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Anil Ananthaswamy: Explorations in the Edge of Self



Sep 16, 2017

Welcome to Awakin calls! Every Saturday, we host conversations with guest speakers from all walks of life, speakers whose personal journeys awaken and inspire our innate spirit of service. Thank you for coming together to plant seeds for a more compassionate society.

Preeta: So good morning, good afternoon and good evening. My name is Preeta and I'm really excited to be your host for our weekly global awakin call. Welcome and thank you so much for joining us!

Every story is the beginning of a conversation. Whether it's within ourselves or with others, across time and culture, stories have been agents of personal transformation, in part because they have the power to change our hearts and minds. The purpose of our weekly call is to share stories from incredible change makers from around the globe. Through thoughtfully guided conversations with them, our special guest speakers share their personal story and inspire us through their actions, their experiences and their insights. Our hope is that these conversations will plant the seeds for a more compassionate and service-oriented society while serving to foster our own inner transformation. Behind each of these calls is an entire team of ServiceSpace volunteers whose invisible work allows us to hold this beautiful space. We are thankful to them and to all of our listeners for helping co-create this space.

Today we're grateful to have a remarkable guest speaker with us -- Anil Ananthaswamy, whose personal journey is not only inspiring, but has had a tremendous impact on many people. Thanks again for joining today's call. Let’s start with just a minute of silence to anchor ourselves into the space.

So welcome again to our weekly Awakin call. Today, we're in conversation with Anil Ananthaswamy. Here's how the call works. In just a few minutes, our fabulous moderator Gayathri will engage in a deep dialogue with our speaker Anil and by the top of the hour, we'll roll into open reflections, Q&A, circle of sharing, with all of our guests, where we invite all of your reflections and questions. I’ve already opened up the queue right now so at any point, you can hit *6 on your phone and you'll be prompted when we get to the top of the hour and it’s your turn to speak. You can also e-mail us at ask@servicespace.org. That’s ask@servicespace.org. And if you're following along through the web, you can also submit a question through the web.

So this week's theme is ‘Explorations in the edge of self’, which is, kind of, a tantalising theme. Our guest this week is an award-winning science writer, who uses neuroscience to examine the nature of the self. We have the pleasure, the remarkable pleasure actually, of having Gayathri as our moderator today. Gayathri is actually somebody who’s a student of Anil’s and through a strange set of convergences that is the magic of the ServiceSpace ecosystem, she was reconnected to him in preparation for this call. So it's really remarkable! Gayathri Ramachandran is a scientist, by training and a gardener, by hand and heart. Her PhD research examined how sticky protein clumps in the brain result in Alzheimer’s disease while her postdoctoral research asked how the diet & gut microbiome of worms affects their stress resilience. She’s currently on a sabbatical from ‘paid’ work, holding questions on life and the self, while volunteering with ServiceSpace and tree planting initiatives in her native Chennai in India. So thank you so much, Gayathri -- it's a pleasure to have you here!

Gayathri: Thank you, Preeta.

Preeta: Yeah, thank you. I'm going to pass it over to you, to introduce Anil and to kick off, start off, our conversation with him.

Gayathri: Thank you! So yeah, I’m really excited to be here! Today’s guest Anil Ananthaswamy is an award-winning science writer with numerous articles published in prestigious science magazines such as New Scientist, National Geographic News, Discover and Matter. He is also the author of two books. The first called ‘The Edge of Physics’ reads like a travelogue to some of the most remote places of the earth, where experiments are being done to understand the nature of the universe. The second called ‘The man who wasn’t there’ explores what cutting-edge neuroscience and psychiatric research can tell us about that most primordial of human questions “Who am I?” Based on interviews with patients suffering from various neurological disorders, each of which result in the loss of some aspect of what most normal people think of as integral to their sense of self, Anil attempts to peel apart what the self is and how the brain constructs this coherent identity.
 
Anil came to science journalism through a circuitous route and was a software engineer in Silicon Valley in his previous avatar. He divides his time between the Bay Area and Bangalore. He also teaches an annual course in science journalism at National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore, where I did my PhD, and was part of the first batch of guinea pigs that took that course. So it’s a real pleasure and a privilege to do this interview with him! Welcome, Anil and thank you for joining us today!

Anil: Thank you, Gayathri. It’s really my pleasure to be on this call. I’ve known about it for a while now and it’s really my pleasure. So yeah, thank you very much for having me.

Gayathri: Wonderful! So I thought we’d start with talking a little bit about these two themes you wrote books on – the universe and the self. I know that many of your articles and features as a science journalist have also been on the latest research on these topics. So I’m curious how you came to choose these themes to write on?

Anil: I think the things I write about are really driven by curiosity. And I think, in the beginning, when I started as a science journalist, maybe because of my training in engineering, electrical engineering, I was kind of predisposed to thinking more about stories about physics. And even within physics, I sort of gravitated to thinking about the big questions in cosmology that physicists are trying to answer. So I think, you know, if you, if you think about work that kind of physics, especially cosmology is trying to do versus some things that are of interest to me in neuroscience, they really are questions about existence. Whether it's the coming about of the material world in terms of the universe, matter, galaxies, stars etc. and the eventual emergence of life, or once we as living beings think about who we are, then it’s about our individual existence, in relation to this larger thing. So I think, somewhere, to me, these are all related enquiries and I find them equally interesting.

Gayathri: Yeah, I mean, that’s beautiful, especially the the way you said that, you know, it's connected to this whole question about what our existence is, on a cosmological scale or the individual scale. So I'm curious -- do you remember the first piece you wrote on either of those subjects? Because, I guess you might remember -- whether…

Anil: Actually, I wouldn’t be able to...it's been 15-16 years of doing this now, so it’s hard for me to recollect the exact first piece...But in terms of neuroscience, some of the early pieces were explorations of the sense of self -- there were some features that we did in New Scientist -- that’s where my interest in the subject began.

Gayathri: I was wondering if you remember the very first influential book, pop-science book, that you read on either subject?

Anil: I definitely remember the one on physics. It’s a book called ‘The Universe and Dr. Einstein’ or ‘Dr. Einstein and the Universe’. I forget how it’s phrased, but the ‘The Universe and Dr. Einstein’ was this thin paperback that I had actually bought as a student back in Seattle where I was doing my Masters. I left for India, I came back to Bangalore, to work in Bangalore and I had brought that book back with me and I remember picking it up one night and I couldn't put it down. I think I read the book through the night. It was a very, very -- it was an exhilarating experience to read about ideas as profound as the ones that came out of Einstein’s mind. So that definitely was something that set me on the path to thinking about science and science journalism and science writing.

