Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Book review: “Phantoms in the Brain” by Ramachandran and Blakeslee

Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind
By V. S. Ramachandran, S. Blakeslee
William Morrow Paperbacks (1999)

Yes, I’ve read another neuroscience book. This one has been recommended to me as one of the classics in the field, though a little dated by now. It didn’t disappoint.

Ramachandran takes the reader on an engaging tour through the functions of the brain by using case studies on patients with brain damage. At first I thought this would be a collection of heart-wrenching stories and bizarre peculiarities – nobody really doubts shit happens if an iron pole leaves a hole in your head. But I was surprised to learn how reproducible the effects of localized brain damage are, how strange, and how much can be learned from the unfortunate patients.

The book starts with phantom limbs and our body image in general, followed by sections on denial, memory, religious thought, emotions, laughter, delusions and hallucinations. The chapters usually start with a patient or several, and are followed by an explanation of what brain regions are involved and what they do, to the extent that one knows. Ramachandran then often discusses some experiments that he and his collaborators did to shed light on puzzles going along with the condition, sometimes leading to insights that could help the patient or at least provide a basis for the development of treatments. He also adds his own speculations and hunches, which I find very interesting. He is usually very clear in demarking where actual knowledge ends and his speculation starts.

I was very pleased by his sober discussion of “qualia,” and his careful treading on the question of religion and the mind-body interaction in general. His argumentation is overall very balanced; he comes across as an open-minded scientist who isn’t pushing any particular agenda, but is simply driven by curiosity. I didn’t find his elaborations on the nature of consciousness too enlightening, but I guess consciousness is to neuroscience what the cosmological constant is to physics: everybody’s got an opinion about it and nobody finds anybody else’s opinion convincing.

The book is well written and reads very smoothly. It is however in places somewhat repetitive in that some patients reappear and one has to read through a summary. Some readers might appreciate that, especially if they had put aside the book for a bit, but it switches my brain into jah-jah-you-already-told-me-that mode. (The brain region for this is between the yawn-campus and the facebook-lobe.) I also have to complain that Ramachandran is quite vague on explaining what research has been done in the field apart from his own studies, and is too focused on his own work. Since the book is now more than a decade old, maybe it just wasn’t all that much. Still, I would have hoped for a somewhat broader survey.

(The co-author Sandra Blakeslee is credited in the acknowledgements for “making the book accessible for a wider readership.” The book is written in the first person narrative.)

Altogether, I learned quite a lot from this book, and especially the section on denial has given me something to think about. I’d give this book four out of five stars.

This TED talk by Ramachandran will give you a good impression what the book is about (the part about synesthesia is not in the book):


  1. Bee: "I guess consciousness is to neuroscience what the cosmological constant is to physics: everybody’s got an opinion about it and nobody finds anybody else’s opinion convincing."

    In case of consciousness one reason for that could be that everyone experiences it differently.

  2. These lectures by Ramachandran from 2003 are also well worth listening to:

  3. A couple of years ago he wrote his second popular book, The Tell-Tale Brain which received 'mixed' reviews.

    I have had this book for years, yet somehow, despite the interesting subject and writing style, drop it after chapter 3 or 4. Maybe it's time to pick it up again.

    He also delivered the BBC Reith Lectures in 2003:

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Hi Bee,

    Again a very nice book review whose subject appeals as being interesting. However what I found most interesting wasn’t something covered in your review, yet rather in his TED talk you embedded regarding Ramachandran speaking about synesthesia. That is this cross wiring of the brain in some which gives it unusual perceptions which in many relates to increased cognitive ability. I guess why I find this so interesting is not that I see numbers or letters in colours, yet in regards to how he linked such cross wiring respective of other associations, which manifests itself in things such as allegory, metaphor or analogy. That is to a certain degree I find that I have always thought in such a way. I’m then wondering if he broaches this subject in his book, as I’ve long been fascinated with not only how this has people to perceive their world, yet also its relation to how it has them analyze it in attempt to have it better understood.

    “All that is transitory is but a metaphor.”

    ― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “Faust”, part 2, Scene 5



  6. Phil,
    He covers synaesthesia in his later book which I mentioned in my previous post. (I haven't read it, BTW.)

  7. Phil, it's worth reading Douglas Hofstadter's book: 'Fluid concepts and creative analogies' to see the importance of analogie in every part of our thought process.

  8. Hi Navneeth,

    Thanks for the heads up I’ll look into it. So now it’s to wonder who will read this book first :-)



  9. Hi Jonathan,

    Thanks I try to give that one a look. Between Bee, Navneeth and yourself my bucket is getting pretty full. This thing about cross relating concepts with others and emotions seems to be something that has evolved not just beginning with our own species yet quite away back in terms of evolution more generally. It’s tempting to speculate that it might be this that has had intelligence emerge within living things and a bench mark as to how it progresses.



  10. Dear Arun,

    Basically, he writes that those who believe that "qualia" is something which can't be explained by neuroscience (or science altogether) are confusing themselves by improper use of language (what it means that "I" do "experience" something). Best,


  11. Hi PTMR,

    That could be, but actually I doubt that there are very large differences. It is amazing actually how alike we are all when it comes to conscious experience, at least for what we know of it. Think for example of optical illusions: They work for the vast majority of people in exactly the same way (and most of those for whom they don't work have a vison problem, not a cognition problem). Now it's some way from optical illusions to consciousness but I have little reason to believe that there are huge differences between humans when it comes to the higher levels of input processing.

