The fascinating world of V.S. Ramachandran

Ramachandran is a latter-day Marco Polo, journeying the silk road of science to strange and exotic Cathays of the mind. He returns laden with phenomenological treasures…which, in his subtle and expert telling, yield more satisfying riches of scientific understanding. Richard Dawkins

V.S. Ramachandran, director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California, San Diego was lecturing at a hospital in India, when a young man with a strange problem approached him:

I am a corpse—I can smell the stench of rotting flesh.

Are you saying you are dead?

Yes. I don’t exist.

His diagnosis was that the young man was suffering from Cotard syndrome or walking corpse syndrome, a rare mental disorder in which people believe that they are dead. Welcome to the world of V.S. Ramachandran.  Vilayanur Subramanian Ramachandran was born into the Brahmin caste in Tamil Nadu, Indiain 1951. The Indians like the Chinese put the surname first and so Vilyanur is actually the family name. Ramachandran is the name his parents gave him, but I will refer to him by this name for convenience. Ramachandran’s father was a diplomat, so he spent a lot of time between Bangkokand Madras. He obtained a medical degree from StanleyMedicalCollegein Madras, India, and subsequently obtained a Ph.D. from TrinityCollegeat the Universityof Cambridge. Although his early work on visual perception he is best known for his work in behavioural neurology. I first became aware of Ramachandran when he gave the BBC Reith Lectures in 2003, The Emerging Mind. He is a captivating speaker who is able to bring the science of the brain alive.

This year Ramachandran has a new book, The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human, which explores what makes humans unique and illustrates how brain disorders can help us better understand how our brain actually works. He skilfully builds a picture of the specialized areas of the brain and the pathways between them.  The rationale behind the neuroscientist’s methodology is that if damage to one area causes disruption of a particular brain function, then it is highly probable this is where the function is located. A recurring theme is the way in which many delusions appear to result from the brain trying to make sense of signals that have gone haywire. I have been following Ramachandran since I was blown away by those 2003 Reith lectures. I really enjoyed his latest book and I thought it would be interesting to share a few of his insights with you. Prepare to be dazzled.

A phantom limb is the sensation that an amputated or missing limb is still attached to the body. Sufferers still feel pain even though there is nothing there. This apparently occurs in more than 90% of cases. Such limbs often arrange themselves into painful positions. Ramachandran believes that phantom limb sensations are due to crosswiring in the brain. He relates how by touching a patient’s face, you can actually alleviate the pain in a phantom hand. This can be explained by the fact that the areas which deal with nerve inputs from the hand and face happen to be next to each other. Facial inputs spill over to the area that maps the phantom hand.

Ramachandran has a reputation for low-tech solutions, such as boxes and mirrors. His revolutionary technique was shown in one episode of House. The acerbic doctor is having problems with one ofWilson’s neighbours, Murphy, a decorated war hero who lost an arm in combat. House breaks into the neighbour’s home, where he drugs him, ties him up and gags him. He then gets Murphy to put his stump and his normal hand into a cardboard box, whose top and front surfaces have been removed There is a mirror inside and it now appears that Murphy has both arms. House tells him to clench his real and phantom hand and then to let them both go. For the first time in 36 years Murphy realizes he no longer feels pain in the phantom limb and he sobs in relief.

In the chapter on vision we hear about the Capgras delusion, in which friends or relatives are seen as impostors. This can happen when sufferers see their mothers. Their eyes are working perfectly; they have no trouble with facial recognition. The problem is with the connection with the amygdala, the part of the brain which deals with emotional response. As they feel no affective response, their brain tells them they are dealing with an imposter. Blindsight is a condition in which a person who is effectively blind because of damage to the visual cortex, can make correct visual judgements. The most incredible of case of this was TN, a man left blind by a stroke. Despite this, he was capable of negotiating a maze, walking around chairs and boxes without bumping into them. The explanation is that visual information travels along two pathways: the old pathway and the new pathway. If only the latter is damaged, a patient may lose the ability to see an object but still be aware of its location and orientation.

Ramachandran looks at synaesthesia, a neurologically-based condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second cognitive pathway. The most well known form makes people see numbers as colours. This is not some kind of vague association, but is very intense feeling. Ramachandran ponders the connection between synaesthesia and creativity, especially metaphor. It is eight times more common in artists, poets, and novelists, than among the general population. Curiously, blind people can also have this condition – Stevie Wonder is one famous example

One thing I learned from the book was about mirror neurons, which were discovered in the 1990s by Giacomo Rizzolatti. For over 50 years scientists had known about the ordinary motor command neurons at the front of the brain. When you to reach out and grab something, they orchestrate a specific sequence of muscle twitches. What Rizzolatti discovered was that around 20% these neurons, will also fire when you see somebody else performing the same action. This neuron is adopting the other person’s point of view; it’s like a virtual reality simulation of the other person’s action.

Ramachandran boldly describes them as the neurons that shaped civilization.  Culture is the accumulation of complex skills and knowledge which are transferred from person to person through language and imitation. Ramachandran believes that these mirror neurons are vital for imitation and emulation. The emergence of such a sophisticated mirror neuron system, which allowed us to copy other people’s actions, was essential for the diffusion of human culture. Without our incredible savant-like ability to imitate others, human behaviours and discoveries could not have spread so rapidly. This diffusion occurs within societies and quickly spreads to other areas. Moreover, these skills can be passed onto future generations.

Ramachandran also wants to find a science of art. This kind of work is always going to be a bit controversial always open to the charge of reductionism.  He is interested in the evolution of our aesthetic sense. He lists nine artistic universals. He believes our taste is heavily influenced by our evolutionary ancestry on the African savanna. We like similarly coloured things to go together, and we are entranced by certain kinds of exaggeration of ordinary reality or other unrealistic images, like the Venus of Wiltdorf.

I do recommend that get to know more about Dr Ramachandran. You can do this with his books. You can still listen to his 2003 Reith lecture a couple of his talks are still available at the TED website. Neuroscience is still in its infancy. Ramachandran believes that we are now at the same stage that chemistry was in the nineteenth century: discovering the basic elements, grouping them into categories, and studying their interactions. We are still grouping our way toward the equivalent of the periodic table but are not anywhere near atomic theory. The brain is such a complicated organ. Some of what he says is necessarily speculation and other things may ne shown to be false. That is the way science works. And I actually like it when scientists look at phenomena that are outside their traditional purview. We have the testimony of novelists, poets and philosophers who have tried to pin down what it means to be human. We should give the scientists a chance.

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One Response to The fascinating world of V.S. Ramachandran

  1. Neuroreporter says:

    I hate to rain on your enthusiasm for V.S. Ramachandran but you are repeating a good deal of information that is not accurate. First, Ramachandran’s theories about phantom limbs were largely disproven by the mid-1990s. Well known pain researchers such as Herta Flor (University of Heidelberg) were able to show (though careful experiments involving a larger number of subjects) that most of Ramachandran’s key ideas were simply wrong. Ramachandran does not mention the work of Herta Flor despite the fact that she is one of the most highly regarded neuroscientists in the world.

    As for mirror therapy:Ramachandran has made exaggerated claims about its effectiveness. There is no clear consensus as to its effectiveness. Like most of the approaches used for treating phantom limb pain it is very difficult to predict which patients will benefit. You should be aware that Ramachandran does not have a clinical practice and he does not conduct clinical trials. Many people mistakenly believe that he is a practicing neurologist however this is not the case –at least not in the U.S

    Finally, as for Ramachandran’s theories about mirror neurons, they are more science fiction than science. I think you would be hard pressed to find neuroscientists who take them seriously..

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