Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind, by V S Ramachandran and Sandra Blakeslee

Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind, by V S Ramachandran and Sandra BlakesleeThis book has a bit of a split personality, both in terms of its structure and writing. How much this has to do with the fact that it has two authors I’m not entirely sure, but the effect was to undermine Ramachandran’s credibility in my mind. This the first of his books I have read, and may not have been a good place to start. However, it was weak enough in some ways that it makes me less likely to want to read more.

The first half is pretty much what I was expecting: a set of interesting anecdotes about the experiences of the patients of Ramachandran and others, and how these have illuminated our understanding of the workings of the brain. We hear stories about amputees with phantom limbs (and how the latter have been removed), people who believe that their parents are imposters, patients who cannot see anything on the left side of the world. These stories are told compellingly (presumably Blakeslee’s contribution), and the way they are connected to the science is generally convincing.

Of these, one of the more memorable examples was the woman who developed sexual feelings in her phantom foot. It turns out the parts of the brain that process sensory information for the feet are adjacent to those for the sexual organs (according to the Penfield map). Assuming that the latter brain area expands thanks to the sensory vacuum created by the missing leg, it seems reasonable to think that the feeling in the phantom limb might be a mixture between the two. This may also account for foot fetishes. Interesting.

The second half is much more speculative, with Ramachandran explaining his hunches about areas that, as yet, have little evidence to back up any particular theory. Having heard Ramachandran speak about the brain before, I was actually expecting to enjoy this section, but this did not turn out to be the case: mainly because I was simply not convinced by his arguments. An element of this, no doubt, was his inability to be clear about where he stood on the issue of God: the subject of one of his chapters. This I found slightly cowardly, as if he were trying to avoid alienating either the faithful or the athiest elements of his potential readership. I will come clean and say I fall into the latter camp.

More importantly, I was very disturbed by a section in which he first explained why scientists were rightly suspicious of thought experiments, and then proceeded to describe a truly terrible one. He suggests if you were color blind he might be able to get you to feel the sensation or qualia of red not by just knowing that light coming in has a particular wavelength but, by “hook[ing] a cable of neural pathways from the color-processing bits of my brain to the color-processing bits of your brain.” He claims that, though far fetched, there is, “nothing intrinsically impossible,” about this scenario.

But how would a color-blind person develop color-processing bits of the brain? Though we know the brain has an architecture that determines which bits are used for what general tasks, we also know that elements of the brain that are not used atrophy (like the sexual organs over-writing the bit of the brain previously allocated to the foot). For instance, those born blind do not have wasted visual cortices: this section of brain is devoted to the remaining senses. In fact, it could be argued that someone’s inability to experience certain qualia is caused by the fact that they never developed the appropriate circuits in the brain to process that ‘feeling’.

When reading sections that, to me, seemed so illogical, I wondered whether some dumbing down had occurred in order to make the book sufficiently ‘popular’ science. However, it feel it unfair to blame Blakeslee when, at best, Ramachandran went along with this strategy (if that’s what it was). Don’t misunderstand me: there was far more in it that I found sensible than didn’t (and pretty much all of it was at least interesting). However, there were enough fairly major deviations from reason as I know it that it undermined my trust in Ramachandran’s analysis.

Another weakness in the second half of the book was the explanation of Ramachandran’s theory about the elements that make up consciousness. I won’t go into detail about these elements because he didn’t… and that to me was the problem. The definitions he gave were far too lightweight for my taste: the issue, for instance, of what ‘the self’ is in the context of an embodied creature was given just a paragraph of explanation, when the subject could easily fill a chapter of its own. Of course, that would be a different book, but a clearer elaboration might have convinced this reader in a way that the current version didn’t.

For my blood pressure, I wish I’d read the just the first half of the book with his fascinating patient histories and experiments. The more speculative stuff might also have been interesting, but only if taken seriously and explained properly. If this couldn’t be done for a popular science audience, then perhaps it should not have been included in a popular science book.

** Worthwhile