All human cognition and perception—every emotion, belief, existential crisis, perceived sight, sound, smell are all a product of a series of chemical reactions in the brain. The study of the brain has fascinated the scientific community for decades and as Francis Crick, half of the famous “Watson and Crick” duo that discovered the structure of DNA, said:
“There is no scientific study more vital to man than the study of his own brain. Our entire view of the universe depends on it.“
In his charming and charismatic book, Phantoms in The Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind, V.S. Ramachandran explains some of the most interesting and fascinating discoveries about the human brain, without condescending or dumbing anything down.
This book explores the strangest, most fascinating, and philosophically rich territory that’s been eked out in the relatively young but incredibly productive and conceptually expansive history of cognitive neuroscience.
Below is a summary of some of the topics Ramachandran explores about the brain, and the rest will be left for you to find out on your own.
The Brain and the Mysteries of the Human Mind
1. Phantom Limbs
One of the areas Ramachandran is most well-known for is the revolutionary work he’s done with understanding and curing phantom limb pain. Most people know what this phenomenon consists of: a person loses a body part, most often some section of their arm or leg or the whole thing and they begin to have very, very vivid sensations that the limb is still there. The problem often times is that they can’t control what this phantom limb does or how it feels. Commonly, people have the painful sensation that their phantom hand is clenched as tight as can be, to cite one of many examples.
Ramachandran discovered a simple and ingenious way to sooth and eventually end these pains. He set up a box with a mirror in it that looks like the picture.
When he first tried this out on a person who was in agonizing pain they immediately felt a torrent of relief–the phantom limb sufferer described it as an instantaneous and entirely vivid sensation of being able to finally unclench his excruciatingly painful clenched phantom fist.
The basic idea is that the brain is tricked into believing that missing limb is present and when the remaining limb moves it gives the equally vivid sensation that the phantom limb is moving in that same willful way. This exercise is done and as time goes on it becomes less and less necessary as the phantom pains become less and less frequent.
2. Capgras Syndrome
This one’s really interesting and rife with all kinds of psychological and philosophical implications. Capgras syndrome is when a person begins to think that people they know and recognize perfectly well are imposters.
One main example in the chapter “The Unbearable Likeness of Being” is a young man who had a near fatal car accident which put him into a coma for three weeks. All of his normal functions like talking and walking were restored through physical therapy, but one very peculiar feature remained: he insists that his parents are not his parents. Though he acknowledges the perfect physical similarity and is otherwise perfectly rational he simply cannot be convinced that these kindly older people taking care of him are anything but doppelgangers.
The information gathered from studying people with the Capgras delusion has important theoretical implications for understanding face perception and neuroanatomy in both healthy and unhealthy people.
3. Cotard Syndrome
In Synecdoche, New York, the most recent film by Charlie Kaufman, the central character’s name is Caden Cotard. While he doesn’t have the neurological syndrome, he does spend large parts of the film fretting about death (it’s a wonderful film, don’t let this description fool you). Actual people with Cotard’s syndrome are either completely convinced that they are already dead or are decaying.
They often swear that they can smell their own rotting flesh, etc. Before we jump to the conclusion that these people are just wrist-slitting goth kids prone to hyperbole or just crazy, we need to take the brain’s eye view with Rama as our guide.
Ramachandran stresses throughout this book that it is a profound mistake to send the patients he describes straight to the psychiatrist or the loony bin. And he’s always right to do this. There is some time spent arguing against old paradigms of psychology and psychiatry and cultural theory and sociology—even though he does give Freud credit where credit is due and shows us how Freud had seeds of wisdom, but that the seeds need to be fostered by all the new knowledge and innovation and (most importantly) positive results brought about by the paradigm-shift of cognitive neuroscience when it comes to treating people with these strangest of mental states and behaviors.
If a person’s conscious experience is the brain or is a product of the brain then its dissolution is our dissolution. In other words, this kind of stuff practically urges a person to consider the inevitability of mortality to some degree or another.
Ramachandran is quite philosophically astute for a neuroscientist with no formal philosophical education. He’s also collaborated with fellow UC-San Diego professor (of philosophy) Patricia Churchland which—for fans of philosophy and science—is basically a dream team. Patricia and her husband Paul are the forebearers of a subfield of study called neurophilosophy, which is very relevant and exciting, and as a useful clarifying tool for cognitive neuroscience and perhaps science and all the other seriously probing disciplines generally.
Alright, there are so many other major points of interest I could go into but I’m calling it quits for now. A short list of other great topics:
—The placebo effect
—Mirror neurons and their relationship to empathy
—Blind sight (an incredible phenomenon, look it up)