Gayathri: Hmm...And what about neuroscience? I mean there are some quite well-known pop-science books -- Oliver Sacks, VS Ramachandran -- did you read any of them?

Anil: Yeah, I think I have and I think there were two books in particular -- and those two names that you just said -- Oliver Sacks, VS Ramachandran -- their books would be the ones that I would have named, probably as the books that influenced me, both in terms of the neuroscience, but also from the perspective of a writer wanting to write a certain way. Both Sacks and Ramachandran...I think, Sacks’ book ‘The man who mistook his wife for a hat’ -- that was a really, really powerful piece of writing. And Ramachandran’s ‘Phantoms in the brain’ -- both were influential for me, I think, in terms of thinking about wanting to write, and in wanting to think about these subjects.

Gayathri: So that connects nicely to my, sort of, second question, which is, in your second book ‘The man who wasn’t there’, you write with great empathy about people who suffer from these disorders like Cotard’s, Alzheimer’s and BIID, which is Body Integrity Identification Disorder. So I haven’t read the book yet, but I did read your long-form piece in Matter on the BIID patient you accompanied to his amputation -- it was really a beautiful piece of sensitive writing. So I’m curious about how this experience of listening to first-person accounts humanizes your understanding of these disorders?

Anil: Well, I think, the first thing I would like to say about that is, you know, meeting so many people who shared their stories, one of the things that went out of my vocabulary was thinking of these as ‘disorders’. So, you know, I think maybe, that maybe something we can talk about is...normally, we use phrases like somebody as being normal and somebody as having a mental illness or somebody having a mental disorder. And one of the things that happened to me in the course of writing up the book was just this really profound feeling that we shouldn’t be thinking like that, we shouldn't be thinking of...I mean, yes, people are suffering and that should not be discounted and...But all of these ‘conditions’ and that's about the only word I feel like I want to use, you know?

Being human is a condition and within that, you can have variations in how we experience life. So someone who is suffering from schizophrenia is really...there is someone suffering from schizophrenia, rather than saying someone is a schizophrenic -- I think there is a subtle difference in the way language is used -- when you say someone is autistic versus saying someone is suffering from autism, you, kind of, are beginning to acknowledge that there is always an experiencer of these various symptoms and humanizing the person behind, who is, you know, who might be suffering. So one of the things that happened really, for me, is this transformation of not wanting to think anymore in terms of disorders or abnormalities or normality etc. So it's all a spectrum -- we're all on the spectrum somewhere.

Gayathri: Yeah, right...I'm also wondering whether in addition to talking to some of the patients or persons, did you talk to any of their family members, like the most intimate relationships they might have, and how those people viewed this person and their condition?

Anil: Yeah, oftentimes, because some of the conditions are such that the person can find it quite hard to express what it is, to be suffering from, like say, take the case of Alzheimer’s disease. By the time Alzheimer’s really sets in and it’s mid to late stage Alzheimer’s, if you’re just talking to the person suffering from Alzheimer’s, then it’s very hard to get a sense of what has changed, at least middle-stage Alzheimer’s. But if you talk to, say the spouse, or the son or daughter, they can tell you how things have changed. So you have to...I did talk in many cases, with family members and friends, to get a more complete understanding of what it must be like to be suffering from any of these conditions.

Gayathri: And...So I’m assuming that, that means, for example, with Alzheimer’s, it would mean that there is more than one way to communicate your feelings and so even if they have short-term memory loss, family members would be able to pick up on so many other cues. And you know...this goes to this question of do you know to what extent the narrative self is, you know, is kind of distorted when you have Alzheimer's and I’m wondering whether you got a sense of that…

Anil: Yeah, quite strongly because...And in fact, when I looked at these various conditions in the book, the intent was to see if the disruption to the sense of self that are caused by these conditions -- can they tell us something about the nature of our, sort of, unified sense of self? So if you look at, if you think of these conditions as kind of cracks in the facade of the unified self, then what do these disruptions tell us?

And one of the things that Alzheimer’s disrupts is this sense of being a narrative. So we all, we all have a sense of being a story -- if you were ask to someone ‘who are you’, you are, you know, very likely to get an answer that sounds like a story. And it’s not just a story that we tell others, it’s also a story that is internally running in our heads, it’s how we think of ourselves. So...and these stories are essentially episodic memories strung together in some sort of timeline that is coherent and...and because of short-term memory loss and eventually loss of cognition and, you know, all of memory -- one of the things that Alzheimer’s does, is really, in the beginning, it disrupts the narrative self, in the sense that it starts scrambling the narrative. So when you are trying to tell someone -- say you are talking to someone who has mid-stage Alzheimer’s and you are asking them about their life, and if you didn't know their life story, you wouldn't be able to tell whether they're telling you exactly what their life was like. But if you do know their story, then you’ll find out that they're actually scrambling the narrative - their timeline in their minds about what happened when, is scrambled up.

And eventually, that whole narrative self is gone because Alzheimer’s has literally taken away their memories, so there's no way to construct a narrative anymore. But there's also other serious things that happen with Alzheimer’s which then doesn't allow them to even communicate what it must be like, to be someone without a narrative. So, from the outside looking in, caregivers, you know, people who are taking care of these people with Alzheimer's would use phrases like “Oh, there's no one in there anymore”, you know, implying a loss of self. But it’s not at all clear whether that’s the case because we don’t really know that from a first-person account of what it’s like. This is all inference -- from the outside, from caregivers.

Gayathri: And all these different patients you met -- were they always willing to talk, I mean, about their experience, or were they reticent?

Anil: I mean, these were already a set of people who had agreed to talk. Otherwise, you know -- the fact that they're in the book is because they agreed to talk. There were other people I contacted who didn't agree. So I’ve not written about...so the people I’ve written about are to some extent, those that agreed to talk, but even within the course of the conversation, it was not like that the first time I talked, they could share everything. And sometimes, it would take many conversations to get to that point were they would feel comfortable -- because you know, these are very personal and very serious things they are sharing about themselves. Some were concerned about anonymity, some were not and so it was a very...I couldn’t say that everyone was like this or like that -- there were very different responses to my questions from people, but eventually, over time, the people I write about in the book, they were all those people who eventually opened up to a large degree.

Gayathri: And did any of them read your book? Like the ones who still have the capacity to...

