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Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind Paperback – August 18, 1999
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Enthralling . . . eloquent. -- -- The New York Times Book Review
"This is a splendid book." -- Dr. Francis Crick, Nobel Laureate
About the Author
V. S. Ramachandran, M.D., Ph.D., is professor and director of the Center for Brain and Cognition, University of California, San Diego, and is adjunct professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, La Jolla, California. One of the world's foremost brain researchers, he has received many scientific honors, including a gold medal from the Australian National University and a fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford. He gave the "Decade of the Brain" lecture at the Silver Jubilee meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, and his work has been featured in major media. He lives with his family in Del Mar, California.
Sandra Blakeslee is an award-winning science writer for The New York Times. For the last ten years, her reporting specialty has been neuroscience. She is the coauthor, with Judith Wallerstein, Ph.D., of two books: the national bestseller Second Chances and The Good Marriage. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
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A One bite at a time.
Q How do you explain a system that is complex, convoluted and adaptive.
A Test small bites of stimulus and reaction to confirm or contradict your hypothesis.
Ramachandran and Blakeslee created this delightful book using humor, logic and simple tests to illuminate how the brain works and doesn't work. Readers are even invited to run their own test at home to confirm Rama's (his term) conclusions.
Why does an amputee deny her left arm is missing or her paralyzed arm belongs to her brother?
Such examples offer fertile areas to explore to find what specific brain cells seem related to such behavior.
Could we alter the perception of a missing arm using mirrors? The answer is "yes" and by doing so we learn a little more about our brain's adaptivity.
So what's going on when a person can square a fifteen digit number as fast as he can say the answer?
While these small bites offer small answers, many such bites shed light on big answers.
While I want to learn more about the brain, I suspect whatever book I select will be way too technical so I will just reread PITB again.
It's that good.
Many of Ramachandran's breakthrough theories though are based on his treatment of individuals who suffered from phantom pain after an amputation. In the course of probing this puzzling phenomenon, Ramachandran hit upon some ideas that have far-reaching implications. Studying this phenomenon allowed him to advance new theories about the way stimuli are received and mapped in the brain.
When a leg is amputated, the area of the brain that would normally register sense impressions from it is left without any incoming stimuli. That part of the brain sits expectant and hungry for some incoming messages. Neural connections in adjacent areas of the brain then sometimes expand, filling in the information vacuum. Those adjacent areas are ordinarily dedicated to registering sensation from unrelated parts of the body, such as the face. So when anyone touches the amputee's face, that sensation might be amplified and experienced as severe pain in a leg that is no longer there.
Ramachandran believes that this tendency of the brain to adapt and "fill-in" might be at the root of many neural dysfunctions. When a person loses his sight in a part of his visual field, surrounding neurons might elaborate and reach in to fill the void. When a person loses some aspect of neuronal processing that has to do with body image, other neurons from areas of adjacent functioning might reach in to offer sensation input. The borrowed processing mechanism doesn't always fit its functioning into a "normal," coherent sense of the world though. The result can be strange distortions of perception.
These ideas might explain all sorts of human folly - such as fetishes. Specifically, Ramachandran suggests that foot fetishes might arise because the sensation processing areas devoted to the feet and to the genitals typically lie adjacent to each other in the brain. Similarly, various kinds of body dysmorphic disorders, such as anorexia, might be traced to such take-overs.
This book was written in 1998. Ramachandran suggested many experiments that could be made to test his theories. I wonder how many have been done in the interim? I'm eager to check out any of his more recent writings to get updates on some of these questions.
He writes in an accessible style. What's more, he suggests a number of very simple, non-invasive techniques that people might experiment with to relieve themselves or family members of dangerous delusions. For example, he suggests spritzing cold water into the left ear of anorexics; he suggests using mirrors to help "neglect" patients recover an awareness of both sides of their body and of their environment.
The 35 pages of small-print footnotes at the end of the book might appear to be a chore that you'd be inclined to skip. But they serve as a good summary of the main text, and also contain many fascinating suggestions for further experiments that could either confirm or disprove the important ideas in this book.
Overall, this book is a real brain-teaser.
I gave 4 instead of 5 stars because the last few chapters do not make their case as clearly or strongly as the rest of the book does. In addition, even though the author touches on the subject of spirituality, god, consciousness, and its probably connections to the brain structure and experience, he does not mention anything about simple practices such as meditation and deep breathing and its influence on the brain. I did not expect these to be covered in the book but since the author ventured out of what I did expect and towards this field, it would have been good to see something mentioned to this effect.