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A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness: From Impostor Poodles to Purple Numbers [Paperback]

V. S. Ramachandran M. D.
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)

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Book Description

26 July 2005
Five investigations of the greatest mysteries of the brain. The first chapter shows how amputees feel pain in limbs they no longer have as it introduces the great revolution of our age- neuroscience. The second chapter walks through how what we see determines our thoughts, and demonstrates the counterintuitive point that believing is in fact seeing. The third chapter takes a leap beyond cutting-edge science to audaciously set out a general theory of beauty, explaining why, the world over, cultures have fundamentally similar notions of what is attractive. The fourth chapter explores the bizarre world of synesthetes, people who see colors in numbers, textures in smells, sounds in sights, and flavors in sounds. Finally, Ramachandran, one of the foremost brain researchers in the world today, sums up the implications of the revolution in our understanding of consciousness to make a fascinating argument about our essential sense of self.


Product details

  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Pi Press; 1 edition (26 July 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0131872788
  • ISBN-13: 978-0131872783
  • Product Dimensions: 20.8 x 13.7 x 1.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 691,634 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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From the Back Cover

" Vintage Ramachandran, packed with ideas that are bold, irreverent, original, and ingenious. People who have never thought much about the brain will be intrigued, but so will those who, like me, have spent most of their lives thinking about the brain. It is truly a breath of fresh air."

–David Hubel, Nobel Laureate, Harvard University, author of Eye, Brain, and Vision

" An extraordinary book by a remarkable scientist! Ramachandran is in many ways the modern Paul Broca, the great French neurologist who opened up the biological analysis of higher mental functions by studying patients with brain lesions. In a similar vein Ramachandran has used the study of patients to elucidate a range of fascinating mental functions. His insights have stimulated discussions in neuroscience over the last 25 years. Here is Ramachandran at his best; his most lucid and creative."

–Eric R. Kandel, M.D., Nobel Laureate, Columbia University

" Ramachandran is a latter-day Marco Polo, journeying the silk road of science to strange and exotic Cathays of the mind. He returns laden with phenomenological treasures...which, in his subtle and expert telling, yield more satisfying riches of scientific understanding."

–Richard Dawkins, Oxford University, author of The Blind Watchmaker

" An unusually clever neuroscientist explains baffling cases in neurology and neuropsychiatry and concludes that brain science can now resolve many of the age-old quanderies of philosophers. A thought-provoking, wonderful read."

–Roger Guillemin, Nobel Laureate, The Salk Institute

" Today we're going through a revolution in neuroscience. The tidal wave of new research can be overwhelming, but V. S. Ramachandran, drawing on his own pioneering work on patients, succeeds in creating a witty, elegant introduction to the mysteries and revelations to be found within our skulls."

–Carl Zimmer, author of Soul Made Flesh

"V. S. Ramachandran is one of our most gifted physicians and expositors, and in this new book he illuminates everything he touches—whether it is phantom limbs and how they can be 'cured'; or how the brain can generate illusions and delusions; or synesthesia and its relation to metaphor, creativity, and art; or the ultimate questions of how brain relates to mind.A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness belongs to that rare category of scientific book, one as accessible as it is deep."

Oliver Sacks, M.D.

How can some people come to believe that their poodle is an impostor? Or see colors in numbers? Internationally acclaimed neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran now shares his unique insight into human consciousness in an entertaining, inspiring, and intellectually dazzling brief tour of the ultimate frontier—the thoughts in our heads.

A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness is made up of five investigations of the greatest mysteries of the brain. The first chapter shows how amputees feel pain in limbs they no longer have as it introduces the great revolution of our age: neuroscience. The second chapter walks through how what we see determines our thoughts, and demonstrates the counterintuitive point that believing is in fact seeing. The third chapter takes a leap beyond cutting edge science to audaciously set out a general theory of beauty, explaining why, the world over, cultures have fundamentally similar notions of what is attractive. The fourth chapter explores the bizarre world of synesthetes, people who see colors in numbers, textures in smells, sounds in sights, and flavors in sounds. Finally, V. S. Ramachandran, one of the foremost neuroscientists in the world today, sums up the implications of the revolution in our understanding of consciousness to make a fascinating argument about our essential sense of self and its distributed nature.

Take a tour with the perfect guide to one of the strangest places in the natural world, the human mind.

V. S. Ramachandran, M.D., Ph.D., is Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition and Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of California, San Diego, and Adjunct Professor of Biology at The Salk Institute. He has received many honors and awards including the Presidential Lecture Award from the American Academy of Neurology and the Ramon y Cajal Award from the International Neuropsychiatry Society.

