Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind

Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind

Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran is internationally renowned for uncovering answers to the deep and quirky questions of human nature that few scientists have dared to address. His bold insights about the brain are matched only by the stunning simplicity of his experiments -- using such low-tech tools as cotton swabs, glasses of water and dime-store mirrors. In Phantoms in...

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Title:Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind
Author:V.S. Ramachandran
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Edition Language:English

Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind Reviews

  • Marley

    HOLY CRAP.

    This is the best book about neuroscience and cog sci for a popular audience ever written by someone not named Oliver Sacks.

    Ramachandran is, as one of the cover reviews says, profoundly sane, and has a real sense of what you can get from the scientific method and what you can't, and really understands the way questions that used to be philosophical are inching into the realm of the empirical.

    He also is sometimes hilarious, really up on the other great popular sc

    HOLY CRAP.

    This is the best book about neuroscience and cog sci for a popular audience ever written by someone not named Oliver Sacks.

    Ramachandran is, as one of the cover reviews says, profoundly sane, and has a real sense of what you can get from the scientific method and what you can't, and really understands the way questions that used to be philosophical are inching into the realm of the empirical.

    He also is sometimes hilarious, really up on the other great popular scientific thinkers out there right now, and has examples and experiments that will completely blow your mind, "Man who mistook his wife for a hat"-style and THEN some. Then, once it's blown, he will spend a great deal of time fitting it into the context of just what that means about our understanding of the large-scale structure of the brain right now.

    SO EDUCATIONAL, SO FASCINATING, SO GOOD.

  • Joshua Nomen-Mutatio

    Francis Crick—the "Crick" half of the famous "Watson and Crick" duo that discovered the structure of DNA—coined a term (and used it as the title for his book on the subject) called

    , which represents the idea that all human cognition and perception—every emotion, belief, existential crisis, perceived sight, sound, smell, etc—is essentially the product of (or equivalent to) complex clusters and pathways of neurons and the synaptic connections of neurotransmitters that bind them, en

    Francis Crick—the "Crick" half of the famous "Watson and Crick" duo that discovered the structure of DNA—coined a term (and used it as the title for his book on the subject) called

    , which represents the idea that all human cognition and perception—every emotion, belief, existential crisis, perceived sight, sound, smell, etc—is essentially the product of (or equivalent to) complex clusters and pathways of neurons and the synaptic connections of neurotransmitters that bind them, encased in bone, and in flux like most things. And as Crick once said:

    And just as matter of historical perspective and novelty: Lucretius, a brilliant Roman poet and Epicurian philosopher (circa 99 BC) proposed the same basic idea that lies at the heart of The Astonishing Hypothesis:

    V.S. Ramachandran has run with The Astonishing Hypothesis in ways like no other pop-science writer has—with the possible exception of Oliver Sacks (who writes a wonderful intro to this book, by the way).

    Let's start with a quote from Rama (as I’ll lovingly call him for the rest of the review) that isn’t from this book but gives some sense of scale and scope to what we’re dealing with here when we pursue the implications of The Astonishing Hypothesis:

    A quick word on Rama’s overall style: He prides himself—like any good pop-science writer—on being able to make technical, complex topics comprehensible to the layperson. He accomplishes this in spades. He doesn’t condescend and he doesn’t dumb anything down, rather he’s just charismatic (you should see him speak in person), well-educated in more fields than merely his specialty (he’ll drop Shakespeare quotations, references to pop culture, sociology, history and cutting edge philosophy all in the same page), and just knows how to turn a pleasing phrase (rich metaphors and lucid prose abound). He really captures the childlike wonder and openness to evidentiary trajectories and discovery that is an ideal in science. He often compares his work to that of his boyhood hero Sherlock Holmes. He’s a brain-detective tracking down the roots of these various strangest of strange phantoms found lurking ‘round the human brain. Basically, this is the purest antidote to dry, technical writing, and it seems to sacrifice none of the scientific rigor in the process. A truly stunning feat that I’ve only seen a few other authors pull off as well (Steven Pinker and Oliver Sacks both come to mind).

    This particular work of Rama’s focuses on some of the strangest, most fascinating, and philosophically rich territory that’s been eked out in the relatively young but incredibly productive and conceptually-expansive history of cognitive neuroscience. At many points I found my jaw dropping further than I thought possible as each page went by. He covers SO MANY interesting neuro-psychological/-behavioral phenomena that it’s difficult to know what to highlight and what to gloss over—there’s just too much for a GoodReads review. Plus, some should be left for you potential readers to happily find on your own (and what I summarize is

    brief and surface-level anyway).