Anil: Yeah, yeah, some of them did, some of them did. I mean, they also, a lot of them would have read pieces about them before publication, so they kind of knew what I was writing about, about them. And not everyone, but a lot of them had actually vetted what I was writing about them, so...it was not a surprise to them, but in terms of reading the whole book, yeah, so some of them might have been aware of the fact that I have written about their lives, but they didn’t know it was in the context of the whole book -- so some of them did read, and they liked it and I’m very happy about that. Because that was for me the first order of business, because I wanted to make sure that my sources who had shared --you know, such very, very intimate details about their lives, that they, in no way, felt, you know -- that I’ve not betrayed their trust. So, so that was important to me and all the people who read it were fine -- they were happy with it.

Gayathri: That’s beautiful to hear! So I'm curious -- do you have one story that comes to your mind that  really moved you amongst the many you covered, or you really can't pick one?

Anil: I mean -- there are some sad stories for me within, in the context of the book especially to do with Alzheimer's -- the two patients that I write about were elderly. One was in mid to late-stage Alzheimer's  -- both were men, and the second man was in very late-stage Alzheimer's. And Allen who I write about -- he died before the book was published and the other man -- he died after. You know, I know their family members, at least a couple of people, so that -- I think, for me writing about Alzheimer's and seeing what it does to a person was hard. And then having both my sources pass away in the course of publication of the book, that was hard.

But, but really, everyone shared some very deeply-felt things about their lives and so I can't really pick...You know, I can think about each of the people I talked to and you know, if I sit with thoughts about them, they all had some effect on me. So I wouldn’t be able to pick and choose saying -- this moved me more than the other -- it depends on which aspect of their lives I'm thinking about and yeah, so I think everyone had some impact on me.

Gayathri: So I’m a little curious about that -- could you actually tell us a little bit about what changed for you personally? So I know you mentioned this fact that you are very careful about your choice of words and not just -- it's not just a thing that you're careful about, it's something you really strongly believe internally -- that these are just conditions and we're all on the spectrum somewhere with different abilities. But I'm also curious about whether some other things changed for you personally, before and after writing this book “The man who wasn't there”?

Anil: Yes and No. In the sense that, the broader kind of inquiry in the book is about the nature of the self. So we constantly hear about this idea that the self is an illusion and there is nothing permanent about the self -- there is a certain kind of impermanence to what we are, and all these things. They were just ideas for me -- things that I had read about in other books.

And actually trying to inquire into it deeply, in order to...because when you're trying to write something, when trying to explain an idea through the lens, in this case, through the lens of neuroscience and neuropsychology and neuropsychiatry, anytime you're trying to explain something to someone through writing, you really need to understand the subject in a much more visceral way, than if you were just reading it for yourself in a book and trying to understand it. So that, that deepening of the understanding of what one truly means by impermanence, what one truly means by the idea that the self is an illusion, all these things, they took root, I think, to an extent that wouldn't have been possible if I hadn’t actually met...So the people that I met -- like someone suffering from schizophrenia or someone suffering from Alzheimer's, they were not necessarily thinking about the self -- so this whole question about what these conditions will tell us about the self was a kind of meta-analysis that I was trying to do after listening to their stories.

Gayathri: Right...

Anil: So, yeah. So even though I would ask them about notions of the self etc. to the extent that I could, the synthesis part was happening after listening to their stories, and coming back and sitting with whatever they'd told me. And not just them, but what the philosophers that I was talking to or the neuroscientists that I was talking to, putting all that together definitely deepened my own understanding of what theologies or philosophies mean when they say that the self is impermanent or there is no such thing as a self or the self is an illusion and so...

And in the beginning, I said yes and no, and that's because how much this kind of knowledge affects one really depends on your own state of mind. So there are times when I think I'm affected by it and then there are other times when I'm just not affected, I mean I'm basically...It’s the kind of knowledge that slips away, and I go back to being that solid permanent self that is constantly trying to protect itself and is insecure and is worried, so just the knowledge of it, doesn't change things. But it will help -- it definitely has deepened my understanding of what these things mean.

Gayathri: So to clarify, so, do you think the self is an illusion or do you think it's the same as consciousness?

Anil: Aah, so, I mean those are difficult, I mean...Ok...(hesitates)

Gayathri: (laughs)

Anil: The reason I am kind of hesitating is because when I wrote the book, I actually did not take a stand on the nature of consciousness.

Gayathri: Right.

Anil: I actually...The book manages to show that much of what we think as permanent, for instance, the story that we are, the narrative, or even things like the sense of being a body, even the sense we have that ‘my legs are mine’, ‘my hands are mine’, which we don't even question, these are all things that are being constructed by the brain and body -- by moment, by moment, by moment. I mean it's a continuous process, so the self, the sense of self is actually just -- it's a process -- that both the body and the brain are involved in.

What one can’t answer with empirical neuroscience or with philosophy at this point, or with theology, is the notion, is how does the ‘I’ emerge? No matter what one is experiencing, there's always an experiencer. There's always the subject of experiences and finally the question of what is the self comes down to answering where does the subject of experiences come from? How does that arise and so...It's true that much of what we take to be permanent is constructed and in that context, an illusion. In the sense that the permanence is an illusion.

The experiencer or the subject of experiences -- that becomes a much more difficult question to answer. I think, I think, that within philosophy, within neuroscience, you will find scientists and philosophers who will say that even the sense of an ‘I’ is just an appearance -- it appears because of the way other elements of our material body interact. And that’s also a certain kind of Buddhist point of view, that it is the interaction of psycho-physical elements that give rise to the sense of an ‘I’.

But there are also differing opinions, within philosophy of mind and within neuroscience as to what that ‘I’ might be. And it could be that it is the outcome of consciousness itself. Now, the reason why I hesitated in the beginning is the moment one says it could be consciousness itself -- Well, we can't yet define what consciousness is. There is a lot of debate about whether consciousness itself is an illusion. The fact that it feels like something immaterial, that it is not of the body, could that feeling itself be an illusion? Or is it something, really a thing apart from the brain and body -- we don't know.

And so do I think it is consciousness? It could be. Could it be just the material world? It could be, and we don't know. I mean, honestly if you are actually looking for empirical evidence to support any viewpoint, there is none. So I wouldn't, I wouldn't be able to tell you -- so it just becomes a question of belief at that point.

Gayathri: And, but -- do you believe that science can actually answer this question? The hard question.

Anil: The hard problem of consciousness? So in the book, I definitely didn't take a stand on consciousness. I deliberately -- I made it a point to say in the book that this book does not address the hard problem of consciousness. Since then, I've been thinking more and more about it, and reading, you know, some philosophers of the mind and some neuroscientists, and I am certainly leaning more and more towards the materialist explanation. Now, you know, a lot of people when they hear that word -- ‘materialist’ explanation -- feel as if we are denigrating something very profound, but I don't think of it like that at all. Because the other side of the things I write about, which we talked about earlier -- cosmology, the beginning of the universe...you know, I mean the universe is so incredible! I mean, when you, when you think about the material world -- just the material world, there is nothing simple about it. There is nothing -- you know the body is a material thing, and there is nothing simple about  it. 

