- Paperback: 224 pages
- Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (May 2, 2002)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0195152425
- ISBN-13: 978-0195152425
- Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 0.8 x 6 inches
- Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,811,929 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Altered Egos: How the Brain Creates the Self 1st Edition
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Feinberg is a neurologist whose treatment of patients with bizarre mental illnesses has led him to ponder that sense of mental unity we call experience. As brain research has progressed, that sense has remained stubbornly resistant to explication; indeed, it has grown more mysterious even as the anatomy of the living brain has become well understood. Feinberg frequently iterates this paradox before propounding his answer to it; before then, he recounts patients who exhibited, following an injury to their brains, a drastic degradation in self-awareness. Previously ordinary people can no longer recognize themselves in mirrors; believe that their limbs belong to somebody else; and, if blinded, insist their vision is 20/20. To Feinberg, these symptoms reinforce his impression of the self's malleability and initiate his argument, with references to Descartes, about how the brain shapes the self. He offers, after refuting notions that the organ has a locus for the self as it does for vision, a version of the self-as-emergent-phenomenon idea. Avoiding undue technical jargon, Feinberg's presentation ably elucidates for general readers the material/ethereal nexus of self-perception. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Digital edition.
"Altered Egos offers us a dazzling array of neurological syndromes to show how delicately constructed is our sense of self...The shock of such tales is to see how distorted your mental realm can become without you ever knowing the difference." --New Scientist
"Anyone perplexed by the riddle of consciousness--and who is not these days?--should read Todd Feinberg's bold, energetic account of how a brain makes a mind."--John Horgan, author of The Undiscovered Mind
"A fascinating book. I was astonished to find out that one of my favorite film characters, Dr. Strangelove, is actually displaying signs of 'alien hand,' a medical syndrome. There are many real-life case studies in this book used to explain the way the human mind invents and reinvents itself. A must read!"--Gus Van Sant, film director
"This is an ambitious work, tackling no less than the mind-body problem. Amazingly, it is successful in that it offers a new way of thinking about problems of self, subjectivity and meaning . . . I am extremely enthusiastic about this book."--Martha J. Farah, Professor of Psychology and Director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, University of Pennsylvania
"In the tradition of Jackson, Critchley, and Sacks, Todd Feinberg melds clinical wisdom, impressive scholarship, and profound philosophical insight to produce a lucid and enchanting account of what determines our daily actions and experiences. Far beyond the tired genre of "neurostories," Altered Egos examines the souls behind the symptoms to give the reader a stunning appreciation of how all the aspects of our lives that we take for grantedour perceptions, memories, feelings, and beliefsare actually sculpted and crafted from myriad experiential elements that can only be dissected and examined under the harsh lens of injury or disease. Above all, Altered Egos shows us how intentionalitythe purposeful seeking of meaningis what distinguishes us from both beast and computer, and this warm and thoughtful book provides a blueprint of what it truly means to be a human being."-- Laurence Miller, Ph.D., author of Inner Natures and Freud's Brain
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Top Customer Reviews
I felt his theories of how the brain constructed the self were thought-provoking, but I don't think he spent enough time on them. If he had fleshed them out a little more, I would have given the book five stars.
However, if you like Oliver Sack's accounts of his patients, you'll like this book, too.
This book was assigned for a grad seminar in Cognition that I'm taking and served as a launching pad for discussions of various disorders alongside scholarly papers, and the relation of disorders in specific subsystems to higher cognitive processes and indeed the 'sense of self', and in this capacity it served really well. Even though in many ways my program's (Psychology/Neuroscience) bread and butter is strange disorders resulting from unlikely brain lesions, Feinberg threw quite a few new ones at me I'd never heard of, such as people who have the specific disorder of not being able to recognize their own face in mirrors or other reflective surfaces - but only their own! In that respect too, it was great for getting an overview of some of the very bizarre disorders that can affect people and how these relate to sense of body, personal goals, etc.