    One of the areas Rama is most well-known for is the revolutionary work he’s done with understanding and curing phantom limb pain. Most people know what this phenomenon consists of: a person loses a body part, most often some section of their arm or leg or the whole thing (though he also mentions rarer instances of phantom penises and phantom breasts) and they begin to have very, very vivid sensations that the limb is still there. The problem often times is that they can’t control what this phantom limb does or how it feels. Commonly, people have the painful sensation that their phantom hand is clenched as tight as can be, to cite one of many examples. Rama discovered a simple and ingenious way to sooth and eventually eliminate these pains. He set up a box with a mirror in it that looks like this:

    When he first tried this out on a person who was in agonizing pain they

    felt a torrent of relief--the phantom limb sufferer described it as an instantaneous and entirely vivid sensation of being able to finally unclench his excrusiatingly painful clenched phantom fist,

    .

    The basic idea is that the brain is tricked into believing that that missing limb is present and when the actual remaining limb moves it gives the equally vivid sensation that the phantom limb is moving in that same willful way. This exercise is done and as time goes on it becomes less and less necessary as the phantom pains become less and less frequent. He cracks a great joke about being the first person to ever amputate a phantom limb. It’s utterly brilliant and a fine humanitarian service that he’s brought to many, many people suffering from what was until his fairly recent discovery such a baffling phenomenon.

    This one’s really interesting and rife with all kinds of psychological and philosophical implications. Capgras syndrome is when a person begins to think that people they know and recognize perfectly well are imposters. One main example in the chapter "The Unbearable Likeness of Being" is a young man who had a near fatal car accident which put him into a coma for three weeks. All of his normal functions like talking and walking were restored through physical therapy, but one very peculiar feature remained: he insists that his parents are not his parents. Though he acknowledges the perfect physical similarity and is otherwise perfectly rational he simply cannot be convinced that these kindly older people taking care of him are anything but doppelgangers. Fucking weird, right? Well, there are many more cases of this syndrome than this, so it’s not even quite as rare as one would first guess, and Rama gracefully travels through the cognitive neuroscientific netherworld that lies behind this phenomena with some amazing theories guiding him along the way and developing in his wake. If for no other reason, read this book because of what you’ll learn about Capgras syndrome and...

    In

    , the most recent film by (and directorial debut of) Charlie Kaufman, the central character’s name is (non-coincidently) Caden Cotard. While he doesn’t have the neurological syndrome he does spend large parts of the film fretting about death (it’s a wonderful film, don’t let this description fool you). Actual people with Cotard’s syndrome are either completely convinced that they are already dead or are decaying. They often swear that they can smell their own rotting flesh, etc. Before we jump to the conclusion that these people are just wrist-slitting goth kids prone to hyperbole or just crazy, we need to take the brain’s eye view with Rama as our guide.

    And a note about the "just crazy" remark I just made: He stresses throughout this book that it is a profound mistake to send the patients he describes straight to the psychiatrist or the loony bin. And he’s always right to do this. There is some time spent arguing against old paradigms of psychology and psychiatry and cultural theory and sociology—even though he does give Freud credit where credit is due and shows us how Freud had seeds of wisdom, but that the seeds need to be fostered by all of the new knowledge and innovation and (most importantly)

    brought about by the paradigm-shift of cognitive neuroscience when it comes to treating people with these strangest of mental states and behaviors.

    Alright, there are so many other major points of interest I could go into but I’m calling it quits for now. A short list of other great topics:

    One last word on...

    I tend to approach all of neuroscience with the eyes of a philosopher—meaning, I don’t really have an aptitude for the finer, more technical details, and that there’s basically a constant running commentary in the back of my mind (at least) when I approach the brain which is pondering the ever-increasing philosophical discourse about the nature of consciousness itself. This also easily lends itself to more "existential" thoughts about the obvious which can be more or less boiled down to this: if a person’s conscious experience

    the brain or is a product of the brain (the distinctions here will cause most of your eyes to glaze over, so I’ll be be silent on that for now) then

    dissolution is

    dissolution. In other words, this kind of stuff practically urges a person to consider the inevitability of mortality to some degree or another.