Gayathri: Nothing trivial about being stardust?!

Anil: Nothing trivial about being stardust, nothing trivial about having a heart and a lung! I mean, absolutely nothing trivial. The brain is a material thing and it is not trivial at all and we haven’t a clue how it works in terms of, you know...So, so just saying something is material should not be an act of denigration or reducing something that we otherwise consider profound. I think the fact that the universe exists, the fact that the material universe exists is a profound thing so...

And can science explain it? I mean, it’s just a hunch. I mean, again, there’s no way to tell but it’s just a hunch that -- it will. Or it will be able to tell you why it can’t. So I hope that it’ll come to that point where it will become extremely clear that science will never have an answer or it will say that this is what it is.

But again, saying that, there's always this strange dichotomy within the way we think -- we somehow relegate science to one side of how we do things. And to me, science is just a process -- it's something we...it's a way of understanding our world.

You know, even if I think about what Buddhists have done over millennia -- that is an empirically-based exploration of the mind. It just so happens that they experiment on their own individual mind, they go within, and take their subjective experiences, and somehow are making sense of it. That’s still a process. To me, that’s as... There's a debate right now within neuroscience about whether, you know, the subjective experiences can ever be amenable to the scientific process. There is a debate and a valid debate. But, to me, that's also part of what science is.

And there are scientists and there are philosophers of the mind who are arguing today that we need, we need that kind of science that the Buddhists have done over two millennia in trying to understand the mind from within, in conjunction with the kind of science that we normally think of, which is, you know, third-person, objective science -- that say, three people looking at something from the outside, can agree upon as to what it is. So yeah, I think science will at least be able to tell us whether we can answer it or not.

Gayathri: Hmmm...I asked you about science but I’m wondering if you have any personal spiritual practices that have also influenced the way you think about the self?

Anil: Not from an experimental...I mean I have attempted to learn meditation, do meditation. I haven't been very successful in maintaining a practice. I think my meditation is writing. I think when I write, I think that is a form of meditation for me, but not -- knowing what a meditation instructor will say about what meditation is, I don't think it is the same thing. But it’s a meditative activity, rather than meditation itself. Writing, that is. For me.

But I don't think I have experientially come to any place where I can say that, that has influenced my outlook. Saying that, the desire to learn meditation, the desire to read about cosmology,  the desire to understand the neuroscience of the self -- I think they're all linked in my mind. They’re all part of the same enquiry. And so, it doesn't feel separate in my mind that I would want to learn about the neuroscience of schizophrenia, and at the same time, want to meditate and see how the mind feels when I'm meditating -- they all seem very related to me.

Gayathri: I was also wondering whether -- you said you talked to a bunch of neuroscientists and also talked to philosophers. Did you talk to philosophers across traditions? Western philosophers, I’m assuming because they're often in academic departments but..

Anil: Yeah.. and they...so I did talk to philosophers because....Philosophy of the mind, especially when it comes to the nature of, you know, questions about the self and consciousness, it's -- you do end up intersecting with the kind of philosophy that has come out of some Buddhist thinking or Hindu thinking. So even though I didn’t explicitly talk to people who are, I would say, theologians, who would be representative of certain kinds of Eastern thinking, I did talk to philosophers who are embedded in the academic environment, who are thinking about. Eastern philosophy and Western philosophy and seeing how they inform us about questions of the self. So yes, you know people who understood Buddhist thinking, people who understood Advaitin thinking, alongside analytical Western philosophy etc. Yeah, so I did get a fairly good cross-section of people to talk to.

Gayathri: And are there any philosophers of either Eastern or Western training who are also active neuroscientists, who are doing some of the actual experiments, or these are disparate?

Anil: There are philosophers who are very empirically-grounded, if that’s what you are asking. Even though, even though they may not themselves be doing the neuroscience. I mean, because these are pretty big silos that they are a part of. If you have to become a philosopher, in any kind of traditional philosophy, you have essentially given up the first 20 years of your life. So you can’t then go and say I’m going to do lab neuroscience, or bench neuroscience. But there is a lot of cross-talk. So those were the people I was interested in. The people who were actually taking neuroscientific, empirical evidence into account in their philosophy -- so whenever they were coming up with ideas about notions of the self or consciousness, you know, if empirical evidence was going against their way of thinking, they would be open to dropping that idea. So yes, there are people who are straddling those worlds; even if they're not actually doing neuroscience but they are people who are very, very aware of what's happening.

Gayathri: Well, I'm wondering if you could tell us a little bit, at this point, about, sort of, what your early childhood was like and what were maybe the early influences in your life in the domain of science, and also the domain of spirituality?

Anil: (laughs) Well, I’m a terrible person to be asking these things...

Gayathri: (laughs)

Anil:...because I have a very, very bad memory. It’s really one of my losses. I really don’t remember much about any kind of, you know, with any kind of specificity about, things about childhood or...yeah, you know, huge turning points, or this or that. You know, I have friends in school from, you know, primary school and kindergarten who will remember the colour of the, sort of, canvas on the rickshaw that they were sitting in. I don't remember ever sitting in a rickshaw with them! So it's one of those things where those details are lost to me. So I won’t be able to answer that question.

Gayathri: (laughs) Did you ever, when you were a child, have any sense of strong faith in God -- that sort of thing or were you never really...?

Anil: No, no. Nothing, nothing particular. I mean, you know, I grew up -- you know, my mom is religious, so I grew up around religion but no, but she's always been hands off in making me do this or that, and I think I always remained curious so, you know, I have read about religion without being religious in the traditional sense. But then I would read about all religions. Just because I was born into a certain religion, I haven't felt the need to restrict myself to what my religion of birth says about the world. So it’s been a fairly open-minded enquiry into what religions have said. And I don't have any particular faith that I say that I adhere to.

Gayathri: And I know that you grew up in Bhilai and your father worked in SAIL (Steel Authority of India Limited)...

Anil: Yeah, in the steel plant there.

Gayathri: I was wondering how, you know, just being part of that community and seeing such a major manufacturing industry, how that, what influence that had on just, you know, your scientific, sort of, self, as a child, because...?

Anil: I don't think the manufacturing plant itself had any particular effect because as a child growing up, even though the town is, you know, by modern standards quite small, but when you're a child, something that is 10 km away was, you know, just too far away. It’s not something that is in your immediate horizon; you can see the chimney stacks of the steel plant, but that’s about it.

