162 of 168 people found the following review helpful
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.
137 of 146 people found the following review helpful
on March 22, 2002
...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. He is from the great culture that was and is southern India; he is a medical doctor and neurologist; he is a reknowned perceptual and cognitive neuroscientist who trained with master academics in England; and he is passionately insightful about art. I've heard people compare Ramachandran to mystics, healers and others. The cult status is of course a little ridiculous. But the enthusiasm is understandable. And the book is wonderful. I recommend it!
104 of 110 people found the following review helpful
on July 23, 2002
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. It seems to have become fashionable to treat Freud and his work with great disrespect, ignoring that he was a man of his times and very progressive in his thinking for that time. Not all of his work is useless, particularly that in neuro-anatomy, and as is often the case in science, as more research is done today it may be found that some of his theoretical work is less faulty than has been thought. Ramachandran gleans the traces of gold from the mine of Freud's work and integrates them into his own.
The author's writing style is conversational and clear. He appears to be a natural teacher, making the work obtainable for any person with average reading skills. It might make a good book for showing high school students how problems in science are outlined and tested, especially in health care sciences. It's colorful stories of people and their problems should arrest the attention of the high school student, perhaps orienting them to a career in science. For those interested in mind and consciousness, the book is a good example of the research being done by biologists-as opposed to artificial intelligence professionals and philosophers like Roger Penrose and Daniel Dennett-and makes it obvious that there is still a long way to go in this fascinating field.
23 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on March 13, 2000
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.
26 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on December 15, 2000
If you have read books by Oliver Sacks, M.D. (e.g., The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat), this book is in the same genre and is equally interesting and worthwhile. If you haven't--both Sacks and this author are neurologists who do the rest of us a considerable and fascinating favor by telling us about their patients. (Also, maybe you saw the movie, Awakenings, that starred Robin Williams as Sacks, and Robert DeNiro as one of his patients)
Both Sacks and Ramachandran arrange their patient stories under topical headings intended to elucidate the way the brain and body (especially the senses) work together, and also the nature of human personality and even consciousness itself. Ramachandran writes with great clarity, kindness and humor, and his origins in India and Hinduism provide a gently-presented, less-western point of view.
His book also contains some simple but amazing mind-body experiments you can do on yourself and with friends (really). In one, you will become convinced that the top of the desk in front of you is part of your body, since you will feel it when another person touches the desk. Those of you interested in religion will find the chapter "God and Limbic System" especially fascinating. And no, the purpose of his chapter is not to denigrate or analyze away religious experience, but to better understand it, and what it means to be human.
19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on January 28, 2002
"What we call rational grounds for our beliefs are often extremely irrational attempts to justify our instincts. "
VS Ramachandran shot to prominence with his explanation for the "phantom limb syndrome" (which occurs when people continue to vividly experience the amputated part of their body). VSR found that the experience of the phantom limb arises because the brain area which normally controls the (now amputated) limb gets invaded by neurons from neighbouring regions of the brain. Thus when the region formerly devoted to sensing the arm is invaded by neighbouring neurons which respond to face stimulation, the amputee feels his arm when he is stroked across the face. A striking example of such remapping was found in a man who experiences during sexual intercourse the orgasms in his phantom foot - since genitals are in the brain's body map right next to the foot, the nerve cells from the genital area take over the region formerly occupied by the "foot neurons" resulting in migration of the orgasm into the phantom foot. This makes one wonder about the basis of foot fetishes in normal people....
There are many intriguing chapters on blindsight, the concept of "self" and the issue of qualia, so beloved of neurophilosphers. Where the book is at its strongest, however, is when R. draws directly on his clinical experience. He tells scores of amazing stories of patients with symptoms and syndromes which affected their perception, conceptualization, self-awareness and self-knowledge. This book succesfully shows us that conscious mind is simply a thin facade for the (mostly unconscious "self") - that there is a huge gray space between seeing and knowing, of which we are completely unaware.
One especially intriguing issue is that of religious experience. It has been long known that people with temporal lobe epilepsy often "find God". Temporal lobes of the brain are the interface between perception and action and what strikes R. is the closeness between emotional centers of the brain (such as the amygdala), centers devoted to memory (the hippocampus) and sensory areas of the temporal cortex. An epileptic fit might "kindle" - reinforce - connections between these brain areas so that communication between them would be increased and people would experience all events (as well as themselves) as imbued with deep significance. Everything in the universe would be seen as conscious and be "carried by a universal tide to the shores of Nirvana". In contrast, a patient with Cotard's syndrome feels so emotionally remote from the world that he will actually make the absurd claim that he is dead or that he can smell his flesh rotting. What this book provides us with, therefore, is an intimate peek into how fragile our reality constructs are and how grateful we should be to these few pounds of gelatinous flesh for the constant reality checks (and un-checks) that they provide us with.