    While Rama bypasses all extended musings on the meaning of life and death, he does take a mighty swing at the philosophical debates about consciousness in the final chapter. He’s quite philosophically astute for a neuroscientist with no formal philosophical education. He’s also collaborated with fellow UC-San Diego professor (of philosophy) Patricia Churchland which—for fans of philosophy and science—is basically a dream team. Patricia and her husband Paul are basically the forebearers of a subfield of study called neurophilosophy, which I see as the wave of the future and one of the only hopes for academic philosophy to remain (or

    , depending on your station in life) relevant and exciting, and also as a useful clarifying tool for cognitive neuroscience and perhaps science and all the other seriously probing disciplines generally.

    I'll continue to urge many people to read this book. It’s maximally eye-opening, entertaining and thought provoking.

  • Ruchita

    This is a book about psychology, neuroscience, all the good stuff. Ramachandran is delightfully witty and approaches the big and small questions of psychology and neuroscience with curiosity and equal doses of scepticism and speculation alike. One of the truly good things about

    is that it is written with humility and humour. Ramachandran manages to expound whilst being hilarious and without 'dumbing down', so to speak.

    The book isn't an overtly serious-nature thesis so it follow

    This is a book about psychology, neuroscience, all the good stuff. Ramachandran is delightfully witty and approaches the big and small questions of psychology and neuroscience with curiosity and equal doses of scepticism and speculation alike. One of the truly good things about

    is that it is written with humility and humour. Ramachandran manages to expound whilst being hilarious and without 'dumbing down', so to speak.

    The book isn't an overtly serious-nature thesis so it follows a rather non-stuffy style, which is refreshing. It mainly consists of anecdotes and cases culled from wide-ranging medical literature, so it serves as a ground for inquiry into the nature, symptoms, effects and treatments of the various psychological anomalies. The book doesn't shy away from supporting the cases with evidence and providing the necessary scientific context and explanation for the problems at hand. I think that's the most crucial thing for any 'popular science' book. Science shouldn't be downplayed or given the back seat at the cost of 'making it easy.' A popular science book fails if it doesn't bring out the science bit in. Because, you know, it popular

    after all.

    What I also liked was that every chapter begins with quotes taken from sources as wide as the books of Sherlock Holmes, the Vedas and Shakespeare. That adds a nice touch.

    But I think the most important thing I took away (when I read this at 16) was the spirit of scientific enquiry and sense of wonder that this book carries with it. At the heart of it, it's all about trying to understand Life, the Universe, and Everything. And that sense of wonder - that joy of scientific discovery - is contagious. I love science.

  • Riku Sayuj

    I think this was a good book to read after

    . While Sontag says that the more we attribute a disease to our mind and to our attitudes the more it betrays our ignorance, Ramachandran tries to answer questions like "

    " - For example, VSR is courageous enough to venture into esoteric areas such as mind-body connection and divine visions and sound them out with the backing of science and a curious imagination.

    The Victorian attitude that VSR brings to these"Can

    I think this was a good book to read after

    . While Sontag says that the more we attribute a disease to our mind and to our attitudes the more it betrays our ignorance, Ramachandran tries to answer questions like "

    " - For example, VSR is courageous enough to venture into esoteric areas such as mind-body connection and divine visions and sound them out with the backing of science and a curious imagination.

    The Victorian attitude that VSR brings to these explorations make the book a pleasure to read and you too can play Sherlock with the neuroscientist as he goes about snooping in the recesses of the mind in each of the cases.

    The most basic questions about the human mind are still mysteries to us - How do we recognize faces? Why do we cry? Why do we laugh? Why do we dream? Why do we enjoy music and art? and the really big question: What is consciousness?

    And more generally, how does the activity of tiny wisps of protoplasm in the brain lead to conscious experience? - These are the questions that VSR tries to address as he stitches together an elaborate network of clinical case studies into a coherent tapestry. He does not claim to have all the answers but shows the daring to face up to these toughest of questions without the grabs of a philosopher or a mystic but with the probing flashlight of a scientist. And that is why both his books are so captivating.

    He opens the book with an overview about how our brain works. After a few pages of diagrams and explanations about those weird Latin names, he gets to one of the important points that he wants to address through all these wandering with patients and obscure questions - Modularity Vs Holism - What is the nature of our brain's workings? Is it modular with separate areas for separate functions or is fundamentally holistic with all the functions arising from an intricate interaction of all regions?

