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Gandhi and other neurons

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I wish I’d had Dr V.S. Ramachandran’s book The Telltale Brain when I had to take neuroscience classes in university - dry, learn-by-rote affairs. Ramachandran, like Oliver Sacks and Robert Sapolsky, is one of those rare neurologists who can write engagingly for a popular audience. Cute illustrations and a glossary help.

Ramachandran focuses on the insights that his experience with oddball cases offer into the workings of the brain. Analyses of students who see sounds, teenagers who think they are dead, patients who want to amputate their own limbs, and many others combine to form a fairly coherent narrative of how our brain structures and mental processing might contribute to what Ramachandran argues is our uniquely human quality of self-awareness.

“The self consists of many strands, each of which can be unraveled and studied by doing experiments,” he writes.

Describing a patient who laughs when pricked with a pin, exhibiting a reflex apparently evolved to respond to false threats, he poetically describes the reaction: “Laughter in the face of pain, a microcosm of the human condition itself.”

Though he calls into question several common assumptions about what makes us human, Ramachandran makes a few iffy ones himself, including readers’ preference for members “of the opposite sex”.

This may be sloppiness, or it could be that focusing on extremely abnormal casesmakes it easy for Ramachandran to overlook the distinctions that exist even among “normal” people.

Then again, painting in broad strokes may be all Ramachandran is able to do, given the youth and underdevelopment of neuroscience as a discipline. He often reminds readers that we still know really very little about the brain.

For this reason, the book becomes increasingly speculative in its later chapters. His attempt to derive “universal laws of aesthetics” while the little neurological evidence he provides feels arbitrary. He casts further doubt on his objectivity in the matter when he assesses an ugly drawing he created as more aesthetically “pleasing” than another, supposedly “unattractive”, sketch.

More convincing is his proposal that much of human uniqueness derives from “mirror neurons” – brain cells that allow us to not only mimic others’ actions but also understand their intentions, giving rise to empathy.

“I like calling these cells ‘Gandhi neurons’ because they blur the boundary between self and others—not just metaphorically, but quite literally, since the neuron can’t tell the difference,” Ramachandran writes.

As other mechanisms in the brain remind us there is in fact a difference, awareness that we are one of many sentient beings leads to self-reflection, he argues. From the self considering itself comes our ability to deal in metaphors, abstract concepts and free will.

It’s in this sort of analysis of the self that Ramachandran himself excels, and his book deserves a good deal of the praise he makes sure to give himself along the way. Most readers will have to take his word on the scientific value of his claims, but popular appeal of his ideas is clear.

To contact the reporter on this story: Justine Drennan at justine.drennan@phnompenhpost.com

 

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