The Tell-tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes us Human

Reviews — By on January 2, 2013 at 5:26 pm

Review by Rohan Roberts 4 January 2013

“A Profoundly intriguing and compelling guide to the intricacies of the human brain.” – Oliver Sacks

The sobriquets that have been bestowed upon V. S. Ramachandran are many: Wizard of the Brain; a modern Brocca; the Galileo of neuroscience; …. Eminent biologist, Richard Dawkins, calls V. S. Ramachandran, a ‘Latter-day Marco Polo.’ Just as the great 13th century Italian explorer who exposed Europeans to the wonders of Persia, Central Asia, and China, V. S. Ramachandran (or Rama, as he is known to his friends) takes the reader on a voyage to the dark and mysterious terra incognita of the human brain. Along the way he offers them a treasure-chest of narratives, exotic case studies, and silken stories about baffling delusions that will nourish those with an inquisitive spirit and regale anyone curious about human behaviour.

For the longest time, neuroscience languished in the forgotten corners of science. In the last ten years this situation has changed. (For example, the temporal and spatial resolution and bandwidth of brain scanning are doubling each year.) Rapid and startling advances are being made in our understanding of the brain, and Rama is at the forefront of sharing these discoveries and interpreting their significance for the lay audience.

It would be fair to say that Rama (who is director of the Centre for the Brain and Cognition  at the University of California and was selected by TIME magazine in its 2011 list of 100 most influential people) is like a brain detective—a Sherlock Holmes of the mind, if you will. Patients come to him with the most bewildering, confounding, and mystifying brain disorders and delusions which, at first seem so inexplicable that the reader is tempted to raise their hands in exasperation and disbelief.

He discusses in detail conditions that he has spoken about in his TED talk, such as Phantom Limb Syndrome (where people experience the vivid sensation of a limb that has been amputated) and Capgras delusion (in which patients suffer brain damage and then come to think of their loved ones or favourite pets as impostors) and Cotard’s Syndrome (people who believe they are dead). But these and other conditions were also covered in his earlier book, Phantoms in the Brain (published in 1998, and in the tradition of Oliver Sacks’ classic and now legendary book of aberrant mental disorders, The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat.)

In Rama’s latest book, he covers other abnormalities, delusions, disorders, deceits, dissemblings, and aberrations of the brain. Meet John, a sixty year old who has recovered perfectly from a stroke, except that he can’t recognise faces—even his own (a condition known as prosopagnosia). Say hello to Francesca who associates texture with emotion (a condition known as synaesthesia, in which a cross-wiring in the brain causes people to see sound, taste colour, smell music etc.)

If you find these conditions outrageous, just wait, he hasn’t even begun to get warmed up. Consider somatoparaphrenia, in which a patient vehemently denies ownership of their own limb or insists that it belongs to someone else. An extreme version of this syndrome is apotemnophelia, in which patients want their healthy limbs to be amputated. There are even more stories of patients who laugh uncontrollably when they feel pain; patients who claim to see when in fact they are blind—and invent elaborate explanations for their delusion; stroke patients who can form sentences but that have no meaning; patients who can utter words but not form sentences; and so on and so forth.

A major portion of the book is dedicated to an expatiation about mirror neurons and the role they play in consciousness, empathy, and our social evolution. These are neurons that fire in our own brain when we see another person doing an action. So for example, sensory touch mirror neurons in our brain fire when we watch someone else being stroked. The implications of this are truly far-reaching. Damage to the mirror neuron system can lead to a symptom known as echopraxia, in which the patient uncontrollably mimics actions he see.

Ramachandran takes an avowedly evolutionary-psychological approach to most of his explanations (much like Steven Pinker, the Harvard University cognitive scientist) and puts himself solidly in the camp of scientists such as Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins. Most of his explanations are brilliant and ingenious. But it must be admitted that some of them highly speculative. The speculation is at its highest in his chapter titled, ‘Beauty and the Brain: The Emergence of Aesthetics,’ in which he gives an account of how the human mind responds to art, beauty, and aesthetics.

By the time the reader reaches the end of the book, he will be able to tell his amygdala from his angular gyrus; cerebellum from brain stem; and insula from hypothalamus. He will have more than a fair understanding of the role of the different lobes in the brain; the plasticity of the two hemispheres; and a whole range of syndromes and delusions. What comes shining through in this book is Rama’s love of science, his ingenuity, and his extraordinary knowledge about the human brain. His lucid prose and his sense of humour are an added bonus.

As someone I know recently put it, this book is the ‘bible of the brain’—the sort of book you want to return to again and again to remind yourself of just how bizarre and vastly mysterious the human brain really is—and how thankful we ought to be that we have one—especially when it functions normally. But that said, we need the likes of V. S. Ramachandran to deconstruct, analyse, and explain these mysteries—it simply won’t do for humans to wallow in ignorance for too much longer about this most complex of objects in the known universe.

I end with an inspiring quote from the book:

I find it odd how people so often slip words like “merely” and “nothing but” into statements about our origins. Humans are apes. So too we are mammals. We are vertebrates. We are pulpy, throbbing, colonies of tens of trillions of cells. We are all of these things, but we are not “merely” these things. And we are, in addition to all these things, something unique, something unprecedented, something transcendent. We are truly something new under the sun, with unchartered and perhaps limitless potential. We are the first and only species whose fate has rested in its own hands, and not just in the hands of chemistry and instinct. On the great Darwinian stage we call Earth I would argue there has not been an upheaval as big as us since the origin of life itself. When I think about what we are and what we may yet achieve, I can’t see any place for snide little “merelies.”

Any ape can reach for a banana, but only humans can reach for the stars. Apes live, contend, breed, and die in forests—end of story. Humans write, investigate, create, and quest. We splice genes, split atoms, launch rockets. We peer upward into the heart of the Big Bang and delve deeply into the digits of pi. Perhaps most remarkably of all, we gaze inward, piecing together the puzzle of our own unique and marvellous brain. It makes the mind reel. How can a three-pound mass of jelly that you can hold in your palm imagine angels, contemplate the meaning of infinity, and even question its own place in the cosmos.

Carl Sagan once said, “Humans are a way for the Cosmos to know itself.” Truly, this book helps us appreciate what a remarkable organ each one of us has within the confines of our skull.

 

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2 Comments

  1. Neuroreporter says:

    I hate to rain on your enthusiasm, but despite the lovely titles enjoyed by V.S. Ramachandran most neuroscientists regard his work with intense skepticism. Over the past two decades Ramachandran has advanced a plethora of theories that are not supported by any credible research. In a review for Cognitive Neuropsychiatry (July 11, 2012) Professor Peter Brugger (Neurology, University Hospital, Zurich) characterized Ramachandran’s latest book as a pop-neuroscience book that provides vague answers to big questions. I encourage you to take a more balanced look at Ramachandran’s actual reputation in the world of science.

  2. R.Roberts says:

    Well, Neuroreporter, I’m not a neuroscientist, but I do love the scientific method and am passionate about science. In response to Ramachandran’s detractors you’ve named above, I’d point out that in addition to the numerous awards he’s won, the BBC called him ‘The most interesting neuroscientist alive’; he’s been a speaker at TED; and Richard Dawkins calls him the Marco Polo of the mind; and was included in ‘Foreign Policy’ magazine’s list of top 100 Global Thinkers – alongside the likes of Noam Chomsky, Steven Pinker and various other luminaries. Not that recommendations should matter much in the field of science, but I think his reputation is safe. But thanks for your observation; we don’t have to agree, and in science disagreements are welcome. :)

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