectivity.
Another test. Subjects were given a placebo and told it was a drug. An actor in the group would act in a certain way. Others follow suit. Emotions have a cognitive factor.
"Autists are the ultimate square pegs, and the problem with pounding a square peg into a round hole is not that the hammering is hard work. It's that you're destroying the peg."--Paul Collins.
"I myself am opaque, for some reason. Their eyes cannot see me. Yes, that's it: The world is autistic with respect to me."--Anne Nesbet.
"I am an Asperger, pure and simple--I do not have or suffer from any artificially constructed syndrome, disorder, disease, or flaw."--James Fahey.
"The proposition that . . . I am, I exist, is necessarily true each time that I pronounce it. . . . But I do not yet know clearly enough what I am."--Rene Descartes.
"'Owning' your body, its sensations, and its various parts is fundamental to the feeling of being someone."--Thomas Metzinger.
With the doppelganger effect, people feel they have a double. Poe's story "William Wilson" expresses that idea. As does Maupassant's "Le Horla." In "The Wasteland," T. S. Eliot spoke of an extra person walking with others. He got the idea from the explorer Shackleton.
Then there is Out of Body Experience. I knew a man who believed he could travel out of his body. It is not an uncommon belief.
"One bright May morning, I swallowed four-tenths of a gram of mescalin dissolved in half a glass of water and sat down to wait for the results."--Aldous Huxley. First sentence of The Doors of Perception.
"I feel then as if I understood those amazing words--There shall be no more time"--Spoken by Prince Myshkin in Dostoevsky's The Idiot.
"When I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception."--David Hume.
"Each normal individual of this species makes a self. Out of its brain it spins a web of words and deeds and, like other creatures, it doesn't have to know what it's doing; it just does it. . . . Our tales are spun, but for the most part we don't spin them; they spin us."--Daniel C. Dennett.
"The self is 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."--Daniel C. Dennett.