Investigating the Nature of the Self

A brief, introductory glance into Cotard’s Syndrome, the strange science of personal identity and the nature of the self.


| January 2016



Science of Self

Elucidating the nature of the self remains our biggest challenge.

Photo by Fotolia/agsandrew

We are learning about the self at a level that Descartes could never have imagined. In The Man Who Wasn’t There (Dutton, 2015), Anil Ananthaswamy’s extensive interviews venture into the lives of individuals who offer perspectives that will change how you think about who you are. This excerpt, which describes one man’s experiences while suffering from Cotard’s Syndrome, is from Chapter 1, “The Living Dead.”

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Adam Zeman will never forget the phone call. It was a psychiatrist, asking him to come urgently to the psych ward. There was a patient claiming to be brain dead.

The patient, Graham, was a forty-eight year-old man. Following a separation from his second wife, Graham had become deeply depressed and had tried to kill himself. He got into this bath and pulled an electric heater into the bathwater, wanting to electrocute himself. Fortunately, the fuse blew and Graham was spared. “It didn’t seem to do any physical damage to him, but some weeks later he formed the belief that his brain had died,” said Zeman, a neurologist at the University of Exeter in the UK.

It was a rather specific belief. And one that led Zeman to have some very strange conversations. “Look, Graham, you are able to hear me, see me, and understand what I’m saying, remember your past, and express yourself, surely your brain must be working,” Zeman would say to Graham.

Graham would say, “No, no, my brain’s dead. My mind is alive but my brain is dead.”