Where I began to lose some admiration for the book is in its strange pacing. The first third reads like straight case studies of odd disorders. In the second third Feinberg starts drawing on mythology and popular folklore and contrasting these beliefs (such as that of the Doppelganger or the shadow) with perceptual disorders due to brain damage, sometimes with great insight, sometimes - not so much.
I was still with him until the final section of the book, where these aspects are essentially dropped and he tries to come up with a solution to the age old mind-body problem in about 30 pages. The really interesting parts in here are actually the quotations from many eminent psychologists and neuroscientists of the past, such as those of Charles Sherrington and William James. These pointers alone have convinced me that the history of my field is severely overlooked in our education - we learn all the names, dates, and major discoveries - but it has certainly been a 'discovery' for me that many of these thinkers were also great writers and highly insightful people who had much to say about life, the world, and the spirit beyond their thoughts on neurons and perception (which, pardon my cynicism, seems a lot less true of the field today).
Feinberg's own contribution here, though, falls flat. It is basically a harking back to elementary systems theory: complexity, emergence, nested hierarchies, etc. These are all wonderful ideas and vital areas of study, but pointing out, ad nauseum, that the 'self' is a nested hierarchy and irreducibly personal, doesn't contribute much to the discussion. He takes William James to task for suggesting that the self, if anything, is but a constantly-flowing stream (as asserted by Buddhists as well, though Feinberg seems unaware of their ideas on these subjects) and has no permanent core or 'I'. Early on I got the creeping feeling that Feinberg's exploration of the concept of the self was really a vindication of his own certainty of the existence of a soul. Unsurprisingly, he says almost as much in this final section - "The soul of each brain is indeed a unique, one-of-a-kind thing," Judeo-Christian dogma shining brightly. He embraces a strange kind of pseudo-dualism, claiming that he is indeed a materialist and that the mind cannot possibly be anything nonphysical - but that it can't possibly be physical either. Out of the blue, he starts talking about Artificial Intelligence and roundly declares that a computer, not being 'alive' (though in fact we have no good definition of life, nor an agreed upon boundary between the animate and inanimate) can never be 'conscious' and have a self (or soul, we realize Feinberg is really saying). Not only could AI never approach human levels of consciousness - the humble frog, in fact, will FOREVER be more conscious than any AI ever could be, regardless of its capabilities or claims about itself. Why? How could that be? "It is more likely that the particular material substance of our brains is essential to the quality of our consciousness." What "particular material substance" would that be? Carbon? Oxygen? Iron? What about some Parkinson's patients, for example, who now have pea-sized computer devices implanted into their brains and wired into their neurons, directly replacing the function of their deteriorated dopamine neurons??? You can even update the software on these neural implants over wi-fi, so that no further invasive surgery is necessary! These people are, undeniably I think, 'part computer' - and they don't seem to have lost 2% of their souls, or what have you. If the brains of conscious beings MUST be made of neurons and glial cells, how can this be explained? Monotheistic dogma, of course!
Feinberg's vitalist and (I dare say) Creationist leanings in this last section are a disturbing and saddening ending to an otherwise insightful and eclectic book. I'm reminded of a book by Jeffrey Schwartz (The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force) which follows a very similar trajectory: excellent, excellent review of the history and discovery of neuroplasticity (far more engrossing than this, actually, and this was pretty good) followed by a bone-headed final section trying to explain free will and the mind with hackneyed and vague interpretations of quantum physics.
All said though this is still worth a read in terms of the neurology, but get your philosophy of mind elsewhere.
The book is very readable and does not contain any pedantic phrases or highly technical scientific terms that are often replete in such texts. Instead it very ably explains much of what needs to be known about the brain.
Dr. Feinberg's insight should inspire other researchers and academics to continue their inquiry into the function of the brain so that we can all become more aware and knowledgable about ourselves and those around us.