The Tell-Tale Brain by V.S. Ramachandran
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
A brain injury patient simultaneously becomes demented and develops a previously unwitnessed artistic talent. Another patient’s brain lights up identically when seeing another person being poked as it does when he, himself, is prodded. An amputee brushed on a specific area of the cheek has a sensation in a specific area of the lost limb—i.e. phantom limb sensations can be mapped to points on the face. A stroke victim develops “metaphor blindness,” and suddenly “the 800 pound gorilla” becomes an actual gorilla. A test subject’s right angular gyrus has an electrical charge delivered to it through an electrode and the person has an instantaneous out-of-body experience. There are temporal lobe epilepsy patients who literally feel one with other people—or, in some cases, the natural world in general. These are just a few of the fascinating cases that Dr. Ramachandran presents in “The Tell-Tale Brain.” Many of these phenomena would have once been attributed to purely psychological or spiritual causes, but now their biological origins in the brain are being revealed.
Dr. Ramachandran is a neuroscientist whose claim to fame is making a noteworthy contribution to our understanding of the brain using mostly low-tech and non-invasive experiments with subjects who have brain abnormalities or injuries. Before there was EEG (electroencephalogram) and fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) machines, much of what scientists learned about the brain came from determining what capabilities were lost (or, occasionally, gained) by patients who had specific brain damage. In this way, we gained a great deal of insight into what areas of the brain are responsible for what tasks and we’ve learned that many aspects of the mind that were largely thought to be beyond biology are—in fact–not. It’s fascinating to see what bizarre effects can result from brain damage or abnormalities, from people who think they are dead to others who want to have a limb amputated because it doesn’t feel like it belongs to them to yet others who think their loved ones are imposters.
The central question addressed by this book is best summarized by a quote from the book’s introduction: “Are we merely chimps with a software upgrade?” Ramachandran proposes that any answer to this question that can be scientifically investigated must reside in the brain. Most of our organs and our general structure are not that different from those of our primate brethren. But our brains are infinitely more capable than those of other species. In responding to the question, Ramachandran considers the brain’s role in topics like language, aesthetics, and belief that are the sole domain of Homo sapiens. One of the most interesting discussions is how our brains fill in the blanks and a give meaning to what we see, such that we sometimes find signs in random data streams. The final chapter deals with introspection and how we come to define ourselves by what we think and what we feel and here Ramachandran gets into some of the most fascinating conditions mentioned in the book, such as Cotard Syndrome in which subjects firmly believe that they don’t exist.
There are a few topics that he delves into in particularly deep detail. One of these topics is that of mirror neurons. These neurons are integral to our relationships with others and are essential to our ability to learn. They fire in mimicry of movement (e.g. facial expressions) we see others perform. The author also uses his work with phantom limbs and synesthesia to illuminate the workings of the brain. Phantom limbs occur when an amputee can still feel sensations in the amputated limb. While phantom limbs were at one time believed to be residue of the soul or the like, studies have offered insights into its origins in the brain. Synesthesia is when the brain is mis-wired such that there is a blending of the senses. As an example, a person might see a different color associated with each musical note or with each number. Synesthesia was once considered a delusion and people were institutionalized for this cross-wiring of the brain. Autism is also addressed in a chapter, and-in particular—the theory that this affliction may be linked to the mirror neurons.
I found this book to be fascinating and insightful. While it delves into our tremendously complex brains, it does so in a readable and comprehensible manner. The fact that Ramachandran’s focus is largely on low-tech and relatively simple experiments means that one can readily understand them in a manner that one might not with studies based on fMRIs or EEGs.
I’d recommend this book for anyone interested in the magnificent human brain.
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