This week I was gratified to read that VS Ramachandran, my favorite science author figured in the list of top 100 public intellectuals by an American magazine. I have read two of his books, “Phantoms in the Brain” and “The Emerging Mind”. They are absolutely brilliant. Although I have done a couple of posts based on his writing, I have never been able to do a review of his books. I always felt that a single page write-up would not do justice to the broad spectrum of mind blowing ideas he presents in his books.
My friend, Sukumar also quoted him in his recent post Building a Belief System Part 2 – What holds us back?. These inspired me to re-read “Phantoms in the Brain”. It was as delightful as the first time. I thought I will attempt a review, although I do so with apprehension because I am still not sure if I can do justice to this absolutely amazing book.
V S Ramachandran is an eminent neuroscientist who has done pioneering work in the area of Phantom limbs. Many amputees, even after their limbs are removed still feel as if the limbs exist. They feel pain and movement in these limbs. In this book he talks about this phenomenon and many other strange neurological disorders. He claims that these disorders help us gain great insights into the working of normal brains.
The first few chapters of the book are dedicated to Phantom limbs. He recounts some fascinating stories of amputees – Tom, whose Phantom (non-existent) arm could wriggle its finger, reach out for objects and pick them up. Mirabelle, who born without two arms yet felt a vivid phantom which she felt was 6” shorter than her artificial arm. What is even more interesting is how Dr.VSR identified the neurological cause of these Phantoms and helped cure a few of them using simple devices.
An even more fascinating case was that of Diane. She had suffered a carbon monoxide poisoning that left her completely blind. When her physician was evaluating her, he stumbled upon something really unbelievable. Although she was technically blind, she was able to grasp objects and perform complex activities without being aware of it. For example, if you ask her to post a letter in a mail box, she will have no awareness of seeing the mail box or the letter, yet she would be able to orient her letter and post it perfectly into the slit. This phenomenon is called “blindsight”, It is as if a zombie within you is performing these functions without you being aware of it. As many as 30 regions in the brain are involved in vision and only a few of these regions produce the consciousness or awareness of sight.
Then there is this strange mental disorder called “hemi neglect” which occurs in patients who suffer from right brain stroke. Patients with this disorder tend to neglect what ever lies to their left side including their own body. They will comb only the right half of their heir, apply makeup to only the right half of their face, will eat food only from the right half of their plate, will bump into objects that lie in the left half of the vision. Neglect is not same as blindness. If you draw their attention to the left side they will respond. Another disorder in patients who suffer paralysis on their left half is “Denial”. Even normal human beings suffer from denial however these patients have extreme case of this disorder. They refuse to acknowledge that they are paralyzed. They claim that they can move their left hand and perform complex functions like tying a shoe lace. Most often, these patients are considered psychiatric cases. Dr.VSR provides neurological explanation to these disorders.
He says about his experiences with these patients “What I didn’t realize when I began these experiments is that they would take me to the heart of human nature. For denial is something we do all our lives, whether we are temporarily ignoring the bills accumulating in our tray or defiantly denying the finality and humiliation of death”.
The book covers many other interesting disorders like Carpgras delusion where the patient claims that his close relatives like father/mother/brother are imposters and Cotards syndrome where the patient believes he is dead and he can smell the rotting of his own flesh.
In the last few chapters he discusses profound concepts. What causes spiritual experiences? Do we have a god module in our brain? What is consciousness? What is the nature of the self? VSR tries to explain these deep philosophical questions in neurological terms.
I like to end my review with VSR’s thoughts on why he thinks neurology is so interesting. Because it has the potential for the “greatest revolution in the history of human race – understanding ourselves.”
“There is something distinctly odd about a hairless primate that has evolved into a species that can look back over its own shoulder and ask questions about its origins. And odder still, the brain can not only discover how other brains work but also ask questions about its own existence: Who am I? What happens after death? Does my mind arise exclusively from neurons in my brain? If so, what scope is there for free will? It is the peculiar recursive nature of these questions – as the brain struggles to understand itself-that makes neurology fascinating”