He gave the inaugural keynote lecture at the Decade of the Brain conference held by the National Institute of Mental Health at the Library of Congress. His critically acclaimed Phantoms in the Brain has been translated into eight languages. Newsweek has named him a member of "The Century Club"—one of the hundred most prominent people to watch in the twenty-first century.

He lives in Del Mar, California.


© Copyright Pearson Education. All rights reserved.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

About the Author

V.S. Ramachandran is Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition and professor with the Psychology Department and the Neurosciences Program at the UC San Diego, and Adjunct Professor of Biology at the Salk Institute. He is also a fellow of the Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla and a fellow of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Behavioral Sciences at Stanford. V.S. has published over 120 papers in scientific journals (including three invited review articles in Scientific American), is Editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedia of Human Behaviour and author of the critically acclaimed book Phantoms in the Brain that has been translated into eight languages.

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The history of mankind in the last three hundred years has been punctuated by major upheavals in human thought that we call scientific revolutions - upheavals that have profoundly affected the way in which we view ourselves and our place in the cosmos. Read the first page
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Customer Reviews

3.8 out of 5 stars
3.8 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Amusing but unconvincing 4 Oct 2005
By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
An interesting if sometimes unconstrained guide through the author's reflections on the discoveries of neuroscience. Ramachandrin's writing is amusing - his frequent jibes at George W in particular - and easily accessible to readers with little or no scientific knowledge.
The problem is that this book is, at times, plain unscientific. In considering the origins of human language (a little of course you may argue in a book by a neuroscientist about human cosnciousness) he asserts that word forms are directly related to the brain's architecture. For example, he argues that the expression 'teeny weeny' may derive from the mouth mimicking the hand actions involved in indicating that an object is small. He offers no evidence whatever for this, yet considers his 'discovery' important enough to give the mechanism behind it a name. Which he does. He tries to pull off a similar trick in linking syntax to the stages of primitive tool making - a theory for which he also provides no evidence. (Incidentally - 'weeny' comes from 'wee', which originates from the Old English 'wege', which was a unit of weight).
'A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness' is not without merit, but the whole thing reads like a celebration of the author's brilliant mind (he quotes himself at the head of a chapter and declares groundbreaking discoveries on every fourth page) rather than a serious attempt to explain consciousness. Readers seeking scientifically founded and suported answers to the question of human consciousness would probably do well to look elsewhere.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Cross-wired for consciousness? 12 Mar 2006
By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME
Format:Paperback
The mysterious world of the mind is being revealed slowly through careful research. A major stumbling block to more rapid progress is that it takes "abnormal" conditions to understand the normal ones. People with aberrant mental or physical traits must be identified, tested and diagnosed with care and insight. V.S. Ramachandran's many years of study of people with unusual perception or behaviour patterns are the support for some of the theories of mind advanced here. Presented as a series of lectures, each topic demonstrates what happens when certain areas in the brain are either disconnected, or connected too well.
The notion of the "modular" brain resulted from the discoveries of Broca's and Wernicke's areas over a century ago. There are areas for vision, speech, colour, along with a "regional map" of the entire body. Brain "mapping" through surgery or scanning devices revealed various zones in the brain showing activation in particular circumstances. For some time many of these zones were considered independent of one another. More recent work indicates two unexpected phenomena - the brain "re-maps" and specialised regions may merge functions. People who have lost limbs or suffered strokes have unexpected experiences - feeling "lost limbs" or declaring loved ones "impostors". "Re-mapping" allows different areas in the body to act as sensory substitutes for lost limbs. Amputated fingers may seen react to touches on the face, for example. In some cases, such areas as colour perception and text recognition have become "cross-wired" somehow, resulting in people associating particular numbers with colours. the author proposes this is due to these regions exchanging signals that are normally kept separate.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Exraordinary scope - unless you miss the point 7 July 2007
By No Guru
Format:Hardcover
In attempting to cover so much ground, V S Ramachandran obviously runs the risk of offending those who consider themselves experts in a particular field and leaves himself open to sniping. Yet, it would be ridiculous to limit the scope of a book that explores the structure behind our perception of reality simply because it necessarily trespasses into so many fields of academic study. As mentioned elsewhere, there are copious notes available to add detail to the process by which Ramachandran has arrived at his conclusions.

