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Life is a matter of wires in the brain
on 28 March 2006
The two main themes in this short but important book are that
1. by studying neurological syndromes, we acquire novel insights into the functions of the normal brain;
2. the functions of the brain are best understood from an evolutionary vantage point.
V. Ramachandran's examples illustrate profusely that there is no separate 'mind stuff' and 'physical stuff' in the universe. The two are one and the same. Mind is a matter of matter.
There is also an indisputable link between neurology and psychology: psychic illnesses have organic causes.
The author sees the brain as a model-making machine: virtual reality simulations, models of other people's mind.
The Darwinian aspect is always present. As T. Dobzhansky said (quoted in this book): 'Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.'
Natural selection has ensured that the subjective sensation of willing is delayed deliberately to coincide not with the onset of the brain command, but with the actual execution of the command.
The hierarchical 'tree' structure of syntax in language may be evolved from tool use. Language itself is not a specific adaptation which evolved for the sole purpose of communication.
The 'booba/kiki' effect shows that there is a pre-existing non-arbitrary translation between the visual appearance of an object and the auditory representation. Lips are physically mimicking the visual appearance of what one is saying and together with tongue movements produce 'proto-words'.
This short book with an excellent glossary is very rich. Ramachandran explains further the seeing process, why we blush, that laughter is a false alarm, why emotion overrides reason, what are the characteristics of the self, how he sees the problem of free will, how artists (Picasso, Moore) discovered the figural primitives of our perceptual grammar ('Less is more').
He stresses rightly the all importance of neurology because 'colonialism, imperialism and war originate also in the brain.'
In a few lectures Ramachandran gives the reader an insight in his bold and essential work. His magisterial main book 'Phantoms in the brain' is a must read.