I think what it had, the real effect it had, on all of us growing up in a town like that was the social effect of growing up in a community where all your parents were either doctors or engineers. So, all these people who had come to work in the steel plant were engineers. And the others, most of them were doctors who were basically part of the medical system there. And so I think that certainly had an effect on all of us kids growing up there -- some good and also detrimental because It was also a kind of place where you couldn't think of writing as a profession, but then that might have been true of all of India in that time, everywhere. You know, not just Bhilai. But Bhilai in particular was very focused on engineering and medicine, so you know it took me 15 years after doing my engineering to start thinking about being a writer and sort of getting away from engineering. Not to say that what I studied didn't help me -- I think it was profoundly influential in terms of how I think. Yeah, so the environment, I would say, had its pluses but also its minuses because you couldn't think outside that box necessarily of engineering and medicine.

Gayathri: So, no artists came out of your cohort (laughs)?

Anil: Eventually, eventually -- people figured it out. But as a child growing up, when you are just trying to figure out what to do...But again, I think that was not just Bhilai -- this was the 80s and most of India would have been like that. So the notions of becoming an artist would have been a very privileged notion and I don't think most people would have entertained that then. It's different now.

Gayathri: Hmm..So when you  were a software engineer in Silicon Valley, you just decided one day to go do the science journalism program in Santa Cruz or it was a slow burn?

Anil: It was a slow burn. I think by the mid 90's, I had started developing a real desire to write but at that time I thought it would be fiction. So I remember giving up my job and sort of taking up consultancy so that I could work for six months and then just take six months off. And I would come back to India and I would attempt writing fiction. So I did that over 3, 4 years. And it never occurred to me that I could combine science with my writing.

Even though I was an avid reader of popular science books, somehow it didn't occur to me personally that I could be one of those writers. And I just happened to bump into a friend's friend who had just finished this 1 year science writing program at U.C. Santa Cruz, and the moment I heard that, I knew that that is something I had to do. Because just the idea of spending one year in a university just writing, that was bliss. So yeah, so once I found that out, then it was a quick decision. I went and applied and got in and that’s how it got started.

Gayathri: So personally, do you believe in destiny or you’re just agnostic?

Anil: Ha ha! Like, I mean, my mind analyses that question in multiple ways -- you know, I start thinking about notions of free will and what science is telling us about free will and it’s really not there. I think about the physics I write about and really, there’s almost no place in it, for free will in the material world. So yeah, do I believe in destiny? I do think our actions have consequences but whether each of our actions is something we have control over, I’m agnostic about that, at this point. I don't know. I am agnostic about the notion of free will.

Gayathri: Yeah. So I’m curious…

Anil: Anything I do now...Sorry

Gayathri: No, go on.

Anil: Basically, that point -- that every action has a consequence but what leads us to that action? Is it completely determined or is there some place there for free will is unclear. I think, I think we're dealing with extremely complex systems. So, the thing is whether you're talking of systems like neural networks at the level of the brain or the combined neural capacity of all of humanity, or the neural capacity of all of humanity interacting with the rest of the material world -- I mean, these are incredibly complex systems. So, in complex systems, there might be things that look like they're unpredictable but that's pure chaos -- it’s not that they're not deterministic. It’s just that we don't know enough to be able to determine what’s happening.

Gayathri: We don't know the rules of chaos?!

Anil: No, no. We know. It is just that it takes an extremely small perturbation in the system to set it off on a completely different trajectory. Right? No amount of, you know we just do not have the wherewithal -- if you just take a system like weather, we don't have the computational resources to predict what's going to happen. Even though, in principle if you know, if you knew the initial conditions exactly and had the computational resources to compute the trajectory of the system, you could. But we don't and so that’s what chaos is. You know, a small initial perturbation can send off the system into a place that you’d not have thought it would go to. And we are such systems.

Gayathri: I was also wondering if you could tell us a little about your, sort of, writing practices maybe. Do you have a method now after so many years as a science journalist?

Anil: For a journalists who is earning a living, doing this for a living, there's a method and that method is called a deadline and so…

Gayathri: (laughs)

Anil: (laughs) So yeah. Pretty much, especially if you are writing for magazines and newspapers, deadlines are what dictate. Learning how to write when there's a deadline is pretty much what you have to figure out how to do. Books are slightly different, because the deadlines are longer but the longer deadlines are just a kind of mirage because there's also a lot more to do, and they eventually catch up. So I’m right now finishing up another book, and I’m already 15 days behind deadline so...

And within that, there are methods. I mean. If you're writing a short news story, you just have to write to deadline, it might be due in two hours and you just have to do it. Longer stories, yes, you try to come up with a method, but I really haven't settled on any method. I just do it when I can.

If you’re writing a lot, then that just becomes, it’s just like any other work, where you learn how you do it when you get the time and when you have to do it. 

Gayathri: Right. So deadlines are good at even unblocking any kind of writer’s block that you might experience?

Anil: I think, I think if you're not clear in your mind about what is it that you are writing, or what is it that you want to write about, no amount of deadlines or nothing is going to unblock it. So a lot of the process of writing is really about understanding what you need to write about. And that, depending on what is it that you're attempting to write, whether it’s a news story or a feature or a book, a lot of that is rumination. And that process is very hard to codify.

But just having a deadline is not going to unblock any writer’s block. A writer’s block usually is because you haven't understood the material well. And I’m talking of non-fiction. Fiction is a different beast and I wouldn’t want to comment on that.

Gayathri: No, I think, I think that's actually a very clear understanding of what a writer’s block is. I'm also curious about -- so I've often thought that a person is revealed as much by their musical self as their writing or speaking selves, so I was wondering if you could give us, tell us about any songs you listen to, or music you listen to when you need inspiration?

Anil: I listen to a lot of music but I don't think of it as listening to it, for inspiration. I like a very wide variety of music but it’s more for listening pleasure, not to inspire my writing. In my mind, they are not connected -- I mean it might happen, unconsciously that’s how it’s working on me, but I’m not thinking of music that way. When I listen to music, it’s because I just love the music.

Preeta: I think I just wanted to remind our listeners - we are nearing the top of the hour so if you like, if you have a question or a comment or a reflection you'd like to share, please press *6 on your phone. Or send a message to ask@servicespace.org or submit something through your web-link and we will turn to it. So thanks! Go ahead, Gayathri.

Gayathri: Anil, I was also wondering whether -- like of all the patients who you interacted with for your second book, to what extent is their musical self, you know, disrupted in the different conditions? Because there are so many ways that we are anchored in our sense of identity and, and I think, like...I mean.

