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Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind Paperback – August 18, 1999

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Editorial Reviews Review

What would you say about a woman who, despite stroke-induced paralysis crippling the entire left side of her body, insists that she is whole and strong--who even sees her left hand reach out to grasp objects? Freud called it "denial"; neurologists call it "anosognosia." However it may be labeled, this phenomenon and others like it allow us peeks into other mental worlds and afford us considerable insight into our own.

The writings of Oliver Sacks and others have shown us that we can learn much about ourselves by looking closely at the deficits shown by people with neurological problems. V.S. Ramachandran has seen countless patients suffering from anosognosia, phantom limb pain, blindsight, and other disorders, and he brings a remarkable mixture of clinical intuition and research savvy to bear on their problems. He is one of the few scientists who are able and willing to explore the personal, subjective ramifications of his work; he rehumanizes an often too-sterile field and captures the spirit of wonder so essential for true discovery. Phantoms in the Brain is equal parts medical mystery, scientific adventure, and philosophical speculation; Ramachandran's writing is smart, caring, and very, very funny.

Whether you're curious about the workings of the brain, interested in alternatives to expensive, high-tech science (much of Ramachandran's research is done with materials found around the home), or simply want a fresh perspective on the nature of human consciousness, you'll find satisfaction with Phantoms in the Brain. --Rob Lightner --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

In these unsettling tales from a neuroscientist every bit as quirky as the more famous Oliver Sacks, Ramachandran sets out his beliefs that no matter how bizarre the case, empirical, strikingly simple testing can illuminate the ways brain circuitry establishes "self." In a chatty, nearly avuncular style, he (along with his coauthor, a New York Times science writer) snatches territory from philosophers on how we think we know what we know. In one experiment, stroking an amputee's cheek produces sensations in his "phantom limb" because the part of the brain's map that once related to the lost limb has "invaded" the adjacent brain area that relates to the cheek. Unafraid to speculate, Ramachandran then moves a step closer toward indicating that the brain is not only a busy lump of genetically deemed-and-dying hard-wiring but an organ that can continuously "re-map" in response to new sensory information from the outside. Equally fascinating are Ramachandran's "mirror tricks" on amputees and paralyzed patients that begin to reveal how much the brain relies on context and comparison as well as on "inside" neural connectivity to form self. Perhaps most disquieting are beginnings of proof that much brain activity, including what we like to think of as uniquely human behavior, happens unbidden. There may be no escape from the un-Western conclusion that self is only a limited illusion. "De-throning man," as the author points out, is at the heart of most revolutionary scientific thought. Regrettably, his book sags in the middle as it drifts from these deft experiments into generalized musings on idiot-savants and phantom pregnancies, detracting from what is otherwise entertaining, tip-of-the-neurological-iceberg sleuthing. Photos and line drawings throughout. Author tour.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks (August 18, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0688172172
  • ISBN-13: 978-0688172176
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 0.9 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (170 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #33,616 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

163 of 169 people found the following review helpful By Craig Matteson HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on August 15, 2002
Format: Paperback
I bought this book not long after my father was diagnosed with a glioblastoma multiforme. Like most people, I had no idea what a brain tumor really is and especially what a GBM IV is. To this day I wish I had never learned that term.
But this book was a great help to me as I tried to learn more about the brain's structure and how it works. This is an easy to read book with some very helpful illustrations. It demonstrates the brain's functions by showing its quirks. It is well written and easy (and surprisingly FUN) to read.
There is also a helpful bibliography and suggested reading list at the end of the book for those who wish to delve more deeply into the subject. But it is important to know that you don't need any background at all in the brain to enjoy this book.
I had no understanding of brain structure beyond what the doctors told me in describing the locations of my father's tumor. This book helped me understand the changes in my fathers abilities and behavior as the tumor destroyed different portions of his brain until it finally ended his life.
Honestly, this is a very good book and I think you will get a great deal from it.
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140 of 149 people found the following review helpful By David H. Peterzell PhD PhD on March 22, 2002
Format: Paperback
...I think Ramachandran is the most brilliant, creative Neuroscientist in the field. Sure, he is very popular, along with many other science writers. But if you aren't paying attention, you might not see that he is to our field what Mozart, Picasso, and Einstein were to theirs. And this book is both a masterpiece and a magnum opus. Here are some reasons to be so keen on Ramachandran:
Many, many neuroscientists pick "safe" topics and stick with variants upon a theme all their lives. The work is often valuable, but it is not exactly akin to a spectator sport. Ramachandran, in contrast, chooses "sexy" topics to study.
Most neuroscientists write primarily for their scientific peers. Ramachandran (with Blakesee) has written a book that is at once valuable to his peers and fascinating to everyone. And if you've ever seen Ramachandran speak (either to scientists or the general public), you know what I'm talking about, and you know that the book is not a fluke.

Ramachandran does not think like other neuroscientists. Most neuroscientists pick a topic or area of the brain, and then do systematic, parametric, sensible experiments to map and test the minute details of their theory. There's usually lots of data collection and data analysis. But Ramachandran has a knack for creating "breakthrough" experiments routinely. In these experiments, the answer to a sexy question comes instantly, dramatically, and powerfully. Such creative, intuitive genius is extremely rare. Trust me, we'd all like to do science this way.
I hope that we can appreciate that Ramachandran incorporates a wide variety of worldviews as he creates gem after gem.
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105 of 111 people found the following review helpful By Atheen on July 23, 2002
Format: Paperback
Phantoms in the Brain is not only a marvelous narrative of the quirky facets of the brain and the mind, it is also a good illustration of the advances made in neurology over the past 30 years. Indeed if you take into account the extensive career of Freud, who was himself a neuro-anatomist prior to pursuing his medical profession, neurology and neuropsychology have well over a 150 years behind them.
In the book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, written in the 1970 and reprinted a number of times since, Oliver Sacks illustrates peculiar neurological deficits arising from various insults to the brain, from tumors to strokes and seizures. Although he can pinpoint the areas of brain compromise that cause the patient's problems and, like Freud, give the reader some theory as to what aspect of the "self" is effected, he does little beyond this. In Phantoms of the Brain, Ramachandran recounts numerous colorful stories, but develops a theory of what level of brain function is the cause of the observed deficits, then proceeds to test his theory with further study, making the "self" a topic of research. In the true spirit of scientific research he publishes his findings and elicits input from fellows in the field. Where there is a discrepancy, he and others conduct further research to illuminate the findings and integrate the data into the overall theory. While he freely admits that a true science of the mind is in its infancy, he also points at the major advances made since Freud's work.
One of the things I found most unique about the author's style is that he points out the pertinent contributions in the works of other, often earlier researchers, particularly Freud.
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23 of 23 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on March 13, 2000
Format: Paperback
I read this book at a clip of several hundred pages per day. It beats most fiction for excitement and provides the impetus to read more in neurology. Neurology is truly a science and this book asks the right questions about consciousness, perception, and mental "health." I have cleaned out the library shelves on neurology and only wish there were more books like this one. The section on body image is particularly interesting--could the technique described in this book be used to help treat eating disorders and the like? It also provides a fresh perspective on the much-discussed dual-brain theory. Enjoy.
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