There are other fine popular books by prominent brain scientists(Damasio, Churchland, LeDoux and Crick come to mind). I think Ramachandran surpasses them all with his extraordinary experimental ingenuity and curiosity which drive him far away from the ivory tower of clinical science and all the way down to the greener pastures inhabited by psychoanalysis and religion.
Whatever she did, Sandra Blakeslee did an excellent job in making the book readable and enjoyable
18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on December 29, 1998
Anyone looking for a new paradigm for consciousness should read this book, in particular anyone without any prior knowledge of neural science. The book is full of the latest discoveries about how the brain works, including several experiments you can perform by yourself or with friends. In particular, I found that the experiment which the author(s) have you perform on yourself with your blind spot particularly discombobulating, as you watch as your mind "fills in" missing information, and even "hallucinates" things that aren't there. You're left feeling that you can't even trust your own eyes! The final chapter is particularly important, and required reading for anyone interested in how neural science affects our understanding of consciousness and self.
My only complaint is that the book seems schizophrenic; it is scientific, but constantly needs to reassure us as if it were afraid that a purely scientific understanding of our lives is somehow inimical to our artistic selves. The book continually quotes Shakespeare. I'm not sure if that's because the book has two authors, that Ms. Blakeslee was brought in to soften up the science a bit. It often seems as if there's a phantom author.
Even so, it's enjoyable can't-put-it-down reading and contains several important points which should add significantly to your understanding of your brain works and consciousness itself.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
On page 7, talking about lung cancer and clubbing of the fingers, Ramachandran/Blakeslee say "Remarkably, this telltale sign disappears instantly on the operating table as the surgeon removes the cancer." I know this not to be true, but I was already very impressed with the book. This kept bothering me until by page 100 or so, I decided to check out the author a little. He appeared to have exemplary credentials. Then that very afternoon the new issue of Discover Magazine arrived and I found him mentioned twice, one of those times in a short feature.
In the preface, he says, "When writing a popular book, professional scientists always have to walk a tightrope between making the book intelligible to the general reader, on the one hand, and avoiding oversimplification, on the other, so that experts are not annoyed." Maybe the instantly cured clubbed fingers fit into this category. He also says, "Some of the cases I describe are really composites of several patients, including classics in the medical literature." Perhaps this explains it.
Possibly it was the journalist, Blakeslee, who decided to make the situation somewhat more interesting, but then one has to consider that other conclusions may be a little enhanced.
Be that as it may, this book presents remarkable data. It reads like a detective story and describes an empathetic doctor who has lots of rapport with his patients as he tries to help them deal with their unique problems. The book gives an excellent review of brain anatomy and function. The first 20 pages summarizes aspects of the scientific method so well, I was enthralled. As I kept reading, I found out that someone with a keen mind using curiosity, simple observations, and prop-like equipment could still uncover new scientific data.
Other reviewers have eloquently described the contents, and I urge you to read them. Despite my criticism, this book deserves a "5", and should add to anyone's knowledge about consciousness and how the mind works.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on March 18, 2000
Recent trends of neurology being close to spirituality as reflected in the works of Sir Charles Sherrington, Gray Walter and others finds a new perspective in this book. Ramachandran has hinted at this closeness at various places of his book and gives a clue that the day is not far when many spiritual problems of man can be found to have a deep relation with his neurological constitution.
Its refreshing to see a new light thrown on this subject. Ramachandran joins class with very few who endeavoured to join this quest. This book is a must for all who want to probe into the deeper truths of life.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on March 23, 2002
One way of studying the brain is to destroy parts of it in laboratory animals, and see how performance is affected. Obviously we cannot conduct similar experiments on humans. We can, however, learn a lot about human brain function by studying the behavior of people who have suffered brain damage through trauma or disease.
Dr. Ramachandran spends his time studying such patients. His book, Phantoms In The Brain, is filled with case studies from his experiences. A significant section of the book discusses the problems of patients with phantom limb syndrome. Why does the brain continue to think an amputated limb is still present? When a patient's brain reacts as if an amputated hand is in a continually clenched position, causing much pain, how can the brain be fooled into unclenching the hand? Why does shaving sometimes feel like your amputated arm is being stimulated?
Damage to various brain centers creates an amazing number of strange maladies. Damage to a visual area can cause "blindsight', where the patient cannot see an object, but can point out where it is. And, yes, what about the limbic system? Damage to certain areas in this system can cause various religious experiences. Then there's anosognosia. A stroke may leave one whole side of a patient paralyzed, yet the patient thinks that there is nothing wrong with him.
This book is the perfect adjunct to reading a basic book on brain function. That's not necessary, though, as it is totally accessible to the layman, and should keep the reader spellbound. Such works also impress upon me that the brain is the mind. Damage to that vital organ can change who we are.