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Fascinating reports from the front line of brain research (sorry, a bit long)
on 28 March 2011
For a scientific book, I read this one in record time. It's a privilege to have such a well-written study from an author who is clearly at the forefront of research into the brain and its workings. I find Oliver Sacks tends to present strange cases and leave them there, with very little explanation (or, maybe, understanding) of the anatomical reasons which may lie behind the problem. Ramachandran on the other hand has gone much deeper into the possible causes and has come up with an impressive range of solutions to neurological problems - for example curing the itching of phantom limbs by the use of mirrors, or even by getting patients to watch others being massaged. What comes across continually is his enthusiasm and questioning mind, always prepared to try something apparently off-the-wall to test a new hypothesis. At one point, he even seems to be musing over the possibility of relieving the symptoms of autism by injecting patients with the malaria virus. Fortunately he's not tried it, but surprisingly he does make a reasoned case for it! Nor is he afraid to explore territory outside his discipline (which did start to cause me problems - see below).
The field is of course a gift, because there is nothing more mysterious and complicated than the human brain, and when it goes wrong it goes wrong in spectacular ways. Ramachandran explains some of the weirder syndromes in terms both of their symptoms and the underlying causes - for example Capgras syndrome, where someone recognises their husband or wife, but believes them to be an identical impostor - except when taking to them on the telephone. Easy to see once the pathways through the brain are explained to you. Similarly, synaesthesia, where people see numbers as colours. Ramachandran comes up with some clever experiments to test whether the patient is really 'seeing' colours, or just imagining them. Do they see the colour when they hear the number? What about Roman numerals? Do they see a `real' red dot when it's flashed against a background of what they claim to see as red? He devises tests for all these questions, and comes up with what seems like a satisfactory explanation in terms of the structure of the brain and the areas which border each other within it.
His 'big thing' is mirror neurons,' which apparently are brain cells which fire not only when you perform an action, but, strangely, when you see someone else performing it. He takes this capacity for automatically empathising with what someone else is doing - 'seeing the other point of view' - and conjectures that this explains how cultures can develop and thrive, as knowledge is quickly passed on. From there, he makes the jump (quite convincingly for me) to say that the point at which this started to happen is when human evolution stopped proceeding at the speed of genetic mutation and switched to being a cultural process, as ideas, learning and 'progress' spread much faster. This in turn explains why the human species has become so much more successful than most others.
Where he starts to lose me is about halfway through, when he leaves the subject of neurology, on which is is unquestionably a world expert, and starts on aesthetic questions such as art appreciation, on which he is only an enthusiastic amateur (note: I'm not even that).
For example, he says that when the English arrived in India during Victorian times, they treated the study of Indian art as ethnography and anthropology. 'This would be equivalent to putting Picasso in the anthropology section of the national museum in Delhi.' No it wouldn't, if you're looking at the history and development of Indian art - that does belong to a culture, and hence is reasonably related to anthropology, whereas an exhibition of Picasso is a study of the work of a single artist.
Again, he contrasts the Western reaction to Indian art 'they complained that it wasn't art because the sculptures didn't represent real women,' with the attitude to Picasso 'the Western response to Picasso [although his women were distorted] was that he was a genius who liberated us from the tyranny of realism'. This is to ignore the fact that the critics who didn't 'get' Indian art were probably equally dismissive of Picasso - not everyone thought him a genius at the time. Trying to hard to make a point here, I felt.
(It was also here that I started wishing I'd bought the book rather than the Kindle version - it's not much help to be shown a black and white illustration with the caption 'In this Renaissance painting, very similar colors (blues, dark brown and beige) are scattered spatially throughout the painting'. Not on a Kindle they're not!)
Following on from his theories of art, Ramachandran explores freewill and dips into the origins of religion, and here again I felt he was moving away from what he is good at. 'We tend to imbue nature itself with human-like motives' - true; but this is a long, long way from explaining why we do and think what we do in terms of the anatomy of the brain. Lots of people can do this philosophical stuff, but very few can take us by the hand through the labyrinthine workings of our own mind, and actually leave us feeling as if we understand ourselves better than when we started.
This might sound overly critical, but the strengths of the book are such that they easily outweigh what I see as the less well-judged parts, and I'd give it five stars all the way.