Tag Archives: V.S. Ramachandran

Brain 101 redux

Many of my early posts on Neurons Firing were about the brain. In fact, they are catalogued on a separate page, Brain 101. In wanting to better understand what the brain looks like, how it feels, and how it works, I even did a mini-dissection of a small sheep brain. And last year, in a Frontiers In Science elective at my school, I had the opportunity to participate in a dissection of a brain that still had the eyes attached. 

I still haven’t found my “ideal” brain book – a book with pictures of a human brain, shown by parts of the brain, pictured at actual size but also enlarged to better see what is there, with explanations of each part, and essays similar to those written by Lewis Thomas in books such as The Lives of a Cell. (V.S. Ramachandran would be a perfect author for such a book!) Meanwhile, I enjoy these projects created by sixth graders at my school as part of their Science class.

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Imagination: Ramachandran

Phantoms in the Brain is an engaging tale of individuals who have odd and curious brain quirks, often resulting from a malfunction in their brain such as a stroke, which display in sometimes unbelievable manifestations.

Ramachandran begins with an overview of the brain’s physiology, coupled with sharing how he approaches study of the brain. He likens the work to that of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson in the pursuit of solving mysteries. As a youngster, Ramachandran was intrigued by science, concocting unusual experiments with simple tools, and with “being drawn to the exception rather than to the rule in every science” he studied. He believes that “the odd behavior of these patients can help us solve the mystery of how various parts of the brain create a useful representation of the external world and generate the illusion of a “self” that endures in space and time.”

Once explained, the experiments that Ramachandran designed sounded deceptively simple and logical. What impressed me was his imaginative insight in concocting them in the first place.

Chapter Five describes patients who have discrepancies between what they visually see, and what they believe they see. Damage to some portion of the visual cortex can result in hallucinations, and depending upon the type of damage, the hallucinations can impact specific portions of the visual field, such as the lower half or the left half. As an example, there is the story of one patient who sustained damage to his eyes and optic nerves as the result of an auto accident. Greatly, though not wholly, recovered, he had visual hallucinations in just “the lower half of his field of vision, where he was completely blind. That is, he would only see imaginary objects below a center line extending form his nose outward.”

Ramachandran goes on to describe how the patient discerns between what is real and what is an hallucination. At one point, the patient says he sees a monkey sitting on Ramachandran’s lap. The patient notes that while “it looks extremely vivid and real”, “it’s unlikely there would be a professor here with a monkey sitting in his lap so I think there probably isn’t one.” The patient goes on to state that the images “often look too good to be true. The colors are vibrant, extraordinarily vivid, and the images actually look more real that real objects, if you see what I mean.” The hallucinations tend to fade fairly soon after being “seen”, and while they usually blend in with the rest of what is actually being seen, the patient knows that they are part of his visual imagination. He enjoys the surprise of what he conjures up, and is more concerned about his partial blindness.

By the end of this chapter, which has a number of other interesting and curious vision tales, Ramachandran hypothesizes that “all these bizarre visual hallucinations are simply an exaggerated version of the processes that occur in your brain and mine every time we let our imagination run free. Somewhere in the confused welter of interconnecting forward and backward pathways is the interface between vision and imagination. … what we call perception is really the end result of a dynamic interplay between sensory signals and high-level stored information about visual images from the past.”

What starts to emerge is an explanation of imagination as a combination of that which we have visually seen, processed and stored in memory, coupled with crafting something new based upon those conceptions. Interesting questions arise…

  • If we had no prior knowledge, would we be able to imagine?
  • Do we consciously conjure our imagination, or is it a subconscious process, or a little of both depending upon the situation?
  • When we are feeling stymied and need a nudge to get our imagination going, how do we do that under our own power?
  • When we totally zone out (like I do when getting in the groove of swimming laps), how is it that thoughts can just “pop” into my head?

Phantoms in the Brain by V.S. Ramachandran & Sandra Blakeslee

Phantoms in the Brain was listed someplace as one of the books that must be read by any serious student of neurology. Having quite enjoyed watching Ramachandran give his TED Talk, of course I had to snap up the book!