    Ramachandran proposes in the later parts of his book a "working definition" for consciousness in which free will plays a central role. Since I don't believe in free will, I think this whole definition is vacuous. Best,


  12. Have you read any neuroscience (in the broad sense of the term) books by Oliver Sachs or Steven Pinker? If so, what do you think?

    I really enjoyed Sachs's Uncle Tungsten, though it's not about neuroscience at all. Extra points to the non-German speakers if they can figure out why translating this title into German would cause it to be lost in translation. And extra points to Bee for spotting the connection to Sweden.

  13. Phillip: Not yet, but I have The Blank Slate and Awakenings on my reading list. Best,


  14. Note to all Blogger users: A problem which was there a few weeks ago has come back. Each page takes about 5 minutes to load, at least from some places in some (relatively new) browsers. Even if it works for you, it might not work for many or most, and most won't have the patience to let you know. Check it out.

    Waiting for seems to be the reason.

  15. Speaking of neurological abberations, here is the worst paper of the year.

    Read it and weep.

  16. Like yourself there is this other side of science that I find interesting. What we are capable of(?) and what we can endure in recognition of the limitations we find ourselves constricted too in our everyday life.

    One still manages to be a mom and a dad, while exploring.

    While Timothy Leary was experimenting with drugs as well he contend that the,"psychedelic experience is a journey to new realms of consciousness was not the way such methods was considered as conducive in my eyes.

    I liked VS Ramachandran Ted lecture as well here


  17. Bee,

    I continue with the thought process of the previous comment just to show that consciousness research is important. That deriving neurological pathways while strategic in demonstration( a example by Blakeslee of monkey moving robotic arm,) it does not reveal much more then what pathways that science can follow by viewing the neuron's firing? It's associative brain correlatives and attributes?

    I am not saying this is not conducive as to marry neurological functions to "robotics arm" as it would help the disable greatly, but this again leaves out what I hope to find out in what our consciousness is capable of doing?

    I see Leary's examination critical in terms of understanding what is normal in our everyday lives is just the awareness that we are already experiencing various aspects of consciousness and that it just was not recognized by any of us.

    I also do not say to disregard the scientific coat that scientists wear in face of these consciousness examinations.


  18. I agree with RLO here. From the abstract (the paper is an argument in favour of God using the multiverse; I object to the God part, not necessarily the multiverse part):

    "Starting with the simple assumption that {\em the actual world is the best possible world}"

    I think many will question this assumption.

    As the old saying goes, the optimist assumes that our world is the best of all worlds. The pessimist fears that the same might be true.

  19. All depends on what you mean with "best". There's some people who believe that the universe maximizes complexity. I don't buy this, but all you have to do is define best == maximal complexity, and it's the same, really. That having been said, I guess though Page is waiting for his Voltaire.


  20. Obviously the cosmos maximizes conceptual and mathematical elegance.

    Our job is to overcome our inherent limitations and our self-inflicted biases so that we might get a better glimpse of that exquisite elegance.

    AE showed how this is done.

    Fractal Cosmology

  21. It's possible all we know scientifically can be called an architectural rendition of what is by made by example using theory, now being made manifest?

    Not so fast. A functional brain image such as those produced by PET and fMRI no more captures the brain in action than a graph illustrating the percentage of the population who go to church on Sunday captures the people in the act of worship. Brain scan images are graphical renderings of what we hypothesize is going on in the head. There's nothing wrong with such images. In fact, they are valuable tools for carrying on scientific study. But they are not pictures of our brains in action, and so they are positively not images of our minds at work.See: Brain Scans Don't Catch The Brain In Action

    We talked about once about what was drawn from what may seem like a "chaotic image" by way of film in action by Ramanujan(his dream world), as him delving deeper into the nature of the brain/consciousness, as may being able to derive mathematical truths and principal.

    While seeming to be abstract, it was a process by which the basis of experience made possible, words sent forth by using the image of his mother speaking by analogy and mathematical figure?

    So however Ramanujan was able to see deeply, he was using his mother to impart this wisdom, yet, it still came from Ramanujan.

  22. Ramachandran while speaking of genetics, mentions the early years formatory capabilities as if all of us being cross wired learn to modulate in time, according to the presence and occupation of everyday life.

    So you assume this basis of experience as a fixed way of doing things. Have we failed to see "the complex" as if now using the spectrum in application, is only seeing the relevance of the science in such a new way? So you see the cosmos picture is still the same, but reveals much more.

    By analogy and function you find that such metaphorical comparisons can be greatly enhanced by having this basis of knowledge accumulated and instantly fused as if sending a lightning strike through the brain.

    Maybe like some cosmic string, to start the function of matter distinctions as useful analogies of entropic realizations? The universe then came into being? Or as some instantaneous collapse marvel as in some sonic application on bubbles in fluids, as representing the motivation for expression of that same universe??

    So not just a scientist, but a artist too?:)



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