To present an overview of some of the more spectacular examples of neurological disorders, to define and elaborate on a notion of the 'self' or 'I', and to weld together a solution for the mind-body problem (now become, for many scientists, the mind-brain problem), all in 150 pages, is a very tall order. Todd Feinberg takes a stab at it in this book, and though I found it highly readable and very thought-provoking in places, I found it unbalanced and the 'theory' or solution to the mind-brain problem entirely unoriginal.
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.