The Tell-Tale Brain from the neurObama

in Pop Culture
February 11th, 2011

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I began writing this post with feelings of guilt and inner turmoil because the article came out just one week too late – apparently V.S. Ramachandran was scheduled to speak about and discuss his new book The Tell Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human in Cambridge at the Harvard Book Store on February 2nd.  If you haven’t heard this man’s name thrown around in any of your neuroscience classes, you have most definitely been asleep.  As an engaged and involved neuro-nerd, I felt like a huge ass not only for missing this event, but also for not alerting my fellow blog nerds!  But the reality of Boston and global climate change lead to this event being canceled.  Upon inquiry I was told that they are trying to reschedule this talk, which would be wonderful, and I will be sure to give a shout-out to the internet crowd if I hear about a new date to see this incredibly influential man in our area.

The main point, though, is not the event, but the brand new book released by this professor/author/neurologist Vilayanur S. Ramachandran.  Currently working as a professor in the Psychology Department and Neurosciences Program at the University of California, San Diego, this man has captured the attention of the neuroscience world for many years and perhaps even more importantly, the attention of those outside the field. His research on oddities such as phantom limbs and synesthesia has vastly contributed to our understanding of the normal and abnormal brain. His previous books, Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind and A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness: From Impostor Poodles to Purple Numbers are user-friendly guides to the mind and brain, and have bolstered his research to make Ramachandran a neuro-celebrity.

His new work The Tell-Tale Brain is a 357 page sweep through the structure of the brain, what can happen when it goes wrong, and why we are the way we are when it goes right. He presents the human brain “anatomically, evolutionarily, psychologically, and philosophically” to discover what about our brains creates the human experience.  This follows his approach, as he states in the epilogue of Tell-Tale Brain: “One of the major themes in the book – whether talking about body image, mirror neurons, language evolution, or autism – has been the question of how your inner self interacts with the world (including the social world) while at the same time maintaining its privacy. The curious reciprocity between self and others is especially well developed in humans and probably exists only in rudimentary form in the great apes. I have suggested that many types of mental illness may result from derangements in this equilibrium. Understanding such disorders may pave the way not only for solving the abstract (or should I say philosophical) problem of the self at a theoretical level, but also for treating mental illness.” I would say that this richly multifaceted approach seems ambitious, but reviews say Ramachandran’s book is still a comprehensive and satisfying read.

In The Tell Tale Brain Ramachandran elaborates on his older work on synethseia and phantom limbs with new research. With additional empirical research and case studies he builds the story of the cognitive and physical processes behind Capgras Syndrome, when your own mother or poodle becomes an impostor, Cotard’s Syndrome, when you believe that you are dead, and many other rarities. But along with the oddities he also contemplates the evolutionary significance to our normal everyday actions. For example he offers the “peekaboo principle” as a potential explanation for our seemingly universal draw to puzzles, concealment, and partial nudity. I will let you read into that one on your own. He also relates our desire to color-match clothing and accessories to “the experiences of our ancestors when they spotted a lion in the undergrowth by realizing that those yellow patches in between the leaves are parts of a single dangerous object.” Speculation such as this leaves some skeptical.

The main thesis of this piece, though, seems to be the infamous Mirror Neuron and its astronomical influence on human evolution. He believes mirror neurons may be the key to the emergence of culture and language, and essentially, the distinctive human experience. As if the mirror neuron hype wasn’t wild enough, it is about to be taken to a whole different level.

The New York Times Book Review states that some readers may lose track of what is firmly established in research and literature, and what is tentative speculation. This worries me, especially if Ramachandran is aiming at a generally less informed audience. It is easy for something that is an “interesting idea” to turn into a cultural fact if it is passed around and exaggerated enough by people who are not prepared to look to the research – or lack thereof.

I have yet to read this book but I thought it important to give everyone the heads up that this book is something that will be around – you will hear reviews tossed around amongst your classmates, in Paul Lipton’s office, and, if Ramachandran is really making neuroscience as accessible as he hopes, random people on the T. I personally hope that the book does not rely too much on the “shocking” stories we have all come to know, as I feel like some major and important topics in neuroscience can be turned into gimmicks. I have already heard completely unknowing hipsters act really cool by spitting out entirely incorrect information about mirror neurons to “blow the minds” of their friends, so I hope that Ramachandran’s postulations do not add to the vortex that is the obnoxious overconfidence of the only partially informed.

If any of you have read this new book please leave a review/comment and share your take with us!

Book Review- The Tell-Tale Brain- By V.S. Ramachandran –

The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientists Quest for What Makes Us Human –

Vilayanur S. Ramachandran –

3 Comments on The Tell-Tale Brain from the neurObama

  • I too feel guilty for not broadcasting Ramachandran’s scheduled appearance to the neuro community at BU. Perhaps he’ll be promoting a new book in a year or two….

    Over-confidence in new research findings is troubling. It doesn’t help that science journalists at the major newspapers routinely report on “groundbreaking research” with an unhealthy dose of exaggerated claims. Even those that include disclaimers about the tentative nature of the findings may unwittingly be hyping the general public into believing unestablished findings.

    Do you think this is a legitimate threat to the public’s knowledge and perception of science? If so, what should be done to change this?

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