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The Tell-Tale BrainReview - The Tell-Tale Brain
A Neuroscientist's Quest for What Makes Us Human
by V. S. Ramachandran
W. W. Norton, 2011
Review by Chris Vaughan
Jul 26th 2011 (Volume 15, Issue 30)

Anyone familiar with Ramchandran's earlier book Phantoms in the Brain will recognize his wide ranging style. He takes neuroscience out of its box and demonstrates its relevance to all our lives in an accessible and familiar way. Because of his lively curiosity and his Renaissance approach to his subject what he has to say bears fruit across many disciplines not just in brain science and medicine but in art, linguistics, religious studies, anthropology,  psychology and more.

However, Phantoms was published thirteen years ago and the study of the human brain has yielded further important discoveries. 1998, the year Phantoms was published, was the year Rizzolatti and his colleagues isolated mirror neurons in macaque monkeys at the University of Parma.  This discovery has had a profound effect on Ramachandran. "When I heard Rizzolatti deliver this news during a lecture one day, I nearly jumped off my seat," he tells us.

There is hardly an area of brain research which concerns the author in which mirror neurons do not feature. They have a vital role to play in metaphor and language formation. He shows how knowing about the existence of mirror neurons and their bonding, reciprocal function has given him insight into dealing with phantom limb syndrome. An amputee had his "phantom" cramp relieved watching a volunteer massaging her hand and feeling his own phantom hand was being massaged.

Ramachandran cites various reasons why mirror neurons exist in humans on a more complex and far reaching scale than they do in monkeys. As far as he is concerned, they appear to be at the centre of our self-understanding, not just as individuals but also as a species and a reason why, as a species, we have managed to short circuit the evolutionary process. It is through imitation and cultural inheritance that humanity has acquired advanced traits which would have taken millions of years to acquire through the normal evolutionary process.

"I suggest that there was indeed a genetic change in the brain, but ironically the change freed us from genetics by enhancing our ability to learn from one another…After 6 billion years of evolution, culture finally took off, and with culture the seeds of civilization were sown…Increased sophistication of a single mechanism -- such as imitation and intention reading -- could explain the huge behavioral gap between us and the apes." P133/4

Ramachandran makes no apologies for this sort of macro reasoning and his constant reaching out for big ideas. He does point out that many of the chapters in the book rest on solid foundations such as his work on phantom limbs, visual perception, synesthesia, and the Capras delusion. But he has let educated guesswork and intuition steer his thinking wherever solid empirical data are spotty. "Every virgin area of scientific enquiry must first be explored in this way", he declares. pxvii

But explaining that huge behavioral gap between us and the apes is no easy task and must of necessity, given our state of knowledge, be highly speculative because, as the author points out, when we seek to explain how our unique human abilities came into existence at the anatomical level, every part of our brain has a direct analog in the brains of the great apes.

Even so there is a part of the brain that is seven times the size of the same area in chimpanzees --Wernicke's area situated in the upper left part of the temporal lobe and so safely unique to our own species, its job being the comprehension of meaning and the semantic aspects of language.

But language alone doesn't make us human. Damage to the prefrontal cortext can leave language, memory and IQ unaffected and yet patients can lose equally valuable human attributes -- ambition, empathy, foresight, a complex personality, a sense of morality and a sense of dignity as a human being. But how such a relatively small patch of the brain manages to orchestrate such a sophisticated and elusive suite of functions, we are still very much at a loss.

Perhaps a better title for this book would be E.M.Forster's phrase "only connect". Besides exploring the way we connect with our fellow human beings this book is concerned with all the other connections that make us uniquely and triumphantly human. The connections between the various areas in our brains and within and between the different neural pathways; the way the brain makes connections between the past present and the future and between the different realms of human activity . And also the connection Ramachandran makes from the behavioral clues patients with brain damage yield to what is going on in the interior recesses of our own undamaged brains.

A blind patient is asked by his doctor to touch a spot of light on the wall. After protesting that he can't see it, the patient makes what feels like a wild guess. He is right and in further trials he succeeds time and time again -- even though he cannot see the spot.  This "blindsight" phenomenon shows a neural mechanism is at work and that even sight is subject to unconscious brain processes.

A patient in a coma seems not to recognize his family or comprehend speech. But if his father calls him from a telephone in the next room, the patient becomes suddenly alert, recognizing his father and engaging him in conversation. When his father re-enters the room, the patient lapses back into his semiconscious "zombie" state. This splitting of the self is strong evidence that consciousness isn't unitary, but rather arises from multiple layers of neural processes.

One of the beauties of this book Is the way it highlights what we may, through familiarity, regard as just routine mental processes .  He demonstrates in the context of evolution and in relation to our simian cousins -- we perform mental tasks that are almost godlike. Everyday processes such as the use of metaphor, the handling of number, the linguistic acts of even the most inarticulate and our ability to anticipate the feelings and actions of others are phenomena to be wondered at .

Because of his own pioneering experimental work, his wide reading and his ability to make connections and generate patterns, the book takes the reader into many of the hot topics around perception, linguistics, evolutionary studies, theories of the self, aesthetics and philosophy, as well as suggesting ways forward in the treatment of depression, autism and panic attacks, if we can isolate and repair the damaged circuitry he thinks could be at the root of these disorders.

At all times Ramachandran is at pains to point out what we know and what we don't know, what is hard evidence and what is reasonable speculation. What he brings to the all the debates is an eye for what kind of experiment will warrant the claims made many familiar areas of academic discourse.  For instance, in discussing the claims made in the field of aesthetics, which at root is about perception and how the brain assembles data,  he says,  " Every act of discovery involves two critical steps: first, unambiguously stating your conjecture  of what might be true, and second devising a crucial experiment to treat your conjecture. Most theoretical approaches to aesthetics in the past have been concerned with step 1 but not step 2. Indeed, the theories are usually not stated in a manner that permits either confirmation or refutation". (P215)

It is not easy to do justice to such a rich and wide-ranging book in a short review but it is worth saying that whilst acting as a guide around the frontiers of his discipline, Ramachandran at all times treats us as equal partners. The brain with its formidable Graeco-Roman nomenclature all at once seems a friendly place to spend some time getting to know.   The author is no reductionist but still for him neuroscience and neurology provide us with a new and unique opportunity to understand the structure and function of the self, not only from the outside by observing behavior, but also from studying the inner workings of the brain.  If successful, it will be the first time that a species has looked back on itself and not only understood its own origins but also figured out what or who is the conscious agent doing the understanding. Surely, says Ramachandran, it is the greatest adventure humankind has ever embarked on. (P288)

 

© 2011 Chris Vaughan

 

Chris Vaughan writes about himself: I live in Birmingham, England. I am now retired after a career in the pharma industry and am very much involved in community activities. I am a board member of the Birmingham Environmental Partnership and chair a local patient network. I have written a book on the British Health Service and I currently write for a health website. I am very interested in the mind-body.


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