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):