There are some books for which a simple, single page review cannot do justice. Every page leaves you in awe and it is quite impossible to capture the spirit of the book with just a summary. Phantoms in the Brain by V.S.Ramchandran is one such book. For books like these, I prefer to talk about some interesting information contained in the book instead of doing the review of the entire book. I feel this gives a better perspective about the book. My previous post was also from Phantoms in the brain and so is this one.
The question of consciousness and nature of self has intrigued both philosophers and scientists for thousands of years. VSR gives his take on consciousness or qualia in a chapter titled “Do Martians See Red”. There are many definitions of qualia and I am going to use the one closest to what the VSR describes “certain features of the bodily sensations especially, but also of certain perceptual experiences, which no amount of purely physical information includes“
Let me explain this definition with a thought experiment given in the book. Let us say we encounter an alien who does not recognize color and he wants to understand what ‘red’ is. Every time I see red he measures the wavelength of light. He does this with all colors and makes a chart of all the wavelength of colors that I experience. The alien can show me the chart of wavelengths and say this is what is going on in my brain. But I see red color, where is the red in the chart. I can never convey the experience of color to the alien because he is color blind. In fact if you notice, there are so many wavelengths which are not visible to the eye and we can never know their color?
For centuries philosophers and scientists believed that this illustrates the difference between the brain and the mind and this chasm can never be crossed. VSR claims that this barrier is only a perception, it does not really exist. He gives the analogy of translating between two very different languages. While the brain’s language is in terms of electrical impulses, the spoken language is in term of words. So the word Red does not convey anything meaningful to the alien because it is lost during the translation from the language of the neurons to that which is spoken.
Let us assume that you bypass the spoken language and connect a cable directly from your brain to that of the alien (a hypothetical situation. Just an extension for our thought experiment). Now, he can experience red, exactly the way you experience it.
There is a way of proving if this is right. There are some patients whose optical pathways are damaged from birth but there portions of the brain which recognize color (the visual cortex) are intact. What if we stimulate these regions of the brain. Would he just feel something funny tickling his brain or would he say “This is extraordinary. I am finally experiencing vision. This is light, this is color, this is seeing!!!”
In effect he concludes that consciousness is very much a product of the brain and there is no difference, really, between the brain and the mind. There is an elaborate discussion on the required conditions for qualia to occur. If you are interested do read the book. I guarantee you will not be disappointed.