Anil: Yeah, it’s an interesting...music would certainly be...I mean, Oliver Sacks has written a lot about that. I personally didn't enquire as to what, you know, music may or may not do, for how they were feeling. But I know one example where the importance of music, or the act of making music, rather than listening to music, was really important to one person who was suffering from depersonalization disorder. 

Depersonalization disorder is a condition where the person suffering feels detached from their own body and their own emotional state. So it’s almost like there is an ‘I’ that isn't connected anymore with the bodily state, with the body itself. It's a source of tremendous anxiety and fear, when that happens. And this person, this guy I was talking to, he would say that when he played the drums, because it required such an intense focus on all his four limbs -- his 2 hands, 2 legs -- he has this condition, it’s chronic for him, so he’s constantly in this state of depersonalization -- at least he was for a length of time, when I was talking to him. And he said that the act of engaging with his whole body when he was playing the drums, was actually a relief. Those would be moments when he would literally come back into his body and so that was probably the only thing I can think of where music had a connection with how someone felt about themselves.

Preeta: Well, we have a few callers in queue and also some comments in from the web but I’d like to take host prerogative for a second, if I could, and ask you, Anil -- your book is entitled “The Man who wasn’t there” and I’m curious what that refers to, in your mind.

Anil: So, one answer is that the publishers were thinking about a title that was actually playing off Oliver Sacks’ “The man who mistook his wife for a hat”. The phrase “The man who” has become a trope in nonfiction and so this was playing off, of that. But then, within that, once you accept that the marketing people had their own desire for that title, leaving that aside, “The man who wasn’t there” refers to a few things.

One is it’s alluding to the idea that the self is not as permanent as we think it is. It's also potentially referring to what happens to someone with Alzheimer's, that there is a kind of, part of oneself that is actually disappearing. It also refers to Cotard’s syndrome where someone with Cotard’s will say that they don’t exist. They actually are completely convinced that they have died, even though they are fully functioning. Well, fully functioning, in a certain way because they can also be very depressed at that moment in time. But one of the key aspects of how they feel about themselves is that they don't exist. So the title is, kind of, referring to a few of those ideas within the book.

Preeta: I see, and as a scientist, I'm wondering did you approach the book and the various people that you met, the stories that you uncovered -- did you, did you begin with a hypothesis of some sort and if so, how was that hypothesis confirmed, altered or negated by your research and work?

Anil: So, Preeta, firstly, I should point out that I’m not a scientist but an engineer. Scientists would take objection to me calling myself a scientist! So I’m an engineer. That apart, did I start with a hypothesis? No, I didn’t start with a hypothesis. All I started with was this idea that these are disruptions of the self. Like someone with Cotard’s is saying ‘I don't exist’, it’s a very clear disruption of the sense of existence that we otherwise always feel. Most of us, at any time, will not debate the question about whether we exist or not. We say, of course, we exist. So the fact that somebody suffering from Cotard’s, the perception they have within themselves is that of non-existence, that’s already telling you that this can tell us something about the larger question of what it means to say I exist.

So each of these conditions I was exploring, I was trying to understand the disruptions. So, what happens when someone with schizophrenia hears voices that are not their own in their heads, or has thoughts that they feel are not their own. What does that tell us about situations where we otherwise feel that our thoughts implicitly feel like our own? What is happening?

For a long time, I actually could not synthesize. I ended up writing these 7 chapters on each of these conditions and I still couldn't figure out what was the common thread. And it took the last 3 months of the writing of the book, it came down to that, where I ended up having 3 intense conversations with 3 philosophers and then finally, it clicked into place. So to answer your question, I didn't begin with the hypothesis, except the hypothesis that maybe the disruptions of the self could tell us something about the construction of the self.

Preeta: Yes, I’m just curious about that last thing you mentioned, where you said you couldn't quite compute when someone was saying “I don't exist” or you know, “I don't have a self”. And then you talked to philosophers and then you were able to somehow come to terms with that. I'm just curious -- could you describe what the philosophers talked about and what you were struggling with, that they helped resolve?

Anil: I think what...eventually...the book needed a kind of meta-structure within which, I could then analyse these conditions and understand what each of them were telling us, about the nature of the self. And what eventually resolved was this idea that you can think of the self, you can slice and dice the self in many different ways -- you can talk of the narrative self, the bodily self, the social self, the spiritual self, you know, all sorts of things. But there is one distinction you can start with -- which is very basic, which is the self as subject and the self as object, which means that...

So, if I say ‘I am happy’ or ‘I am sad’, then sadness is a property of your sense of self. And the thing that is feeling the sadness is the ‘I’, the subject of the experience of sadness. So, once you start thinking of -- there is a self as subject, which is the subject of all experiences and then when you look at everything else as an experience, whether it is an experience of being a body, whether it is an experience of being a story or a narrative, whether it is the experience of having a hand that feels like your own, or having a hand that doesn't feel like your own. So there is always a subject and there are all these other attributes of the sense of self that just gets logged into the self as object category. 

Once I could figure out that there is this distinction you could make, then you can also make the argument that everything that gets logged into the self as object category is actually a construction. That is the experience by the self-as-subject. The question just becomes -- what is that self-as-subject, what is that "I" that experiences a thought as one's own, or a thought as not self, not your own. And once that categorization became clear and I could analyze everything with that lens, then the book's structure fell into place. 

Preeta: I see. And then if I understood what you were saying earlier, you were saying you didn't ultimately try to resolve that question of who is the "I" behind or who is the subject. Is there a subject apart from that? 

Anil: No. The intent of the book was to be completely grounded in empirical evidence. So the only thing that the evidence can support is that all of the self-as-object categories can be shown through the lens of these various conditions, that these are things that are constructed by the brain and the body, and they can fall apart. But even if they fall apart, the "I" doesn't go away. There is no empirical evidence at this point to say what that "I" is, or if that self is just an appearance, an illusion.   

Preeta: You mentioned that you don't have a lot of vivid childhood memories or details, but I am just curious, you don't seem to be someone in the way you were talking about your childhood, as someone who has created this tightly constructed notion of self. I am just wondering -- do you have a sense of self that you feel has been disrupted over time, or do you think it has been natural impermanence or have you spent time thinking about your narrative self?

Anil: I mean I have spent a lot of time thinking about it. I can’t tell you why I am interested in this subject, but I have been interested in it since my early twenties. And so I have read books about it or heard people talk about it. There has always been an interest and I think it's that interest that has driven me towards writing about it, because I just felt that I am fascinated by the subject, and also like we were talking about earlier, when you are writing about something, you just have to deepen your understanding so much more, and that was always a pleasure.

