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Book Review - Altered Egos
Altered Egos
by Todd E. Feinberg
Oxford University Press, 2000
Review by Isabel Gois
Aug 1st 2001

Together with consciousness, the nature of Self is about one of the last surviving mysteries of our times. The question "What is the self?" has a long history in philosophy, and for the past decade or so has increasingly attracted the interest of scientists. In his book Altered Egos (2000), Todd Feinberg proposes to look at this age-old question from the perspective of how the brain creates the subjective experience of a unified Self. Drawing on his experience as both a neurologist and a psychiatrist, Feinberg puts forward a new theory of the neurobiological basis of the Self that presents it as a "nested hierarchy of meaning and purpose" (p. 7; italics in the original).

It might be expected that a book on the Self written by a neurologist/psychiatrist would not provide easy reading for a lay audience. Feinberg, however, has managed to write a book that is both clear and accessible to a non-specialist audience, while maintaining a level of scholarship and discussion that will appeal to experts. To be sure, the book also deserves the attention of any one interested in the problems of personal identity, consciousness, intentionality, or simply in the mysteries of the mind. As a further note, it is a remarkable feature of this book that the introduction of each and every technical term is immediately followed by an explanation, and there is a glossary at the end to further guide the reader through more complex material.

The book is roughly divided in two parts. Chapters 2 to 6 introduce the reader to a number of patients with brain damage that has in some way or another resulted in perturbations of the Self. Capgras Syndrome, Mirror-misidentification, Confabulation, and Asomatagnosia are among the many intriguing disorders that the author carefully explores to document what he calls "altered egos", or brain traumas that transform the relation of the Self to the world, others, and to itself. According to Feinberg, cases such as these do more than show how damage to the brain transforms the boundaries of the Self: they highlight the fact that the Self is not located in this or that region of the brain, but arises out of the contribution of the brain's many component parts. Part two of the book - roughly chapters 7 to 9 - present Feinberg's own view on the neurobiological basis of the Self. Starting with the question of how the experience of a unitary Self can arise out of the diversity of the component parts of the brain, the author begins by dismissing theories that attempt to portray the Self as some sort of 'general' sitting at the top of the brain's hierarchy commanding its many parts. As Feinberg eloquently puts it when discussing voluntary action: "There are no 'commander-in-chief' neurons that I can identify as your 'I' that ordered the action. There is no single locus or top of the motor system, no 'ghost in the machine' as the philosopher Gilbert Ryle famously put it, which can serve as the source of our unified 'will'"(p. 118). So what is the Self? Feinberg's view is the subjective experience of a unitary Self is the result of the hierarchical nesting of meaning and purpose created by the brain. Put more clearly, the many levels of the neural hierarchy work interdependently to create the subjective experience of an integrated Self, with meaning and purpose serving as the top-most constraints the bring together the diversity of the brain into the unity of consciousness.

Is this the 'end of the Self'? Has Feinberg reduced the Self to a mere firing pattern in the brain? Chapters 9 and 10, the final ones in the book, reject any such reading of the author's position. According to Feinberg, the reason why the mind - and, thus, the Self - cannot be identified with the brain is due to the fact that meaning, purpose, and being are entirely and irreducibly personal features of the mind. That is, the mind and the Self are an entirely first-person phenomena, they have meaning only to the being they belong to and, accordingly, cannot be reduced to an objective fact accessible to third-person analysis. Although these are no doubt the most controversial chapters in the whole book and, as I see it, the least compelling in terms of philosophical argument, Feinberg presents an interesting case for the view that mind and Self, albeit intimately linked with the brain, cannot be identified with it.

© 2001 Isabel Gois.

Isabel Gois is a PhD student at King's College London working on Consciousness. Her research interest include Philosophy of Mind, Neuropsychology and Mental Disorder. She has articles published on emotions, computationalism, and consciousness.