    Consider the following examples:

    Or consider the unfortunate story of a patient known as H.M., who might as well have risen straight out of

    : H.M. suffered from a form of epilepsy and his doctors decided to remove his 'hippocampus',

    After this lengthy introduction, the book finally takes us to the deep end - the clinical cases and their implications:

    To understand Ramachandran's approach to this strange malady, you have to get your mind around something called the

    A map of the entire body surface exists in the brain like a miniature body drawn on the brain surface. Some parts like lips and hands are overrepresented and the locations of the different body parts is not as it is in actual anatomy. Literally a miniature map of your body in your brain. Perform a google search for more.

    Ramachandran while experimenting on patients with phantom limbs soon found that the penfield map for their missing arm seems to be on their face now. So now if he touches the patient's face, the patient feels the touch on his non-existing arm! Apparently, the part of the map corresponding to face in the brain is very close to the part corresponding to the arm and following the surgical removal, the 'face map neurons' has invaded the part reserved for the arm and is now making the brain believe that sensations are coming from that arm when the face is touched. Stimulated by all these spurious signals, Tom's brain literally hallucinates his arm.

    He gives a number of examples involving phantom feet and arms and breasts and even sexual organs.

    One patient, in his description, stood up, letting her stumps drop straight down on both sides. "But when I talk," she said, "my phantoms gesticulate. In fact, they're moving now as I speak." - This reminded me so powerfully of

    and his chemical 'lochas' talking of Gandhi.

    One of the main problems with patients is paralyzed phantom limbs that are in weird positions that cause pain. To address this, VSR postulates that the phantom limb experience might derive from this explanation: Imagine that your brain area that gives motor commands do not know that the arm is no longer there. So it sends a command, "move". Each time the motor command center sends signals to the missing arm, information about the commands is also sent to the parietal lobe which houses the penfield map containing our body image. In the case of an actual arm there is another source of information - the impulses from the joints, ligaments and muscle spindles of that arm. These impulses let the brain know that it is actually moving. The phantom arm of course lacks these tissues and their signals

    Now imagine that the actual limb was paralyzed before amputation. Every time the brain sends a signal to move, all the responses from the arm and the visual response gives feedback that "nope, the arm is not moving." This process repeats till, eventually the brain learns that the arm does not move and a kind of "learned paralysis" is stamped onto the brain's circuitry and when the arm is later amputated, the person is stuck with that revised body image: a paralyzed phantom.

    So in a burst of intuitive insight or creative genius, VSR wonders if he can give feedback to the brain visually that the arm IS moving, then maybe it will "unlearn" this paralysis - visual feedback telling him that his arm is moving again while his muscles are telling him the arm is not there? The only way his beleaguered brain could deal with this bizarre sensory conflict was to say, "To hell with it, there is no arm!"

    He does it with his famous mirror box contraption that does exactly that thus performing what he calls the first successful

    VSR gives a few clinical examples of patients who are blind in all conventional sense but can still navigate rooms an around objects and can even put envelopes through slits even when they can't see the slits or its orientation. to explain this strange almost extra-sensory perception, we need to understand more about how we see and how we process what we see:

    What happens when you look at any object?

    The light from the object reflects back to your eye, activating corresponding optic impulses in the receptors in your retina. These impulses then travel through the optic nerve and then they take tow pathways - one called '

    ' and a second, called '

    '.

    The "older" pathway goes eventually to higher areas in your brain. The "newer" pathway, on the other hand, travels from through a sort of 'relay station' en route to the primary visual cortex. From there, visual information is transmitted to the thirty or so other visual areas for further processing. The "new" pathway after going to the visual cortex diverges again into two more pathways —a "how" pathway in the parietal lobes that is concerned with grasping, navigation and other spatial functions, and the second, "what" pathway in the temporal lobes concerned with recognizing objects.

    Why do we have an old pathway and a new pathway?

    VSR postulates that maybe the older pathway has been preserved as a sort of early warning system or a quick response system. When time is too short to not have the luxury of processing information etc, this pathway allows you to quickly get out of the way of anything that looks vaguely threatening - hard-coded threats and symbols etc. For example, if a large looming object comes at me from the left, this older pathway tells me where the object is, enabling me to swivel my eyeballs and turn my head and body to look at it. This pathway only gives you a sense that 'something' is there.

    At this stage you have to deploy the 'newer' system to determine what the object is, for only then can you decide how to respond to it. Damage to this second pathway, particularly in the primary visual cortex, leads to blindness in the conventional sense.

