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Updated: February 1, 2011 12:57 IST

Ape and super ape

Vijay Nagaswami
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An acclaimed neuroscientist, based in San Diego, Vilayanur S. Ramachandran has been much feted and awarded for his original work on the brain and cognitive processes. A reading of the Tell-tale Brain gives one an idea why he is as well regarded as he is.

At first glance, readers familiar with Ramachandran's work might wonder if his current book is only a slightly more expanded version of his earlier book, Phantoms in the Brain (co-written with New York Times Science writer Sandra Blakeslee).

Many of the themes are similar: unusual neurological syndromes like the phantom limb phenomenon (wherein those who've lost a limb continue to experience sensations in the lost limb), for which he and his team have devised an elegantly simple treatment — the mirror box; mirror neurons (brain cells that get activated when one sees another individual performing an action) and their impact on understanding disorders such as Autism; synaesthesia — the extraordinary capacity to perceive one sensory stimulus through another sense, such as ‘seeing' sound; and the Capgras delusion, wherein familiar people that one has a close relationship with are perceived as ‘doubles' or impostors.

But, as one reads on, one realises that the basic reach of The Tell-tale Brain is much more ambitious. To me, it appears that Ramachandran has presented to the world his grand vision of human behaviour and his putative keys to the unlocking of the mysteries of human nature, besides sketching the road map of his work in the years to come.

Mystery

Drawing on his own research as well as those of others in the fields of cognitive neurosciences, evolutionary biology, anthropology, and other life sciences, he goes about constructing his theory to explain the mysteries of human nature and behaviour with the firm conviction that the answers lie, not in the human mind that psychologists have tried to explore over the decades or even the human soul which spiritualists and theologians wax eloquent about, but in that truly extraordinary structure weighing just about a kilogram and a half which, Ramachandran elegantly argues, distinguishes the human being from the ape — the brain.

Ramachandran starts off with a description of the anatomy and physiology of the human brain with particular emphasis on cerebral cortices — those parts of the brain whose neural pathways demonstrably govern cognitive and intellectual processes. Then he proceeds to elaborate on what could be described as esoteric neurological symptoms or syndromes such as the phantom limb, synaesthesia, the Capgras syndrome, the Cotard syndrome (where the individual feels parts or the whole of the self does not exist or is dead or dying), explaining with clinical precision what neural pathways could be damaged or dysfunctional.

Most exciting, however, are Ramachandran's conclusions on hitherto philosophical matters such as ‘free will', self-awareness, and aesthetics, where he uses his personal experience as well as research evidence to elucidate possible neural substrates for these phenomena. Equally fascinating is his exploration of the ‘mirror neuron' and its possible implications for human relationships — the basic postulate being that people with mirror neuron dysfunctionality may have difficulty in engaging in relationships.

Absorbing as it is, the book is not without its problems, though. Ramachandran tends to draw conclusions in broad sweeps and without necessarily deferring to the ‘Law of Parsimony' (which mandates that research conclusions use the least possible assumptions when developing a theory from the data).

But, then, his is cutting edge research and he argues that, in the early stages of scientific research (which is where, he believes, the cognitive sciences currently are), the lay of the land has to be discovered first and sees his conclusions as a framework for future experimentation and refinement.

Readability

Then there is the issue of readability. The Tell-tale Brain is certainly not as readable as Phantoms in the Brain. Whether this is on account of Ramachandran's identity as a neuroscientist overshadowing his identity as a writer, or whether he was targeting a different kind of audience, is hard to tell. But to me, it does appear that at least a working familiarity with the structure and function of the cerebral cortex is desirable, if one wants to get the best out of the book.

That Ramachandran has no great respect for psychiatrists and psychiatry is quite clear, even though his views on this are more moderate than they appear in the book (see Interview). Maybe, his potshots reflect his sense of humour which, as he himself laments, many people don't have. I don't either. There may well be a neural basis for this!

That said, there is little doubt that The Tell-tale Brain is an important work of science and one that, I imagine, will be read and discussed, not just put aside on one's bookshelf or coffee table. Hopefully, it will also induce the general reader to use scientific processes while seeking to understand the natural phenomena.

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