I’ve somewhat belated reading the truly amazing book, “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat”, by Oliver Sacks, and halfway through it, I must say that wrongly so, too. Apart from the delightful insight on human behavior, neurology and neurobiology, I found a most staggeringly terrifying idea.
Sacks speaks often about patients who are, due to one neurological deficit or another, lost. I say “lost” because it optimally describes their condition: a part of them, due to a physical injury that directly triggers their personality and convictions, is gone, never to be seen again, or in some cases, artificially restored, to a greater or lesser extent.
Sacks poetically and nobly described a myriad of neurological disorders, some of them pertaining to aged patients and others, sometimes simultaneously, afflicting poor souls with no hope for ever surviving their illness.
To me, though, the most striking and terrifying aspect of neurological disorders is the fact that a part of you, a Platonic and essential part of your very being, can be lost because of an injury. I find it most terrifying that it is possible, either by injury or by congenital inclination, to actually lose the person you are, while at the same time be perfectly aware of this loss occurring. Amnesiacs seem to be gradually aware that all that they are, their professional training, the emotions they attribute to their loved ones, their past and their entire lives, are, inch-by-inch, fading away. Some people with “disembodiment” feel that a part of their body does not belong to them, and can no longer acknowledge their own organs.
In short, the physical lump of matter that is the brain can actually, if injured, be responsible for that which we consider our essential selves, and that, bluntly, gives me the creeps.
I find no scarier death than the death of the aware mind. If I was ever actually still alive while knowing that the things that constitute my personality and my my essence are dying, it would probably feel much more sickening and worse than death: true death at least has the consolation of true nothingness – the premature and gradual dying of the self is scarier, because it actually allows the person to be aware of his own “spiritual” (for want of a better word) death. There is nothing worse than dying, except the awareness that you are, in a very real sense, already dead.