How can anyone not be interested in the brain, asks well known neuroscientist Dr. V.S. Ramachandran, the man lauded as a potential Nobel Laureate and author of the recently-released The Tell-tale Brain.

Ever since 1951 when Wilder Penfield and Herbert Jasper reported their findings on the response of different parts of the brain to electrical stimulation, (Penfield and Jasper mapped the parts of the brain that controlled different bodily functions) the human brain has been the object of absorbing study for large numbers of neuroscientists all over the world. Of particular fascination has been those parts of the cerebral cortex that are seemingly responsible for what are generally referred to as “the cognitive functions” or “higher functions” (related to intelligence, perception, memory, learning and the like). One neuroscientist of contemporary times, who had his medical education at Chennai and is currently the Director of the Centre for Brain and Cognition at the University of California inSan Diego, where he's done much ground-breaking research in the field of cognitive sciences, is as spellbound by aesthetics as he is with cryptology and ancient languages. Dr. Vilayanur S. Ramachandran has been hailed and feted all over the world for his work in the field, more so after the global success of his 1998 book Phantoms in the Brain co-authored with Sandra Blakeslee, and his celebrated Reith Lectures of 2003. He has now written another best-selling book, The Tell-tale Brain: Unlocking the Mystery of Human Nature'. In the midst of a demanding and jet-lagged travel, book promotion and research schedule, Dr Ramachandran took some time off to respond to some e-mailed questions:

The very idea of a book such as The Telltale Brain is fascinating, where abstract concepts are concretised and laid out as clearly as possible without any attempts at obfuscation. What was your purpose in writing the book and what is the audience you are trying to reach?

My purpose  was two-fold , First to convey the excitement of the field of cognitive neuroscience/behavioural neurology to the lay reader or average undergraduate student and second, to describe some new discoveries from our lab that were made since I wrote my last book Phantoms in the brain. Just think about it… A three pound mass of jelly that you can hold in your palm can contemplate the vastness of inter-stellar space, the meaning of infinity, the idea of God, and indeed contemplate on ITSELF: self awareness. Truly one of the last great mysteries of science.

Evidently, more than anything else, you are, at heart, an evolutionary biologist. What drew you to research in the cognitive neurosciences and behavioural neurology?

People often ask how I got interested in the brain; my rhetorical answer is: How can anyone NOT be interested in it? Everything you call “human nature” and consciousness arises from it.

As a much-awarded and extremely well-recognised potential Nobel laureate and a member of the Newsweek's ‘Century Club', there must be lots of expectations of you from several quarters to produce even more path-breaking and iconoclastic research results. Is this a source of pressure or burden for you? How do you deal with it?

No pressure. I do what I want. The discoveries speak for themselves. The minute you succumb to outside pressure you cease to be creative.  Science is like a love affair with nature; an elusive, tantalising mistress.  It has all the turbulence, twists and turns of romantic love, but that's part of the game.

You are obviously not a great fan of Freud even though you do grudgingly concede that his theory of the unconscious could be right(even if his theories of what happens in the unconscious are way off the mark). How do you view the efforts of contemporary psychotherapists who have moved on from Freud, but still work with difficult-to-prove theoretical formulations about the ‘sense of self' and its relationship to the environment?

I think some of them have valuable intuitions about the self and can transform someone's life for the better. But it is not yet a mature science. One of the things I tried to do in the book is to show that many esoteric mental illnesses are best construed as  disturbances of self and can therefore enrich our understanding of how the normal brain constructs  sense of self.

As an extension, how do you view the future of the discipline of psychiatry? Would it become a part of the behavioural neurosciences? Would all delusions eventually have a demonstrable cortical substrate as in Capgras' delusion or in the pervasive developmental disorders of childhood?

Yes.

As one who has worked a lot with couples, I am struck by the infinite variations in the experience and expression of intimacy, which forms the primary glue of relationships. The discovery of mirror neurons and your work on them would suggest (as it does in the case of autism) that relatively less-bonded marriages may have a mirror neuron defect in one or both partners. Could you throw more light on this?

The variations in levels of empathy you see among couples may indeed have something to do with mirror neurons but that's pure speculation. Sociopaths may have mirror neuron deficiency in their brains as indeed might autistic children but the evidence is tenuous at this point.

Apparently ‘free will' is a bit oxymoronic in that it seems neither ‘free' (given it's contingency on the integrity of the supramarginal gyrus and the anterior cingulate), nor ‘will' (more likely ‘won't' as you elegantly argue). What kind of impact would this finding have on the choices that, as adults, we are all expected to make? The choice between say, recovery from illness or languishing in it? The choice between dependence and independence? And so on.

This is a deep philosophical riddle. We neuroscientists can map the FEELING (and belief ) in freedom on to specific brain structures but you get into semantic (or perhaps metaphysical) riddles if you ask are we TRULY free? The “moral imperative” and that humans are genuinely free rings true to me, though that's the minority view among scientists. I don't know how to mix that with my Science though.

Your experiments, even though they appear elegantly simple when you describe them (surely, a very involved and complex process went into their design), focus on studying very precise and specific parts of the brain. With the degree of focalisation you are targeting, do you foresee the re-emergence of the discredited stereotactic surgery in the management of behavioural disorders? Or, is it still early days?

It is bound to happen, at least to a limited extent.

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Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012