One point of interest, among the many in the book, refers to the development of words and phrases in relation to what they describe. In such a case, the etymology behind an expression, such as 'teeny weeny', is largely irrelevant. If we imagine that there would be hundreds, if not thousands, of expressions that could have been adopted to convey a sense of smallness, what is of interest is why a word like 'weeny' would gain widespread usage. Why was it transformed from 'wege' to 'wee' to 'weeny'? What is it about that 'ee'/'y' sound that seems to signify smallness so naturally that repeating it increases the effect? The expression 'teeny weeny' is now much longer than the word from which it originated and yet each of the four repetitions of the sound seems to refine and reduce the size of that which is being described.

This seems to be a feature of so many different languages that it may indicate an important pattern in how the mind prefers to associate words with things, and Ramachandran explores this and much more with wit, insight and a breathtaking command of of all the resources currently available. I recommend this book unreservedly for anyone with an enquiring mind.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
By mrtat
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
this book was an interesting look at the subject matter of human consciousness. it takes the reader through various proposed models of the structure and organisation of human thought. it shows how scientific thinking on the subject is often driven by the insights gained from the study of abnormal and damaged brains as opposed to the systematic study of everyday consciousness.
the book is a little too brief and light for my liking.
ramachandran could have taken more time to treat his own ideas in more detail and, in my opinion, should have laid out the current accepted theories in a more structured and formal way.
enjoyable and stimulating as an introduction to the subject matter but, ultimately, disappointing.
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Amazon.com: 4.1 out of 5 stars  62 reviews
101 of 102 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars fascinating intro to recent neuroscience of consciousness 25 May 2005
By James J. Lippard - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I attended the 2005 Skeptics Society conference on Brain, Mind, and Consciousness at Caltech, where Ramachandran had been scheduled to speak but was unable to do so because of a family emergency. Although I was not previously familiar with his work, the description led me to believe he was a speaker I would be interested in hearing, and this book, which I purchased at the conference, provides a strong case for that. I've long had an interest in philosophy of mind and cognitive science, and minored in cognitive science in my Ph.D. studies (never completed) at the University of Arizona. I've been out of academia for 11 years now, and apart from reading occasional works like Daniel Dennett's Consciousness Explained and Freedom Evolves, I've not been keeping close tabs on the field. The conference and this book were quite a pleasure--it is clear that there have been some significant developments over the last decade.

It is hard to believe that there are still people who think the brain is little more than a radio receiver, a set of mechanical controls for a disembodied spirit to manipulate the body. Ramachandran's book--like the case studies of Oliver Sacks and A.N. Luria--shows how wrongheaded that view is.

This is a thin (112 pages of text, 45 pages of notes), very accessible and entertaining book. If you enjoy the works of Sacks and Luria, you are likely to enjoy this as well. This is not a collection of case studies, though there are some descriptions of particular patients--it is written from a higher elevation, bringing together recent results, explaining unusual phenomena, and speculating about how those phenomena may tie in to a further understanding of the details of the brain's function.

The book came from Ramachandran's BBC Reith lectures, so it is for a popular audience, with the notes providing some more underlying detail. There are five chapters, each dealing with a single topic. The first chapter is about amputees who experience pain in their "phantom limbs" and how the parts of the brain which had been devoted to the now-absent limbs can become mapped to still-present parts of the body which are handled by physically proximate parts of the brain. For example, a patient whose left arm had been amputated could feel contact to the nonexistent fingers of his left hand from touches to parts of his face or upper arm. Ramachandran then uses this remapping phenomenon to speculate about the causes of Capgras' syndrome (where a patient believes people he knows have been replaced with impostors), synesthesia, and pain asymbolia, where a patient responds to pain stimulus with laughter.

The second chapter is about vision, and specifically about the phenomena of blindsight (where a person has no experience of seeing, but at an unconscious level does see), hemisphere neglect, and mirror agnosia. In this chapter Ramachandran discusses "mirror neurons," neurons found in monkeys which activate when a monkey performs some task, but also when the monkey sees another monkey perform the same task.

The third chapter, "The Artful Brain," is the most speculative, and provides Ramachandran's suggested ten "universal laws of art," which he offers as features we find aesthetically pleasing in art, and discusses some reasons why those features might be pleasing to the brain.

The fourth chapter deals in more detail with synesthesia, the perception of stimuli with multiple senses, such as experiencing colors corresponding with sounds or numbers. He links this to cross-activation of sites in the brain (similar to his discussion in the first chapter), points out some similar phenomena that most people share (such as a tendency to associate certain kinds of abstract shapes with certain sounds or names), and speculates that such associations may have paved the way for the evolution of language from non-verbal communication.

