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4.7 out of 5 stars
43
4.7 out of 5 stars
The Tell-Tale Brain: Unlocking the Mystery of Human Nature
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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.
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on 22 March 2017
Superbly written. Fascinating and insightful with a clarity and ease of writing that sadly, most other authors on such subjects would do well to follow.
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on 2 June 2017
Ok bit disappointed.
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on 24 March 2017
An excellent complement to his audio presentations.
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on 10 April 2017
Wonderful book
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on 3 July 2012
I have not read it yet but bought it on the strength of seeing some of his lectures on YouTube. Such a fascinating man who makes neurology less of a mystery.
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on 12 December 2013
The main problem i had with this was that it repeats some of the work in phantoms in the brain by VS Ramachandran- that is my favourite book! Apart from that the man is a genius, he dares to be different in fact he has made his career from studying curiosities of the brain. He writes with humour, incredible depth of knowledge about the brain and also speculates on such things as how gender dysphoria might be a neurological condition and not a psychological one. This is the fascinating stuff, to see someone daring to suggest such things.

I would advise watching his TED videos, he is fascinating to watch, lately he seems to be suffering some sort of condition though which makes him slower than he was but the guy will go down in history im sure, and he deserves to.
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on 3 June 2012
Dr Ramachandram writes with the ease of a whodunnit best seller using limpid English to make extraordinarily difficult concepts and pathways as clear as gin. A fasinating book which I have recommended without qualification to everyone I think might have the slightest interest - and many who haven't, in case! Buy it soon.
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on 12 February 2011
By coincidence, two great books on mind and brain have appeared almost simultaneously, the other being Self Comes to Mind by Antonio Damasio. If you are going to read only one of them it should be this one, which is more approachable, but the two authors give rather different accounts, so if you want to understand how controversial the subject is you should read both. Ramachandran reviews the most important things from his earlier books, so you get them all for the price of one.

Basing himself on extraordinary case histories, such as the man who feels that he is dead and the man with a phantom twin, the author builds up a picture of the astonishing complexity of the processes that combine to present us with the illusion of a single self viewing the world. Chapter 9 is the most ground-breaking of all, full of insights into introspection and its pitfalls. The whole book is very readable, full of memorable stories without losing sight of its serious theme.
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on 6 August 2011
The author characterises the book in various ways, including "cracking the code of the human brain", but also in terms of explaining human uniqueness - or how we differ from apes. I doubt it does any of these things - it doesn't tell us all that much about apes, for example, and the code of the human brain remains uncracked - but many of the chapters are absolutely compelling for all that.

The books tells us about phantom limbs - how the brain is structured so that they come into being and how to treat them (with mirrors), about how we perceive (it's not simple), about the cross-wiring of the brain for synaesthesia, about mirror neurons which are the key to empathy (and when they're missing, to autism), about how we appreciate beauty (maybe going for the "ultra-normal" stimulus, as gull chicks do, in liking modern art), and about what brain damage can tell us about the unity of the self, our memories, our sense of inhabiting our own bodies (or not, as when it seem wrong to us, or unreal, or we identify instead with the world). A particularly interesting section shows how what psychoanalysts call the mechanisms of defence can all be illustrated in brain damanged patients who have lost the use of limbs but don't recognise this: denial, rationalisation, confabulation, reaction formation, projection, intellectualisation and repression. Not of course that Freud got it all completely right...

It's clear that the author has personally made major advances in scientific understanding, and in the case of phantom limbs to the treatment of patients. He also has a wide-raning curioisty and vision.

Downsides are few: the books is written in an over-chatty style for my taste - try "there's no name for the very real and common delusion in which an older gentleman believes that a young hottie is in love with him and doesn't know it". There's one point where the author says how an Australian journalist contacts him with some news of an experiment, which he doesn't seem to reference - or even say whether or not it is true. And there's a good deal of reference to his collaborators and friends (which doesn't help the forward flow of the argument for the reader who is not interested in scientific credit being given where due in cases of collaboration).

Overall: strongly recommended!
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