    So, coming back to patients with BlindSight, the paradox is resolved when you consider the division of labor between the two visual pathways that we considered earlier. In particular, even though these patient might have lost his primary visual cortex, rendering him blind, their primitive "orienting" pathway was sometimes still intact, mediating BlindSight, allowing them to react to objects that they cannot see and with no conscious acknowledgement that they are aware of these objects. It becomes an unconscious reflex reaction for them.

    They have BlindSight and

    Ramachandran explores the difference between imagining an object and seeing one. Are the same parts of your brain active when you imagine an object, say, a cat, as when you look at it actually sitting in front of you?

    He first takes us through a variety of intriguing experiments that we can perform on ourselves to play with our visual 'blind spot' I am reproducing one here but for more off these fun games,

    .

    If you did go to the link and perform the tests, you have now experienced what VSR calls "Perceptual Filling In" which is very different from just imagining the continuities in those lines etc. When you fill in your blind spot with a carpet design, it is carried out by visual neurons. Their decisions, once made, are irreversible.

    If you got this much, let's return to the distinction between seeing a cat and imagining a cat. When we see a cat, its shape, color, texture and other visible attributes will impinge upon our retina and travel through to the primary visual cortex, all the information combining to tell us that this is a cat.

    Now think of what's going on in your brain when you imagine a cat. There's good evidence to suggest that we are actually running our visual machinery in reverse! Our memories of all cats and of this particular cat flow from top to bottom—from higher regions to the primary visual cortex—and the combined activities of all these areas lead to the perception of an imaginary cat by the mind's eye. Indeed, the activity in the primary visual cortex may be almost as strong as if you really did see a cat, but in fact the cat is not there.

    Why don't you see a cat in the chair when you simply think of one?

    The reason is similar to what we explored in the case of the Phantom Limbs - The actual signals from your retina informs your higher visual centers that there is no cat image hitting the retina - thereby vetoing the activity evoked by top−down imagery. But if these early visual pathways are damaged, this baseline signal is removed and so you hallucinate - vividly!

    This then forms that elusive interface between vision and imagination.

    He talks about the

    to illustrate this where the brain does not receive confirming visual stimuli and is free simply to make up its own reality.

    In Ramachandran's own version of the story that Oliver Sachs made immortal, we meet Arthur who suffers from a condition called

    :

    Remember the

    we talked of earlier? This pathway connects to the '

    which contains the regions that specialize in face and object recognition. In a normal brain, once the

    conveys the visual signals to these areas, these face recognition areas (found on both sides of the brain) relay information to the '

    ', which then helps generate emotional responses to particular faces.

    What if Arthur's case arise from a disconnect from these two functions of 'recognition' and 'emotional response'? He can recognize his parents' faces but feels no emotional response as the limbic system is damaged in some way? What if he copes with this lack of emotional response by telling himself that they can't

    be his parents? Ramachandran then proceeds to test and confirm this outlandish theory using GSR which is used extensively in Blink by Gladwell too.

    Ramachandran in this scintillating chapter lays into the god hypothesis with all the innocent charm of an avenging angel. He argues that the limbic system, especially the left temporal lobe is somehow involved in religious experience. Every medical student, he says, is taught that patients with epileptic seizures originating in this part of the brain can have intense, spiritual experiences during the seizures. Patients may then have deeply moving spiritual experiences, including a feeling of divine presence and the sense that they are in direct communion with God. Everything around them is imbued with cosmic significance. They may say, "I finally understand what it's all about. This is the moment I've been waiting for all my life. Suddenly it all makes sense." Or, "Finally I have insight into the true nature of the cosmos."

    Ramachandran finds it ironic that this sense of enlightenment, this absolute conviction that Truth is revealed at last, should derive from limbic structures concerned with emotions rather than from the thinking, rational parts of the brain that take so much pride in their ability to discern truth and falsehood.

    This "false alarm theory" is the explanation that Ramachandran puts forth as the fundamental basis for humour. He gives the example of people who have uncontrollable fits of laughter when they have lesions in certain part s of the limbic system. Is it not strange, he asks, that the same system that controls our flight or fight response also governs our laughter mechanism? This is because laughter is a form of social signaling that lets us tell others that a potentially dangerous situation is really harmless or 'silly'. It is contagious as the more people convey this "all right" message, better it is for the society - they will waste less effort on these

    unnecessarily.