The fifth and final chapter is titled "Neuroscience--The New Philosophy." Ramachandran discusses how some of the phenomena of neuroscience might bear on questions from philosophy of mind about qualia, free will, and self-awareness. The chapter doesn't get very deep into any of these philosophical issues, but it's clear that more has been learned in the last few decades of neuroscience than in the last few millenia of philosophy.

I highly recommend this book as an introduction to these topics.
52 of 52 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Neuropathology and the Mind 2 Sep 2004
By Mark G. Jones - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This book is an expansion and revision of a series of talks that the author gave as the 2003 Reith Lectures on BBC Radio. The BBC title was "The Emerging Mind." To summarize the book in a few inaccurate words, the author presents the contributions that neuropathology and the study of unusual perceptual modes like synaesthesia make to the study of the mind considered as a collection of brain structures that process sensory data and the self considered as a metarepresentation within such a mind.

Despite the complex ideas, the discussion is lucid and engaging. Dr. Ramachandran has the courage to suggest new hypotheses and to propose experiments to test them, and he also has a sense of humor.

The author writes in the Introduction, "As my colleague Oliver Sacks said of one of his books: `the real book is in the endnotes, Rama,`" which is certainly true of this edition. There are 45 pages of endnotes for 112 pages of text. The endnotes contain the most interesting discussions and the clearest exposition, which is why I was very disappointed to see that endnotes 11 and 12, the final pair of endnotes in the last chapter, appear to be missing from the Endnotes section. I would really like to read what the author has to say about Anton's syndrome and hypnotic induction. Perhaps the author or publisher could post these on a website somewhere.

The Glossary in the back of the book is substantially the same as the one provided on the BBC website for the original talks. Because of the nature of the subject, it contains both technical scientific terms like _phosphorylation_ and some philosophical terms like _qualia_.

The Glossary does not contain the term _exaption_, not used in the text of original talks but used several times in the book, which I found difficult.

The author, who names Shiva Dakshinamurthy, Lord of Gnosis, as one of the dedicatees of this volume, grew up in Thailand and received his medical degree in India; yet he may mention South Asian philosophy less in this book than the average Western writer who produces a book on the brain for popular consumption. Laboratory experiments drive Dr. Ramachandran's speculation. Nevertheless, because he suggests the relationship between _qualia_ and underlying anatomy and chemistry is not entirely arbitrary, some of us may wish to conclude that introspection is more valuable than is often supposed. The author also writes about the cross-cultural aspects of art, suggesting that there may be some universals of aesthetics; I found this discussion provocative, but not entirely persuasive.

Of course, younger readers who are eager to know more about neuroscience and the directions that such research will proceed in the future should read this book; moreover, older readers like myself with aging brains and perceptual systems may find their need to read this book is urgent and immediate.
60 of 64 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Incredibly disappointing 7 Mar 2006
By J. - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
After reading Phantoms in the Brain, I was excited to see another book out by V.S. Ramachandran. Sadly, this book is just a dumbed-down rehash of Phantoms. There are only a few snippets of actual new material in this book and they're not covered in any kind of depth. Additionally, he introduces his own personal opinions regarding the human condition that have nothing to do with the studies of the brain. It doesn't even fit at all into the flow of the book.

Don't bother reading this book if you've already read Phantoms in the Brain. But if you haven't read it, I highly, highly recommend Phantoms.
25 of 28 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars "Phantoms" for Dummies 2 Feb 2006
By Gerald Hawkins - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
If you haven't read Ramachandran's "Phantoms in the Brain," go read that instead--it's amazing. If you've already read "Phantoms," don't bother with this lightweight re-hashing.

Ramachandran seems to have chosen to follow in the footsteps of another great--Stephen Hawking--by writing one great book and following it up with an endless stream of successively shorter, "more accessible" versions of the same book.

The attempts to make more accessible that which was already readily accessible have put Ramachandran in danger of over-simplifying the material.

Warning: This allegedly 208-page book includes only 113 pages of "Phantom" rehash and then notes.
17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Read Phantoms instead 11 May 2007
By C. Czachor - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I read Phantoms in the Brain by the same author and was wowed, so I bought this book and was sorely disappointed that it really really is a shorter, less interesting version of Phantoms in the Brain. Don't waste your time on this book just buy Phantoms in the Brain. I wish I had read the other reviews earlier that said this before I ordered it!
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