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Altered Egos: How the Brain Creates the Self…

Altered Egos: How the Brain Creates the Self (original 2001; edition 2002)

by Todd E. Feinberg

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Title:Altered Egos: How the Brain Creates the Self
Authors:Todd E. Feinberg
Info:Oxford University Press, USA (2002), Edition: 1, Paperback, 224 pages
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Altered Egos: How the Brain Creates the Self by Todd E. Feinberg (2001)




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Feinberg, a neuropsychiatrist, draws on his expertise to dive into the problem of the self. He explores various neurological disorders that blur the self-world boundary and gives a theory for how the self is constructed in the mind.

In the first part of the book, he defines four types of disorders. The first are those that make us block a part of ourselves off as not being part of the self. Stroke victims who disidentify with an arm are one example. They think the arm belongs to someone else, or give it a name and treat it like an annoying friend. Other disorders affect the way we recognize extensions of the self, such as friends or belongings. For example, sufferers of Capgras syndrome, which effects the emotions of recognition, can still see that those around them look like their loved ones. But now feeling the jolt of recognition, they believe that their spouse and children have been replaced by imposters. The third type of disorder, personal confabulation, makes people invent stories about themselves. They may have forgotten their real identity or are in denial of psychological trauma, so they externalize it (“my brother just had a stroke”). The last type of disorder involves people not recognizing themselves in the mirror. These people will even stand in front of the mirror and yell at this mocking person who copies one’s own actions.

Then Feinberg presents his theory of how the self is constructed. He’s an emergentist: from smaller systems, larger ones emerge that cannot be reduced to their parts. So just as atoms form parts of the cell, which in turn for the cell, so brain cells which form parts of the brain also construct the self. The “self” is not to be identified with one part of the brain, as Descartes thought, but is a dynamic construct emerging from many lower-level functions of the brain. Feinberg postulates two emergentism: that it is unpredictable how lower-level systems create higher-level ones, and that the lower levels are constrained by the activity of the higher levels. So the “self” constrains its parts by ordering them, but the parts constrain the self, as in these neurological disorders. Finally, the “self” as Feinberg describes it is defined by purpose. Rather than some static notion of the soul, the self can be defined as whatever function, purpose, or meaning all the parts of the mind are working in concert toward. It’s a telenomic system.

Feinberg’s clinical examples are interesting, but I don’t see how they connect to the second half of his book. If the self-world boundary as is malleable as he demonstrates, would this not defeat any notion of the self and lead us into Humean non-self? And while I think emergentism is the right direction for philosophers of mind to go in, by no means is it a complete theory. We still don’t have a clear idea of how higher levels or organization are formed from lower. Why do certain cells elicit consciousness and not others? Feinberg is better with clinical experience than with philosophy. I would read this book for the first half, but read someone else for the philosophical reflections. ( )
1 vote JDHomrighausen | Aug 15, 2013 |
At last the mind-body problem is solved! Not really, of course. Much of the space is taken up by interviews with brain-damage patients.
  fpagan | Jan 11, 2007 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0195152425, Paperback)

In Altered Egos, Dr. Todd Feinberg presents a new theory of the self based on his first-hand experience as both a psychiatrist and neurologist.
Feinberg introduces dozens of intriguing cases of patients whose disorders have resulted in what he calls "altered egos": a change in the brain that transforms the boundaries of the self. He describes patients who suffer from "alien hand syndrome" where one hand might attack the patient's own throat, patients with frontal lobe damage who invent fantastic stories about their lives, paralyzed patients who reject and disown one of their limbs. He then argues that the brain damage suffered by these people has done more than simply impair certain functions--it has fragmented their sense of self.
From these fascinating cases, Feinberg proposes a new model of the self that links the workings of the brain with unique and personal features of the mind, such as meaning, purpose, and being. Drawing on his own and other evidence, he explains how the unified self, while not located in one or another brain region, arises out of the staggering complexity and number of the brain's component parts.
Lucid, insightful, filled with fascinating case studies and provocative new ideas, Altered Egos promises to change the way we think about human consciousness and the creation and maintenance of human identity.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:43:20 -0400)

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