    There was once a woman who was pregnant. She was very excited and happy. FInally after nine months, she started experiencing contractions and rushed to the doctor for delivery. The doctor examined her and got ready for the delivery procedure. He was an experienced doctor and he sensed something was wrong though. he examined her once more and some signs like a down tuned belly button told him that this might be a case of Phantom Pregnancy. He told her he will anesthetic her for delivery and once she woke up informed her that she had miscarried. She was dejected and went home. Several days later she came rushing back. She had a pregnant belly gain and all the other accompaniments of pregnancy. She plopped down on the examining chair and told the doctor - "You forgot to deliver the twin!"

    Pseudocyesis or false pregnancy is a condition in which some women who desperately want to be pregnant develop all the signs and symptoms of true pregnancy. Their abdomens swell to enormous proportions, their nipples become pigmented, as happens in pregnant women. They stop menstruating, lactate, have morning sickness and sense fetal movements. Everything seems normal except for one thing: There is no baby.

    Ramachandran treated

    as a potential example of the kind of mind-body connection he had been looking for. He meditates,

    And assures us that,

    Phantoms in the Brain is a wonderful book. It explores some deep and strange ideas and tells us that it is only through exploring questions such as these that we can begin to approach the greatest scientific and philosophical riddle of all - the nature of the self.

    Ramachandran spends a lot of time either supporting or critiquing Freud and I am having to struggle hard to resist the temptation of conducting a Freudian analysis on him. Even though I will not engage in it here, I will leave you with a clue why: It is about the number of times he refers to the two primary sexual organs in the book. One is referred to almost constantly (in addition to his numerous sexual innuendos) and the other is mentioned absolutely never.

    In many parts my explanations are simplistic versions of the ones presented in the book. I removed most of the scientific terms and omitted a lot of the examples and have concentrated on concepts that I found more interesting. If your interest was evoked by this short summary, I would urge you to pick up the book and read it. I would also add a qualifier that if you have read

    , a lot of this book will seem very repetitive with almost word for word similarities between the two, and contains almost nothing which has not been covered in The Tell-Tale brain, which is the better work as it is more developed and coherent and just more fun to read for the general reader.

  • Petra-XoPlanet

    Ramachandran is not as touchy-feely an author as

    , but the pair of them cover the same ground. They both write about neurological problems, the symptoms expressed as behaviour and anecdotes concerned with the people who suffer from them. Ramachandran's approach is that of a scientist and doctor first, the people he describes are very much patients. Sacks is more 'oh look - this is interesting, maybe even exciting, we (he and the patient) can explore this together'. They both know their sub

    Ramachandran is not as touchy-feely an author as

    , but the pair of them cover the same ground. They both write about neurological problems, the symptoms expressed as behaviour and anecdotes concerned with the people who suffer from them. Ramachandran's approach is that of a scientist and doctor first, the people he describes are very much patients. Sacks is more 'oh look - this is interesting, maybe even exciting, we (he and the patient) can explore this together'. They both know their subjects and, both are erudite in many different spheres including literature, history and philosophy which illuminates their writing and although Ramachandran concentrates quite more on the science and both are equally enjoyable and 5 star writers.

    If you like Sacks you will almost certainly like Ramachandran, but he is not as immediately accessible, so persevere. I look forward to reading more from this author.

    __________________

    "He had the arrogance of the believer, but none of the humility of the deeply religious."

    Best line so far. Doesn't that line just describe so many people who profess great faith and think that and attendance at their house of worship is quite enough. They don't actually have to live the spirit if not the practice of it as well.

    It was written about a patient experiencing the religious revelations that are a known component of certain types of epilepsy. This is where the patient is always convinced he has had a revelation which is sometimes ecstatic. Very often they carry this through to the rest of their lives. Sometimes every fit will bring ecstatic religious revelations with it which convinces them that this is not a brain malfunction but that the Divine has come to them. Dostoevesky had this kind of epilepsy and it was possibly behind his writing of

    .

  • Stela

    This is the second book about neuro-psychology I've read and it has been an entirely new experience. "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat" was (and reflected in the title as such) mainly amusing. On the other hand, "Phantoms in the Brain" is (as, again, suggested by the title) quite disturbing. The first focused on weird cases per se, collecting stories only because they were odd, hence unique. The second looks at the same kind of stories as unexpected ways to understand and generalize the in

    This is the second book about neuro-psychology I've read and it has been an entirely new experience. "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat" was (and reflected in the title as such) mainly amusing. On the other hand, "Phantoms in the Brain" is (as, again, suggested by the title) quite disturbing. The first focused on weird cases per se, collecting stories only because they were odd, hence unique. The second looks at the same kind of stories as unexpected ways to understand and generalize the inner workings of the brain.

