Phantoms In The Brain by V S Ramachandran

Posted by Anantha | Posted in , | Posted on Wednesday, December 07, 2011

There is a famous quote in Paulo Coelho’s ‘The Alchemist’ which goes like, When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it. I would like to alter this statement slightly, “When you got to read a book, all the universe conspires to lead you to it”

I first came across this book when a friend of mine blogged about it few years ago. After some time Ashwin, another friend of mine recommended it to me. Though it is a fascinating subject to know about our brain, I had relegated picking this book up, thinking it might be too much of neuroscientific jargon for me. But I was wrong, now I repent not reading it much before. The author of the book, V S Ramachandran is a credible neuroscientist who has proposed his own theories in the field of neuroscience and has solved many of the mysteries behind the working of the human brain.

When my father was paralyzed, there were instances when he moved his paralyzed left hand and leg while asleep. He even used to raise the left arm involuntarily when he used to yawn. This always made me wonder, how the brain could make his hand/leg move involuntarily on these particular occasions but fail to do so when he wishes to. When I told about this to the doctor who used to treat him, he had given a plain reply – ‘it happens some times’. I am not sure, if the doctor did not want to explain me the complications of the mechanism in brain, or was he not aware of the actual reason for it. I found the answer for that in this book!

Ramachandran, an ardent believer of simple and inexpensive experiments, conducts many such experiments on his patients and presents many of the interesting case studies to the readers. Take for example the finger agnosia -  where a patient fails to recognize which of his finger is being touched when blind folded, dyscalculia – a stroke patient who understands the concept of large and small numbers but fails miserably to do simple addition and subtraction, idiot savant syndrome – an autistic patient’s ability to generate a series of large prime numbers, an epileptic patient who claims to have realized ‘the true meaning’ of life and could converse with God after an episode of major temporal lobe seizure, a patient whose brain was normal in seeing and identifying static objects but could not identify motion after a brain injury and the patients with phantom limbs – the major interest area of Ramachandran. These cases might appear crazy initially but Ramachandran says when physicists say these are crazy, it is their failure to understand how brain functions. And he digs deep into these exceptional cases in letting us understand the mystery behind some of the cases or leading to some significant clues behind some insolvable cases.

Throughout the book, the author generously quotes from Omar Khayyam to Upanishads to Charles Darwin to Sherlock Homes to Bhagavadgeeta, which made me awe at his areas of interests. Ramachandran is as good a curious human being with wonder-eye as he is a neuroscientist. This serves as the constant undertone in the book, which appealed to me the most. He knows the art of explaining complicated things in a simple manner to a layman, with his great sense of wit it makes the book a very fascinating read.

There were sections in the book, which I found little difficult to understand. For example, some of the sections on interpretation of vision by brain and the last chapter where Ramachandran explains consciousness and qualia. My favorite chapter in the entire book was ‘God and the Limbic System’. There are some serious questions raised here about the region in the brain which makes us an atheist or theist [believe me, in one of the speeches by Ramachandran in youtube, I have seen him introducing the special case of a patient whose one hemisphere was atheist and another hemisphere theist!!], what makes a human being a great artist/musician/mathematician, how different is his brain from normal human being, what “makes” it different? Then he touches upon the evolution of human brain, Darwin’s natural selection of species, Wallace’s counter argument to Darwin where the former orients towards ‘divine intervention’ in making some brains special (?!). This is a chapter I would love to read it again and again.

It’s astonishing to see some patients turning into great painters after epileptic seizures. I have even read somewhere an honest man turning into a con after brain damage! This raises the basic question of ‘Who am I?’ If a brain damage can change my personality, my whole perspective of the world, of the right and wrong, ‘Who am I?’, ‘What is my identity?’ When I was listening to a discourse by Osho some time back, he refers to the rules and prejudices that are imposed upon us by our culture and society as if some person inside our brain is commanding our actions. What if there is one such thing..?!! Ramachandran too says some of our reflexes are controlled by ‘zombies’ inside our brain!!! Like I thought, did u also think about the movie Inception here..? Where the seed of an idea can be planted in somebody’s brain..? Think over, it’s time for you to scratch your head J

Thanks to Tess for lending me this book.
Do read it without a miss. It’s a delightful book.

PS: I was hoping Ramachandran would shed some light on another mysterious topic - dreams. Which is not mentioned in this book.

Comments (4)

Good one dude... I will look out for this book now!!! And Well, for Dreams, you always have Sigmund Frued's Interpretation of Dreams...


Ya, do read this one. I have not read Interpretation of dreams :-/
And by the way, Ramachandran mentions Freud a lot of times in this book, some places in agreement and in some places in strong disagreement. I remember you have read Interpretation of dreams, so you might enjoy these different points of view more.

Great! One more book on my to-read list! Afetr we talked last time on all the books i read in the initial part of the year, its been crazily busy with me these days and havent read a book from a couple of months :(

Ya, read your blog. I can understand how busy you are.. :)

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