Ramachandran: Phantoms in the Brain

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V.S. Ramachandran, and Sandra Blakeslee, Phantoms in the Brain : Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind. New York : William Morrow, 1998. xix + 328 pages; illustrated; includes bibliographical references and index.

If you had visited our house on Monday, you would have seen my mom and I, standing a good distance apart staring at each other with one eye closed and the other one moving around. You would have heard our intermittent laughter, along with "Ok, we have to be serious," and finally you would have heard some shrieking along with "It worked! That was so creepy! Let’s do it again!" Why? Well, because I’d been reading Phantoms of the Brain by V.S. Ramachandran and Sandra Blakeslee and came across this passage:

First, you can decapitate your friends and enemies, using your natural blind spot. Standing about ten feet away from the other person, close your right eye and look at his head with your left eye. Now, slowly start moving your left eye horizontally toward the right, away from the person’s head, until your blind spot falls directly on his head. At this critical distance, his head should disappear.

I’m here to tell you, it is very disturbing to suddenly see someone without their head!!! I highly encourage you to do this at home--just measure out the ten feet, because otherwise it won’t work.

So, Phantoms in the Brain is about neuroscience, and all of the weird things our brains get up to. It’s a combination of general knowledge of the brain, stories about individual patients, and Ramachandran’s scientific speculation. The chapters are pretty much self-contained, and have clever titles like "The Zombie in the Brain" and "The Sound of One Hand Clapping." They all deal with "medical mysteries" doctors have been confronted with throughout the past couple of centuries.

There was a lot that I really enjoyed about Phantoms. Ramachandran takes a lot of delight in being a scientist, and that comes through in the book. He provides a lot of experiments you can try out at home (obviously), and he discusses how he came up with simple experiments to test complex hypotheses. He’s not afraid to go out on a limb either, for, as he says:

I’d also like to say a word about speculation, a term that has acquired a pejorative connotation among some scientists. Describing someone’s idea as "mere speculation" is often considered insulting. This is unfortunate. As the English biologist Peter Medawar has noted, "An imaginative conception of what might be true is the starting point of all great discoveries in science." ... Several of the findings you are going to read about began as hunches and were later confirmed by other groups (the chapters on phantom limbs, neglect syndrome, blindsight and Capgras’ syndrome). Other chapters describe work at an earlier stage, much of which is frankly speculative (the chapter on denial and temporal lobe epilepsy). Indeed, I will take you at times to the very limits of scientific inquiry. I strongly believe, however, that it is always the writer’s responsibility to spell out clearly when he is speculating and when his conclusions are clearly warranted by his observations.

I enjoyed reading the speculations, because it was fun to see how a doctor-scientist’s brain worked.

I also liked the emphasis on case studies; although many of them are from literature vs. Ramachandran’s personal experience, I still found them to be humanizing. And when Ramachandran is discussing his own patients, there is always a tenderness and respect there, which I very much appreciate. He sees stroke victims who deny their own paralysis, and while he obviously finds this fascinating for medical reasons, he never makes them sound cartoonish or takes cheap shots at their expense. There’s always an awareness that what is for him a scientific mystery is for the patient a personal tragedy.

All of that being said, Ramachandran is not Oliver Sacks, and I wouldn’t say Phantoms in the Brain is perfect. Some of it felt almost uncomfortably derivative, from a few of the cutesy chapter names ("Do Martians See Red?") to the writing within. Occasionally, it felt a bit too precocious, a kind of "look at me-aren’t I clever?" tone to the text that alienated me. And the writing style is nothing to write home about.

More seriously, when Ramachandran veers towards more philosophical territory, the book feels clunky and dull. I’m not sure if this is because he has less of a background in philosophy than science, or that I was once a philosophy geek, but I found myself rolling my eyes at certain passages, and the whole last chapter rather pained me.

This is definitely a fun and interesting book, and I think it will appeal to many laymen (like myself) simply because it talks about our brains and gives many demonstrations we can try out ourselves. I enjoyed reading it. But it doesn’t even come close to Sacks’ books, in either writing style or the depth and richness of ideas. It must be frustrating to be writing in a field that inevitably invites comparisons to Sacks, so I feel for Ramachandran. I recommend his book, but if you’re only going to read one book about the brain, I have to say Oliver Sacks would be the way to go.

-- Notes by EVA

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