Phantoms In The Brain

(pic: Dr. VS Ramachandran, the author)

If you enjoy well written witty writing, and have an inclination towards science, especially the science of understanding the brain, VS Ramachandran is your man. He is not only a brilliant scientist but also a brilliant author. His humor is very sarcastic and is scattered so generously through out the book that this does not feel like a book about Neurology. I highly recommend this book to anyone who takes reading non-fiction seriously. I have not been able to put the book down though I did not get time to read it in one go.

Dr. Ramachandran unfolds the mysteries of the workings of the brain using the 'reverse engineering' technique. He focuses on patients who have seemingly funny disorders and explains why this must be happening, and what can we learn about the brain through them. Mind you that it is not funny for people who have these disorders and their families, and there is absolutely no fun poked at the peculiar behavior of these patients.

The cases he chooses are fascinating. For instance, he describes a patient who is suffers from neglect post a stroke, and neglects her left side of her body. She shows up to appointments with only one side of her face made up and one side of the hair combed. Another patient has a huge blind spot in his vision and sees cartoons in it! The way he explains why this must be happening is absolutely mystifying. Most of his patients are stoke victims and his experiments are ingenious and amazing to say the least.

I was hooked on to this book for a personal reason too. My father-in-law passed away of stroke a year ago. I was with him through out his last two months and have noticed a lot of changes in his behavior. This book somehow made me feel a lot more close to him though he is not alive now (I was quite close to him and we shared a great bond when he was alive. That is one of the reasons why I could notice very subtle changes that would have gone unnoticed otherwise).

I had a feeling that Dr. Ramamchandran was targeting American readers. Almost all his examples are very American. When he quotes his patients, he tries to be very American in his language. I felt he was trying a little too hard as the expressions he uses are almost textbook Americanisms.

The author also uses a lot of 'sexy' examples to show the games mind plays on our body. I could not make out if his tendency to go back to fetishes is more because it is easy to link these directly to neural activity, or to make his book a best seller, but he does a fantastic job of being very serious about educating his readers without making his work look like a cheap science version of erotica.

My favorite parts are however the way he rips apart his fellow scientists who disagree with him. He even uses their real names! There were multiple instances where I thought there was a big possibility of seriously offending people, but he carries it off really well.

The range of topics he chose to cover are also very impressive. Though I was not very excited about his explanations about philosophy, I thoroughly enjoyed his explanation of why we believe in God and if there is a reason why we do so. He does not go anywhere near explaining if God exists or not, but takes serious liberties to poke fun at believers and atheists alike. His focus through out the chapter, however, is on the pathways in the brain that generate the kind of feeling where people feel everything happens for a purpose. He, with his simple experiments, tries to prove that there are specific sections in the brain whose job seems to be to create the feeling of spirituality but he ends the chapter (to my intense frustration) without any answers to why this particular module in the brain evolved in the first place. He says he just does not have the answers, and we are a long long way away from understanding this fully.

One thing that I have started doing after reading the book is to follow Ramachandran's lectures on YouTube. When I first saw one of his videos, it was great to see that this man is still young. We need people like him on the planet. May God give him a long life, may his mind be used to the maximum, and may good samaritans continue to post his videos on YouTube. I am now a big fan of his work and will follow his research seriously. I rate this book 4 out of 5. Anyone with average interest in reading and no prior background in Neurology will be easily able to read and enjoy this book. A must read I would say. Unfortunately, the book is not mine or I would have happily lent to anyone (who knows me personally).