- Hardcover: 208 pages
- Publisher: Pi Press (July 23, 2004)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0131486861
- ISBN-13: 978-0131486867
- Product Dimensions: 5.7 x 0.8 x 8.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 12.3 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 70 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #856,076 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness: From Impostor Poodles to Purple Numbers
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From Publishers Weekly
What does an amputee who still feels a phantom limb have in common with an avant-garde artist, or a schizophrenic who claims to be controlled by alien implants, or an autistic child who can draw a hyper-realistic horse? According to neuroscientist Ramachandran (coauthor, Phantoms in the Brain), named by Newsweek one of the 100 people to watch in the 21st century, the answer lies deep in the physical structures of the brain, and his new book offers a thought-provoking survey of his area of research. Through examples, anecdotes and conjecture, Ramachandran aims "to make neuroscience... more accessible to a broad audience." In this he succeeds admirably, explaining how the roots of both psychological disorders and aesthetic accomplishment can be located in the various regions of the brain and the connections (or lack thereof) between them. The text is engaging and readable , feeling as though Ramachandran had sat down for an afternoon to explain his research over tea (no surprise, as the book grew out of the author's 2003 BBC Reith lectures). Though the topic of neuroscience might initially seem daunting, readers who enjoy science popularization in the vein of Oliver Sacks, Richard Dawkins (both of whom enthusiastically blurb this book) and Stephen Jay Gould will find much to appreciate here.
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From Scientific American
Patient X declares that his mother is an impostor. The diagnosis? Freud might say the patient has a troubled Oedipus complex. But the same patient thinks his poodle is a fraud, too. Ramachandran offers a more rigorous neurological explanation in A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness. Examining the cause for patient Xs behavior is just one stop on the writers journey through the neural pathways of the brain. As the tour guide, Ramachandran, a neuroscientist at the University of California at San Diego, leads readers through a collection of his experiments and theories, championing the idea that charting the brain on a neurological level will provide us with a robust understanding of everything from politics to love. Case studies of patients with obscure syndromes help the author solve the brainmind puzzle piece by piece. In the case of patient X, communication between regions responsible for visual recognition and the production of emotional responses has been impaired. Because the patient recognizes his mothers face but feels no corresponding emotion, he deduces that she is simply a look-alike. Parts of the book are fascinating and accessible, especially Ramachandrans work with phantom limbs and synesthesiain which patients seem to transpose the processing of senses, such as sensing the note "middle C" as the color green. Ramachandran presents a convincing argument relating the syndrome to the enhancement of an ability we all possess: drawing connections between objects and events. In a noticeable departure from the empirical explanations of the early sections, Ramachandran later explores possible psychological underpinnings for the evolution of human language and a universal definition of art. The final chapter, an abstract, philosophical foray into free will and the human sense of self, is even more speculative. At times a captivating presentation of facts and anecdotes and at other times an assortment of theories, the book is more of a tour of Ramachandrans opinions and experiences than the concise introduction one expects from the title. In the end, the book succeeds in delivering an entertaining and thought-provoking look at how and why we should think about thought.
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I think Ramachandran is the most brilliant, creative Neuroscientist alive. Sure, he is very popular science writer. But if you aren't paying attention (e.g., some of the other Amazon reviewers), you might not see that he is to our field what Mozart, Picasso, and Einstein were to theirs.
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. He brings "rasa"; spirit; passion to the study of the brain. 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 (see other reviews). But the enthusiasm is understandable. And the book, like his earlier "Phantoms in the Brain" is wonderful.
Ramachandran has published a virtually identical book in the Great Britain under the title, "The Emerging Mind: The BBC Reith Lectures 2003." For some reason, the publishers of the American text chose not to emphasize the link to the BBC Reith Lectures. But in fact, the five Reith Lectures were presented, in edited form, on BBC radio. And more to the point, these radio broadcasts can be heard online for free at the BBC website ([...] The website contains a variety of demonstrations, as well as free transcripts of the lectures. One's enjoyment of the book can be enhanced considerably by listening to these five Rieth lectures. The five lectures correspond closely to the five chapters of the book, although they are not identical. The lectures, like the book, are highly entertaining.