If you are like me, and found this talk entertaining, lively and informative, then you will not be disappointed in reading Phantoms in the Brain.

Phantoms can be approached from any number of angles. Read it for the science, and you will come away with a deeper understanding of how parts of our brain function. Indeed, Ramachandran’s approach reminded me of an exercise we did with Robert Greenleaf this past August. Designed to teach the concept of verbs, the exercise had us rewriting a fairy tale but we had to leave out all verbs. One way to learn what a verb is, is to have to write without using any verbs. And one way to learn about our brains is to study the oddities of the brain.

phantoms.pngRead it for the experiments and tinkering, and you will come away with an appreciation for how simple experiments can be used to find answers to complex questions. You are also sure to be impressed by the imaginative methods employed in devising these experiments.

Read it as a medical sleuth and join Sherlock Ramachandran as he attempts “to share the sense of mystery that lies at the heart of all scientific pursuits and is especially characteristic of the forays we make in trying to understand our own minds.”

Read it as a psychologist or philosopher to try and find neurological underpinnings for how we are who we are.

Read it as a novel filled with emotion, mystery, conflict, people’s lives, and pursuit of the unknown.

I appreciated it on all counts, and took note of his commentary on imagination, attention, left and right hemispheres, cognitive neuroscience, creativity, and the need for doing experiments, all of which will be covered in a future post!

By the way, no need to take just my word for it. On the amazon page for this book, there are 84 customer reviews; 67 folks give the book 5 stars, and the remaining 10 folks rate it 4 stars. The first three reviews (Matteson, Hills and Peterzell) provide an in-depth overview of the book’s content and style.

V. S. Ramachandran

I’ve mentioned V. S. Ramachandran before when noting some data points about Mirror Neurons. He is a prolific speaker, researcher and writer, and on the Advisory Board of Scientific American MIND, a magazine that seeks to inform while making emerging brain science accesible.

Ramachandran and his wife, Diane Rogers-Ramachandran, write Illusions, a regular column for Scientific American Mind. Their August/September 2007 column, It’s All Done with Mirrors, discusses how they made use of a mirror box to help people finally disengage from phantom limbs – limbs that have been amputated but still felt paralyzed and painful – even though the individual logically knew that the limb was no longer attached.

I’ve also mentioned TED Talks before (ah, the interconnectedness of it all) and in this TED Talk, Vilayanur Ramachandran: A journey to the center of your mind, he explains three curious brain mashups, including phamtom limbs, prosopagnosia (inability to recognize faces), and synesthesia (where senses merge together, for example, seeing the number six as vivid blue).

If you thought the amygdala was a small component of the brain, now you can learn about the insula, mentioned several times by Ramachandran in his TED Talk. The insula and amygdala communicate with one another in the process of dealing with understanding your own emotions. In February, 2007, the New York Times talked up the insula in the article A Small Part of the Brain, and Its Profound Effects. (Stick with it till the advert passes.)

Creativity was a tag earlier this year in the March, 2007 TED Talks, and Ramachandran concluded his talk with a tidbit involving creativity, synesthesia, metaphor, and how artists, poets and musicians see the world. Don’t take my word for it – go listen to his talk!

Mirror Neurons: Data Points

Giacomo Rizzolatti is one of the neuroscientists involved in the mirror neuron “ah ha” moment that resulted from a study in Italy of the macaque monkey.

Mirror neurons – they conjure for me images of neurons firing, with those neurons being reflected in a house of mirrors, resulting in the neurons “seeing themselves” firing, which result in the mirroring of those neurons seeing themselves firing, and so on and so on, like the process of recursion in computer programming.

Neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran believes that

“the discovery of mirror neurons in the frontal lobes of monkeys, and their potential relevance to human brain evolution … is the single most important ‘unreported’ (or at least, unpublicized) story of the decade.”

He articulates this position in an essay at The Third Culture entitled MIRROR NEURONS and imitation learning as the driving force behind “the great leap forward” in human evolution.

The 2005 virtual workshop What do Mirror Neurons Mean? addressed “the theoretical implications of the discovery of mirror neurons.”

And for further explanation of mirror neurons, visit the AlphaPsy site for Mirror-Neurons: A Primer.