Have I had a sense of impermanence? No, actually quite the contrary, I think I feel the anxiety that comes with the permanent self quite acutely sometimes, and it's because of that, that I am driven to wanting to understand why. What is the source of that? Unfortunately, I don't feel impermanent at all, it's quite the opposite, and it also makes me aware that, that's probably the source of a lot of anxiety. 

Mou: Thanks for your talk. I enjoyed a lot. I would prepare a little bit context, and then I will ask you the question. The context is that, that I believe personally that there is one oneness. And if somebody comes and says ok the oneness that you are talking about there is another heaven and hell or there is another world outside, I say I would have no objections to that, let us include that one too. Then another person comes and says oh, the universe or the oneness you are talking about there is something beyond that one, this is this one, this is that one, I say you are right, let us include that one too. Then what is happening is that if I have no objection to any other thing, all of them will be included, then that oneness has to be within itself, there is nothing outside -- because if anybody claims there is something outside, then I would say let us include. So my question is how do you think about this oneness and how can there be oneness that is within the self and there is nothing outside of that. 

Anil: It is a tough one and the thing is that my way of thinking about all of these questions is really grounded in wanting to know about empirical evidence. So oneness in the context of the people I talk to, or the conditions I looked at -- the only place where that came about was in something called ecstatic epilepsy, where people who would be having seizures would talk about this feeling of being connected to something larger, or being part of something larger. And the explanation, I mean this may be a trivial explanation, but when they are having a seizure and when they talk about what it feels like, it is very, very similar to a mystical experience and mystics will also talk about this feeling of oneness.

Now, this is not to say, I have to be very careful, this is not to say that a mystic is having a seizure, that is not the point that I am making. The point is that within the context of ecstatic seizures, there is a way in which one can understand the feeling of oneness and that has to do with the potential cessation of the narrative self. Like normally we are very very aware of our boundaries, whether it is the boundaries of our bodily self or our psychological self, the stories in our heads are actually delineating us from whatever else is non-self, so the cessation of any part of that process is a cessation of certain boundaries that is actually being biologically constructed by your brain and body.

So that is the only context in which I can talk about what oneness might be. There is really no other way for me to empirically talk about what that might be, because it really is in the realm of speculation and ideas, that I personally don't have enough knowledge to share. But if you look at what ecstatic seizures do, they really do provide a window into what it must be like to be an organism that just lives like -- you hear this phrase 'living in the here and now' -- what does that mean? To be vividly aware of one's body and one's environment, and yet feel like you are connected to something larger. And that connection really might be just the cessation of certain kinds of narrative, certain kinds of activities associated with the narrative self where you are constantly moving back and forth in your mind, in time. We  all do that all the time and if that ceases, maybe there is a certain way in which one feels. I hope that helps. 

Preeta: The next question is about the disease of narcissism. The caller has shared that, "I would love to hear your thoughts on how the condition of narcissism, the disease of narcissism affects an individual's sense of self." 

Anil: I didn’t study narcissism as a condition for my book. So, I'll have to talk more generally, than I would be able to otherwise. You know, I think all of us are on a spectrum of not being a narcissist and being a narcissist. So I think each one of us can relate to situations where you can not, not think about yourself, or you're able to completely think about others, before you think of yourself.

And if we all are capable of that, in terms of how we function in life, then what it means is that, our brains and bodies have that capacity. And sometimes we unfortunately can get stuck in the wrong end of it, where you are only obsessing about yourself. If you start thinking of these as neural processes that are working in us constantly, all physical processes fall on a distribution of properties. And so sometimes, you can get that physical system stuck in one end of the distribution, and you end up with a situation where you are constantly obsessing about only yourself. And that's a very sort of mechanistic explanation of how I think about it. This doesn't take into account of course, why someone is like that? What's the responsibility or the morality of it? All those are very difficult questions.

Preeta: We have a question from Ruchi, who actually asks the question about the meditation practice of Vipassana. She wants to understand the practice from the perspective of neuroscience. She says, "I am a bit of neuroscience buff, reading much of the VS Ramachandran, Oliver Sacks and then I came across your book last year, which I very much enjoyed."

She asks, if you're familiar with the technique of Vipassana, which involves passing your attention through the body while remaining still. Has there been any neuroscientific study on this process? How does passing consciousness or attention through parts of your body make those sensations more pronounced? How does our non-reaction allow these sensations to pass, akin to the past anguishes and hurts that manifest in negative emotional patterns within us? I think she is asking you about neuroscience of enlightenment.

Anil: I wouldn't want to comment on the neuroscience of enlightenment, given that we don't understand what enlightenment might mean. But, because we're beginning to talk about very subjective ideas, it's very hard to say what enlightenment is from the outside.

But I know about Vipassana, I have done the 10 day Vipassana course and sat through that. Knowing too much about neuroscience was actually strangely detrimental. There were times when I was sitting and thinking - “I am not really aware of my body. I'm just aware of the maps of my body in my brain.” That kind of stuff was constantly going on in my head.

But having said that, I think the way I came to understand it -- this is just one person's perspective. I don't even know how to substantiate it from a scientific perspective. What meditation allowed me to do was -- when you make a pact with yourself, that you're just going to sit and watch yourself, you know, whatever thoughts are rising, whatever emotional states your body is in, and you're not reacting. Again my empirical mind or mechanistic mind wants to make sense of it by saying, ”Well, normally if something had happened, when I was not sitting, but when functioning in the real world, I would react." I would just do whatever the emotional state of my body told me to do, because that's what fundamentally emotions are. They are the things that drive our bodies to do what the body needs to do. They can be good or bad. But without any value judgment, they're just things that cause our bodies to act. 

But when you're sitting down and just observing, you are actually strengthening those parts of your brain and body that are allowing you to watch an emotion, without actually being reactionary. So somewhere you are literally placing a piece of paper between the emotional state of your body and some part of you that is observing it. Normally, you wouldn't have that capacity. So you're developing that capacity. And just that in itself to me, is a profound thing that meditation would allow me to do. It literally develops a little distance between the emotional state of the body and an action that follows it. And maybe in that little distance, you have the space to rethink your actions, or not react. And by doing it over and over again, you're really strenghtening a lot of neural circuits that allow you that space and allow you that place from where you can say -- Oh this I shouldn't do, or this I should do.

That's one very mechanistic way of thinking about it. I think there are so many other things that happen in meditation, that I'm not qualified to speculate upon. It is something quite unusual and profound thing that we do. We sit down and say -- all I'm going to do is watch. And lot of what meditation might be doing has to do with questions about what consciousness is -- which we don't know. What attention is -- which we don't quite know. And these are all various processes. And until those things become clear, it's hard to say what exactly meditation is doing in neuroscientific terms.