My favorite chapter was the fifth chapter, "Neuroscience - The New Philosophy." The central theme is the idea that the study of patients with neurological disorders has implications far beyond the confines of medical neurology. In particular, the chapter takes up the challenge of various forms of mental illness. As Ramachandran points out, "there have traditionally been two broad and different approaches to mental illness. The first one tries to identify the chemical imbalances, changes in transmitters and receptors in the brain, and attempts to correct these changes using drugs. This approach has revolutionized psychiatry and has been phenomenally successful. Patients who used to be put in straitjackets or locked up can now lead relatively normal lives. The second approach we can loosely characterize as the psychotherapeutic approach. It often assumes that most mental illness arises from early upbringing." Ramachandran presents a third approach that is different from either of these, but which, in a sense complements them both. He attempts to explain some symptoms of mental illness in terms of what is known about function, anatomy and neural structures of the brain. He suggests that many of these symptoms and disorders seem less bizarre when viewed from an evolutionary standpoint, that is from a Darwinian perspective. He proposes to give this discipline a new name - evolutionary neuropsychology.
Also, don't miss the preface. The blunt humor may be too subtle for some people, but I loved it.
How could someone have sensations in a limb that is no longer there? My book choice, A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness explains this and other puzzling aspects of the human experience. Written by V.S. Ramachandran, M.D., Ph.D., this book explores how human cognition is linked to the structural and electrical components of the nervous system; particularly he discusses how certain cognitive processes are uniquely human and what can happen when these systems go wrong. It is hard to be critical of this book because I believe it serves its purpose very well. My only complaint is that this book does not explain in depth the neuroscience and anatomy, which allows for such complex function explained by Ramachandran; this said, A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness explains these processes very superficially to allow readers to understand the concept without having to wade through a neuro-anatomy text. I would give this book 4.5 stars out of 5, for overall content and readability.
Ramachandran is currently a professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of California, San Diego. He has authored other books as well, such as Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind, The Encyclopedia of the Human Brain, The Emerging Mind, and most recently, The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human. He has also has published over one hundred eighty research papers on topics ranging from synesthesia to phantom limb syndrome, and is respected as an authority in the field of neuroscience. From this background, Ramachandran provides a unique perspective on human consciousness.
Ramachandran’s goal with this book is to show how the structure of the brain leads to different aspects of human cognition and how we can learn about normal brain function by looking at diseases that affect cognition. He accomplishes this by explaining the symptoms of the disease and how these differ from “normal” consciousness; He then explains why these symptoms arise due to their location or wiring in the brain. Topics covered include Synesthesia, phantom limb syndrome, blind sight, Capgras delusion, pain syndromes, asymbolia, neglect syndrome, and many more. He also discusses a theory of how language came about and why we use it, how humans understand metaphors, as well as why humans of all cultural backgrounds enjoy art. These subjects were in part based on Ramachandran’s research that gives the reader the perspective of a neuroscientist studying these instead of just an author reiterating the work of another. His explanation of how phantom limb syndrome comes about is particularly interesting because he was on the forefront of research in this syndrome. He explains how the surrounding nerves start to innervate the tissue that has lost sensation do to amputation and gives examples from his patients to provide first hand accounts of the disorder. For covering such broad and sophisticated topics, this book is written in layman’s terms and this makes it possible for people without Ph.D.’s in neuroscience to understand his research.
One particularly interesting topic that Ramachandran covers is synesthesia. This disorder involves the crossing of information from different sensory inputs to give the patient, what most people would consider, a rather strange experience. This very complex disorder involves several areas of the brain that process numbers, colors, and specific musical tones among others. Ramachandran finds a way to explain these complicated topics without confusing the reader.
“Hearing a particular musical note might invoke a particular color… Visually perceived numbers can produce a similar effect. Looking at brain atlases – specifically at the fusiform gyrus, where color information is analyzed… the number area of the brain is also in the fusiform gyrus, almost touching the color area. Synesthesia is caused by cross wiring between the number and color areas in the fusiform gyrus due to a genetic abnormality”
Evidenced by this excerpt and the diagram that accompanies it in the book, he uses easy to understand language to accomplish his goal of explaining neuroscience topics to the average reader, while still telling the reader basically how this disease creates its curious symptoms. You do not need to be an expert in his field to understand how this and other disorders work, because of the way Ramachandran words the explanations.
All together, this book would be comfortable on a shelf next to any neuroscience or cognitive psychology textbook and is an easy read for those looking to learn more about how the human brain experiences the world around us. It gives clear descriptions of how “normal” and disordered patients see the world differently and gives great first hand accounts of some very interesting topics in modern neuroscience. Overall I would highly recommend this book to neuroscience students wanting to learn past the topics of our class or someone that is interested, but does not have a neuroscience background; this could be very beneficial for both.