A Lion in the Undergrowth: Ramachandran

Anthony Gottlieb, an interesting person himself reviews on “The Tell-Tale Brain” by VS Ramachandran, a UC San Diego based neurologist is a well known and interesting thinker.  Gottlieb notes that “if the Delphic seer were to turn up tomorrow, neuroscientists would whisk her straight off into a brain scanner.”  I counter that if this were to occur she would be taken to the police station and/or remanded for observation.”  Society has a history of  killing visionaries like Jesus, Ghandi, Socrates, and others whose thoughts threatened the status quo. – carlos

By ANTHONY GOTTLIEB, Published: January 28, 2011

The men of old, reported Socrates, saw madness as a gift that provides knowledge or inspiration. “It was when they were mad that the prophetess at Delphi and the priestesses at Dodona achieved so much; . . . when sane they did little or nothing.” Today, insanity can still bring the gift of knowledge, but in a different manner. Much of what we know about the brain comes from seeing what happens when it is damaged, or affected in unusual ways. If the Delphic seer were to turn up tomorrow, neuroscientists would whisk her straight off into a brain scanner.

Mansell/Time & Life Pictures — Getty Images


A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human

By V. S. Ramachandran

Illustrated. 357 pp. W. W. Norton & Company. $26.95.

V. S. Ramachandran, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California, San Diego, has done as much as anyone to reveal the workings of the mind through the malfunctions of the brain. We meet some mighty strange malfunctions in his new book, “The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human.” There is a man who, after a head injury, cannot recognize or respond to people when he sees them, but can happily chat on the phone. We meet a woman who laughs when she should be yelping in pain. There are patients with Capgras syndrome, who come to believe that people who are close to them (or, in one case, the patient’s poodle) are imposters. We meet unfortunates with an intense desire to have their own healthy limbs amputated, others who are paralyzed on one side but insist against all evidence that they are not, and, in Cotard’s syndrome, people who sincerely believe they are dead.

Ramachandran weaves such tales together to build a picture of the specialized areas of the brain and the pathways between them, drawing his map by relating particular types of damage to their corresponding mental deficits. A recurring theme is the way in which many delusions appear to result from the brain trying to make sense of signals that have gone haywire. For example, in the case of a young man who awoke from a coma after a car crash believing that his mother was an imposter, Ramachandran believes that there was damage to a neural route that takes visual information to his amygdala (a part of the brain involved in investing objects with emotional significance). As a result, he suggests, the sight of the young man’s mother did not produce its usual emotional buzz, and his brain coped with this anomaly by rationalizing it as the presence of someone who looked like his mother but was in fact not her.

Ramachandran’s main thesis, though he often strays from it, is that networks of brain cells known as mirror neurons, which were discovered in monkeys in the late 1990s, played a uniquely important part in human evolution. These cells appear to become active in a creature’s brain not only when certain actions are performed by the creature itself but also when the creature observes its fellows performing the same actions. Ramachandran believes that mirror neurons somehow enable us to understand the minds of others, to learn by imitation and to feel empathy, and are perhaps involved in self-awareness. Some dramatic surge in the development of mirror neurons, he argues, explains the birth of distinctively human mental abilities and culture about 150,000 years ago. He also suggests that autism involves some defect in the functioning of mirror neurons.

Much of “The Tell-Tale Brain,” however, is a general tour of neuroscience. There are lively treatments of three areas in which Ramachandran has himself done pioneering work: visual perception, pain in amputated “phantom” limbs, and synesthesia — a family of benign syndromes in which the senses become commingled, as when, for example, letters and numbers that are printed in black and white are perceived as colored. Ramachandran explains how some brains may develop this ability (which seems to be more common among artists than in the general population), and explores its possible connection to the ability to understand metaphor.  See related info in the NY Times…

Anthony Gottlieb is the author of “The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy From the Greeks to the Renaissance.”


About carlos

I'm a curious person, of reasonable intellect, "on the beach" (retired) and enjoying my interest in anthropology, language, civil rights, and a few other areas. I've been a hippie/student/aerospace tech writer in the '60s, a witness to the Portuguese revolution in the ‘70s, a defense test engineer and witness to the Guatemalan genocide in the '80s, and a network engineer for an ISP in the '90s. Now I’m a student and commentator until my time is up. I've spent time under the spell of the Mesoamerican pyramids and the sweet sound of the Portuguese language. I've lived in Europe, traveled in Brazil, Central America, Iceland, New Zealand, and other places. My preferred mode of travel is with a backpack and I eat (almost) anything local. Somehow, many of the countries I have been to have had civil unrest (for which I was not responsible). I'm open to correspond with anyone who might share my liberal, humanist interests. I live in San Buenaventura, California.
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