    And the message is unsettling, even if not entirely surprising. It's one thing to presume that sometimes appearances are tricky and a totally different one to learn that you can never totally rely on your senses or your judgment, because almost everything can be simulated by your brain as proved by the symptoms patients develop after a blow, a stroke, a tumor or any other damage, and sometimes even without any visible damage.

    How can be explained, for example, the pain someone feels in an amputated limb? Maybe by the hypothesis that "...pain is an opinion on the organism's state of health rather than a mere reflexive response to an injury."

    There are many syndromes of the same kind that lead to the same uncomfortable conclusion: that the ownership of our body is an illusion:

    - Charles Bonnet syndrome: a damage in the visual pathway causes a special sort of blindness - reality is replaced by some vivid visual hallucinations;

    - Capgras' syndrome - the patient, otherwise mentally lucid comes to regard his close relatives as impostors;

    - Cotard's syndrome - the patient claims that he is dead, that his flesh smells rotten and that worms crawl over his skin;

    - Fregoli's syndrome - the patient keeps seeing the same person everywhere (here is a possible explanation for racism - one person generated the race hate after an unpleasant episode).

    Whether these syndromes could be explained by some damages in the brain, there are other examples with not so evident answers: the idiot-savant syndrome - persons whose IQ are very low but have islands of astonishing talent; or the fact that when stimulating the temporal lobes you can experience God.

    In other words, we know that self-awareness is our greatest gift. The question is: is it not also our greatest punishment?

  • Jigar Brahmbhatt

    I begin to like Dr. Ramachandran. Such a remarkable, intelligent, and humble man, someone who would make a nice companion during long campfires. The phantom limbs this book famously talks about is well-known now. But it talks about much more than that. The brain is after all a complex thing. We hardly understand how it ticks and many things that pass on as bogus, like clairvoyance, are not completely unprovable given the limitations of brain study. That Ramachandran is willing to stray into the

    I begin to like Dr. Ramachandran. Such a remarkable, intelligent, and humble man, someone who would make a nice companion during long campfires. The phantom limbs this book famously talks about is well-known now. But it talks about much more than that. The brain is after all a complex thing. We hardly understand how it ticks and many things that pass on as bogus, like clairvoyance, are not completely unprovable given the limitations of brain study. That Ramachandran is willing to stray into the tall claims made by mystics is a wonder and a joy because most of the self-serious scientists don't like to get their hands dirty.

    The book informs us that phantom limbs occur because the brain's "body image" - the mapping of each body part in the brain - gets altered due to shock or some other reason. This is a plausible theory. Consider a man who has an amputated leg and whenever he reaches an orgasm he feels it in his phantom leg and not in the penis. The reason is not, as Frued suggested years ago while explaining foot fetish, that the feet resemble the phallus. But because the sensors for the leg and the penis are quite close in the "body image". This is interesting. Consider also that in female brains the sensors for earlobe and nipples are quite close - the rest is elementary. But this "body image" may get altered, resulting in messed up, baffling signals, the kind patients with phantom limbs feel. In fact, normal people can also feel something like it.

    Take this experiment:

    Ask two of your friends to join you. Call them A and B. Sit in a chair. Ask A to sit in front of you in another chair. Blindfold your eyes. Now ask B to take your hand and periodically tickle A's nose and at the same time tickle your nose with another hand. Simple. But after some 30 to 40 seconds you will feel that A's nose is your nose, the one being tickled by your hand, and not the one on your body. This "nose outside my body" experience happens because the "body image" gets slightly altered because of the experiment.

    The fact of the matter is as Dr. Ramachandran explains:

    "Your body image, despite all its appearance of durability is an entirely transitory internal construct that can be profoundly modified with a few simple tricks. It is merely a shell you have temporarily created for successfully passing your genes to your offspring."

    Along the way he sheds light on a new discovery about how we perceive the world. A simple act of seeing is distributed among multiple visual areas and division of labor among the two - the "how" and "what" - pathways. A small imbalance in these pathways can cause disastrous effects. A real case study tells about a woman with such a deformity who could see perfectly well but could never sense motion. This meant this she could never cross a road because she could not see continuous movement, only static snapshots. A simple event of filling coffee was always troublesome because the snapshots won't tell her when her cup was about to spill. It tells us that we don't understand vision completely.

