One of the inevitable consequences of scientific progress is the creation of silos. Early pioneers discover—usually by accident—a curious, intriguing aspect of nature which defies extant theory. The allure of the puzzle draws bright minds from unrelated disciplines who propose solutions that divide them into immiscible factions until the answers seem too complex and the original question remains mysterious.
The workings of the mind, its unity and relationship with the body and brain, and its evolution have throughout history been the focus of the very best of human minds. It has occupied the waking hours of physicians, linguists, philosophers and neuroscientists and has resulted in a thicket of theories—Freudianism, behaviourism, the computational theory of the mind—yet the essential mystery of why the mind is the way it is continues to be beyond full comprehension.
Out of these befuddling bushes emerge scientists such as Vilayanur S. Ramachandran. The neuroscientist, who leads the psychology and neurosciences programme at the Centre for Brain and Cognition at the University of California, San Diego, is among that rare breed of active researchers who write general interest books describing their work.
Mind games: Ramachandran delves into the world of mirror neurons. Photo: Thinkstock
His new book, The Tell-Tale Brain: Unlocking the Mystery of Human Nature, is packed with intriguing case studies of the neurologically afflicted. From the Sartre-spouting Yusof Ali, who believes that he’s dead, or the peculiarly handicapped John, who can perfectly copy an engraving of St Paul’s Cathedral in spite of being unable to recognize what he is drawing, Ramachandran—like physicians Oliver Sacks and Antonio Damasio—skilfully uses these instances to illustrate how the various parts of the brain synchronize to conjure a mind and, therefore, our perception of reality.
Fans of his previous books— Phantoms in the Brain and the more recent A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness—may sense a creeping déjà vu, with descriptions of brain anatomy and phantom limbs (those illusory hands and legs that amputees continue to regard as part of their anatomy). However, it’s in this work that Ramachandran bores into the mesmerizing world of mirror neurons, a class of brain cells originally discovered in monkeys that not only fire when they reach out for an object but also when they watch another monkey do the same.
Ramachandran is among those who believe that these mirror neurons—lots of which have been found in humans—are an important step towards the species’ ability to empathize and imitate, thereby acquiring culture and colonizing the modern environment. He buffers his beliefs with the experimental evidence of autistics, who are known to lack empathy and an inability to read motives in the actions of others, as having a distinct lack of mirror neurons in specific regions of the brain.
Rather than be the staid scientist who only describes what has been personally verified and what can be conservatively inferred, Ramachandran makes bold hypotheses that connect the disparate fields of brain imaging, evolution and neurological ailments to give the non-specialist some insight into questions such as what makes our visual system respond to beauty and why our sense of self, consciousness and “free will” is so inextricably linked—and thus determined—by the structure of our brains and its connection to organs of the body.
While his theories are plausible, they are only useful inasmuch as they trigger future experiments. They are not the absolute last word on the issue—a point Ramachandran emphasizes.
His prose may not be in the league of Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins but it is nevertheless pithy and—because it’s penned by a first-rate mind with the sole intent of a sweeping overview of the subject—largely devoid of abstruse technicalities. However, frequent trips to the 15-page glossary (which is about 5% of the book length) are inevitable considering that this is at heart a book on neuroanatomy.
For those who only know Ramachandran from the entertaining video on TED, a non-profit devoted to ideas worth spreading, or an oblique reference from the TV series House MD, the book is also a great way to begin learning about the burgeoning discipline of cognitive neuroscience, its Sherlock Holmes-like methods and the epiphanies that its practitioners having been reporting with accelerating frequency over the last two decades.