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Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind Paperback – Illustrated, August 18, 1999
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"This is a splendid book." -- Dr. Francis Crick, Nobel Laureate
About the Author
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.
- Item Weight : 15.4 ounces
- Paperback : 354 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0688172172
- ISBN-13 : 978-0688172176
- Dimensions : 5.91 x 0.89 x 9.25 inches
- Publisher : William Morrow Paperbacks (August 18, 1999)
- Language: : English
- Best Sellers Rank: #51,718 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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Very detailed but fairly easy to understand. I had no idea the sense of feeling was so complicated and so many pathways existed to determine touch etc.
The examples provided help you understand how this works as well as well as pointing out there may be duplicate sensory areas mimicking the pain. I’m some of the exercises listed, the author demonstrates how you can rewire your brains perception and recognize what is really going on.
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.
Top reviews from other countries
Consciousness: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
Ramachandran seems to be in the same circles as Oliver Sacks and the book very much reads like a more in-depth version of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, almost a follow up to it, perhaps with a bit less sensationalism, depending on your take of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat
It jumped straight into a full on explanation of phantom limbs and his experience of the whole strange topic. Although I at first felt like this was more than I ever wanted to know about phantom limbs there were some amazingly simple 'cures' for a phantom arm for example, that sounded like they should have been discovered two hundred years ago, yet were from the late 80s. He talked about patients suffering from a phantom lower arm where their hand was permanently stuck in a clenched fist position, so much so that the phantom muscles in their phantom arm ache chronically and the phantom finger-nails in the phantom fingers dig into their phantom palm causing excruciating, incurable pain.
One way he found of relieving this pain was to construct a simple black box with two holes on the front and a removable lid. The patient inserts their two arms, both fists clenched, into the box (one arm is a phantom) then upon removing the lid of the box the patient actually sees two reel fists in the box via a mirror in the middle of the box, reflecting the real arm in the position of the phantom. When ready, the patient un-clenches both fists and for the first time (via their own visual feedback system) is able to feel the relief of the phantom hand relaxing and un-clenching.
This hasn't turned out to be a cure for phantom limbs but more of a hint to their nature and whereabouts in the brain and within the human condition. Ramamchandran lightheartedly mentions how patients have been dispatched with magic black boxes of their own to work with for 20 minutes a day to relieve the discomfort of a phantom limb.
The main reason I wanted to read the book was for its insights into our consciousness and our ideas of self. This was touched on quite a bit in the first chapter in relation to perfectly sane people feeling like they can reach out and pick up an object within arms length, even though they are completely aware of having no arms. There were interesting points raised about our visual feedback system and how easy it is to distort our image of our physical self by closing our eyes and engaging in simple exercises.
The more interesting points were mentioned in what I felt was the best chapter called 'The Unbearable likeness of Being'. It was centred around a case of Capgras' delusion where the patient insisted that his parents were in fact impostors that looked just like them but lacked the particular 'isms' of his real parents. There were extra twists where the patient would accept them as his own parents whilst talking to them over the phone, but not face to face. Through this case and Ramachandra's experiments with the patient all kinds of links between our various sensory input systems were uncovered and illustrated in their use in making sense of the world around us (when not suffering from a neurological disorder).
Throughout the book Ramachandran laid down interesting ideas about how we construct our own reality and how we rely on particular functions to do so (using interesting examples of how we fill in our blind spot because we can't function with holes throughout every scene we look at "it's clear that the mind, like nature, abhors a vacuum and will apparently supply whatever information is required to complete the scene").
Although not as focused on consciousness as I might have liked Phantoms in the Brain is a good read, has given me new ideas and understandings and I will be recommending it to my Oliver Sacks fan friends.
I think my favourite quote from the book is
"Most organisms evolve to become more and more specialized as they take up new environmental niches, be it a longer neck for the giraffe or sonar for the bat. Humans, on the other hand, have evolved an organ, a brain, that gives us the capacity to evade specialization. We can colonize the Arctic without evolving a fur coat over millions of years like the polar bear because can go kill one, take its coat and drape it on ourselves. And then we can give it to our children and grand children."
As the title of this review implies, having read Oliver Sach's books too, I found this book much more enjoyable to read.