    Dr. Ramachandran writes:

    "If I toss a red ball at you, several far-flung visual areas in your brains are activated simultaneously, but what you see is a single unified picture of the ball. Does this unification come about because there is a later place in the brain where all this information is put together - what the philosopher Dan Dennett calls a Cartesian Theater? Or are there connections between these areas so that their simultaneous activation leads directly to a sort of synchronized firing pattern that in turn creates perpetual unity? This question - the so-called binding problem, is one of the many unresolved riddles in neuroscience."

    Stroke patients sometimes go into denial or repress the fact of the paralysis and although these baffling acts confuse doctors, some brave neurologists actually find parallels of these behavior with Freudian concepts like "repression", "denial", "reaction formation" and the like. It is an opportunity for them to test Freud's theories because although we all display such behavior in our day to day life, in these unfortunate patients the intensity is tenfold, giving enough material to hold an experiment. Even though Freud bashing is a popular intellectual pastime, Ramachandran believes that he had some valuable insights up his sleeve about our psychological defenses.

    Many strange sightings of ghosts, angels, UFOs may be due to ocular pathology, a malfunction called Charles Bonnet syndrome. The pleasure of this book arises from Dr. Ramachandran's enthusiastic writing style, presenting one case study after another, giving us proper details that lead to the "wow" moment - the discovery of something new about the brain, and along the way he makes us feel like Sherlock Holmes (a figure that significantly inspired him to join medicine). During the reading of the book I was mostly agile and curious to know what would come next. Not many popular science books are like that. Though some present excellent ideas, they hamper the reading experience by either being too verbose/dull or too technical.

    We learn from this book that a lot of what we know about the curious sounding functions of the brain is by studying patients with deformities or malfunction, a method used by psychoanalysts in the past, but today's neurologists rely on sophisticated observations and not educated guesses.

    What does all the case studies tell us? That most of the brain processes run by comparisons and not by absolute values. You never know what you may end up finding next. I don't know about others, but I take comfort in that idea. That this reality, my reality, the way I perceive it, the things that I understand, the things that I don't, everything has my brain at its center. It makes me who I am. I am not speaking as an Idealist, but a lot of what goes around in life is constantly scanned by my brain. I cannot deny its influence. The brain is powerful enough to generate a religious experience. Even intense religious experiences are traced to the limbic system, but Dr. Ramachandran is humble enough to state that the existence of God cannot be denied on empirical grounds.

    In the later chapters he dwells on pseudocyesis - a condition in which a woman experiences all the signs of pregnancy, swollen belly, lactating breasts and the like, but there is one thing missing: the baby! The fake pregnancy is the result of a delusion. How f*ed-up is that! Listen to this now: a rare few men who show extreme sympathy towards their pregnant wives start showing signs of pregnancy. They even start lactating. People, lets all bow down to the power of the mind! Reading this book, I have secretly started believing that if it can make such improbable things true, if only one could train it in the right direction and draw amazing fruits from it (the way new age mystics claim all the time).

    It helps me to know that something intriguing may happen tomorrow that today I find impossible. It would not be a miracle. It would just be a new thing I would learn about myself, about my mental abilities. We may not end up knowing everything about the brain, because it looks like an infinite machine, but there is comfort in the fact that there is a lot more to learn. It will be exciting. It will keep us busy.

  • Amir Tesla

    This book is a direct flight into to the Limbo ...

  • Claudia

    Few years back I read Oliver Sacks’

    and was amazed by the cases presented. This book is even more astounding; human brain is such a mystery even today.

    I knew about amputees’ phantom limbs but not to this extent. And these are not the only cases: one woman did not recognize her arm, saying it’s his brother’s; others completely lost perception of their left part of the body and surroundings. Another, after a car accident, did

    Few years back I read Oliver Sacks’

    and was amazed by the cases presented. This book is even more astounding; human brain is such a mystery even today.

    I knew about amputees’ phantom limbs but not to this extent. And these are not the only cases: one woman did not recognize her arm, saying it’s his brother’s; others completely lost perception of their left part of the body and surroundings. Another, after a car accident, did not recognize his parents, saying they look alike but they are imposters; and they are not the only ones. All these strange behaviors because of minor or not so minor damage to the brain.

    There are also quite a few experiments done to understand how brain works and how it remaps the body, like this one which I saw some time ago:

    Both fascinating and frightening in the same time; human body is such a fragile organism. You never know what may happen…

  • Muthuvel

    Such a shame I didn't get to know about this humbling scientist and his works until yesterday where I got a chance to attend his lecture on "Anomalies on Human Brain".

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