Preeta: Interesting! You know I was struck that you said earlier that – my meditation practice or form of meditation for me is writing. And then you said that your writing is done on deadline, obviously as a journalist. Does that meditative practice of writing in that form, provide you with a sense of peace or joy or anything like that? I'm just curious.

Anil: Writing does for me, even if it is being done on deadline. The deadline is something I have to honor, because a lot of people are depending on when you're done. When the editor has given you a deadline, there's a whole machinery behind that is waiting for copy. So you have to honor that. But the act of writing itself. Yeah, I think, even if it's a four hundred-word piece or four-page piece or a three hundred page book, I think the act of writing is joyful. Watching ideas take shape coherently…I find that very lovely.

Preeta: Beautiful! When I asked you earlier about your interest in the sense of Self, you responded in a little bit of objective way, intellectual way that you've always been interested in the subject. I guess I'm wondering if you have ever personally tried to construct a narrative of your own personal self? Has that been something you've consciously thought to do?

Anil: Not consciously. Not in the sense of saying -- this is what I'm going to be five years from now and let me do that. No, I don't think I did that. But I didn't mean to come across as somebody very objective. There's a reason for thinking about the self have a lot to do with what I talked about earlier -- that there is a feeling that the permanence that one feels about oneself, and then consequently any disturbances to whatever that self might be, whatever might be happening in your life that knocks that self around and the distress it causes to it …so the inquiry comes from that. It comes from the desire to understand the distress or understand the anxiety.

So even though the inquiry is intellectual, I think it's basis is still what is being felt in one's life, in one's body and mind. To me, it seems a continuum. I wouldn't want to put it as an intellectual exercise alone. It's also about feeling a certain way, wanting to be at peace, and by peace, I literally mean not feeling disturbed in the body and mind.

Preeta: We have a question from Belmont California. Pavi says: "Gratitude for an insightful conversation. I wanted to ask, what questions are more alive for you today and what are you navigating with your next book or piece of writing?"

Anil:  The next book is on quantum mechanics. There's this lovely experiment in quantum mechanics called the Double Slit experiment which has been with us for a hundred years, in various forms. The book is really exploring the development of quantum mechanics through this one experiment but really the joy of doing that is again trying to get at the heart of our understanding of the material world. And somewhere, there's a deeper interest in wanting to start thinking about consciousness and materialism now, and trying to understand matter and the mind in some way -- so there's a long term desire to want to do that now.

Preeta:  I'm curious how having written and thought about the subject you’ve written and thought a lot about, I wonder what you think, what is the role of science? What do you personally think is the role of science? Do you think science can solve that or is that each person subjectively figures that out for themselves?

Anil: I mean experientially each person has to figure it out. So I don't think knowledge by itself changes one's fundamental experience of being yourself. You are what you are, in terms of - you're a combination of the genetic inheritance that your body is, the social structure that you're part of, and all the social interactions that you're having, the country that you are born and all sorts of things going to make you who you are. And no amount of talking about impermanence is going to change the fact that you are that thing. 

But to me, science has a role to play in terms of just showing a certain amount of intellectual understanding of the matter at hand -- an example is the various philosophies about the nature of the self. If empirical evidence contradicts that, then you have to let those ideas go. No matter how wonderful those ideas might be. For instance, this idea that -- there are philosophers who argue over time that all we are is a narrative self.  The sense of an I comes about, because there are stories in our head swirling about that give us a sense of being and “I” as being the author of the stories. And Alzheimer's kind of start showing you that you can be an “I” even after the stories have been knocked out, because of memory loss. So that is a very very clear intellectual understanding of something that needs to feed into how we process it within ourselves.

I feel it's a false dichotomy to be thinking about these things as separate. They are all modes of inquiry and they all have to eventually start converging, and if they're not converging, it's because we are touching different parts of an elephant, and have no idea of the whole. But so at some stage, you know, what we are right now doing is talking about things experientially from within, and science might be too far away from being able to make sense of individual subjective experiences. But eventually, they have to converge, and at least that’s the way I feel. So the act of convergence is hopefully arriving at some ground truth about what this existence is about and we may be very far from that.

Preeta:  We have time for one last live question. 

Alyssa:  Thank you so much. This is Alyssa, from Seattle. My question is more of a comment. I just missed some of the call, but are you familiar with the book 'My Stroke of Insight'

Anil:  Yes, by Jill Bolte Taylor, right?

Alyssa:  Yes, yes. When she talked about her stroke and and kind of the place of going back and forth between her brain and...I don't know -- it explained some of what you're explaining to me, but I don't know if it is the same thing. But that physiological place can affect the perceptive place. It was fascinating to me.

Anil: I haven't read hre book but I have watched her talks and maybe read articles about what she said, I wouldn't say that I am totally familiar with her argument, but I remember being extremely moved by what she was talking about.

Alyssa: Aah, I see. If you read the book she describes how she goes back and forth, as she's having the stroke and then she went back later. And I think she even did some meditation and counseling or whatever she could to try to get to those places, to get to the place of remembering, but what it was like and described her experience as what was happening to her physiologically. Which helped with when you were talking about the seizures, helping me understand that...Yes, so it might be interesting with your questions.

The other was that when you couldn't make the book fall into place, you said you went and talked to other philosophers. Is that what you said?  I just wondered -- in somehow expanding and getting more information and different perceptions from different areas, allowed to put things into place, instead of just going along the same line. It sounded like that helped you bring things together.

Anil: I think that was the case and what had happened was that after I've written sort of 7 out of the 8 chapters of the book, the fact that it wasn't falling into place, what also happened was that my questions for the philosophers became very pointed, that I really feel that I needed to understand some very specific things. So rather than doing an interview which was quite gentle say, “Oh tell me what you think about this or that.” I was very particular about what I needed to understand and I could —sort of, because of having written so much and still struggling to make sense of it — I could actually push them with very specific questions and that kind of opened up, exactly like you said, just other avenues of inquiry, and being able to see the broader picture.

Alyssa: OK, thank you so much.

Preeta: Just before we end the call, we would like to ask our guest, Anil in this case, is there anything we can do for you? What can we do as an ecosystem, as a global community, to support your work?

Anil: You're already supporting it. This is an absolute pleasure to be speaking with people who are interested in this topic and thinking about all these things. I have met a lot of you in the Bay Area and to me it's just a pleasure to be part of this, so I would express my gratitude saying you've already helped me a lot. So thank you so much. Thank you.

Preeta:  Thank you!