A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness
What is free will? What is body image? Why do we blush? What is art? What is the self? Who am I? Drawing from years of clinical research and medical practice, V.S. Ramachandran invites us to explore some of these daunting philosophical questions through the principles and findings of neuroscience in his book A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness: From Imposter Poodles to Purple Numbers. Dr. Ramachandran has studied some of the most bizarre neurological syndromes ever recorded and in this book attempts to convey the promise that some of these problems may hold for science. In the book he discusses cases of synesthesia, hysteria, phantom limbs, free will and blindsight among other syndromes and goes beyond their presentation to delve into their possible origins and implications behaviorally as well as evolutionary development. From the outset Ramachandran makes it clear that his goal is not to present a complete survey of medical knowledge of the brain but rather to make neuroscience more accessible to those outside of the field who are interested in everything from art to philosophy to simply discovering why the brain works the way it does. A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness may well have been Professor Grobstein’s outline for the course on Neurobiology and Behavior because almost everything discussed in the book has been covered or at least mentioned in our course. This book succeed at being both accessible and engaging, and anyone who reads it should come away with some answers but hopefully scores of ideas and questions that will prompt further exploration.
The author begins with a basic layout of brain architecture and then makes a statement which gives the reader a reason to keep reading: “It never ceases to amaze me that all the richness of our mental life- all our feelings, our emotions, our thoughts, our ambitions, our love lives, our religious sentiments and even what each of us regards as his or her own intimate private self- is simply the activity of these little specks of jelly in our heads, in our brains. There is nothing else (Ramachandran 3).” This is very similar to what we have been made aware of in our course; however as a first time reader I would expect a very good explanation and possibly a more positive way to think about our mental life. Ramachandran delivers admirably, by laying out some of the basic examples he explored in his previous book Phantoms in the Brain such as the problem of phantom limbs, the Capgras delusion (recognizing the visual image of your poodle without an emotional reaction- thus concluding that the poodle is an imposter) and the homunculus. He also offers some of his research techniques and tests done on phantom limb patients and provides a base for further discussion on synesthesia as well as the origins of art, language and culture which he discusses later in the book.
Ramachandran never uses the term “I-Function” but he maintains the distinction between the conscious and the unconscious which related greatly to our course studies. The second Chapter entitled “Believing is Seeing” discussed how in cases of blindsight the unconscious ( or I-Function) is oblivious to actions but the “other” inside the nervous guides hand to a light source. This reminded me of the example in class of Christopher Reeve’s foot, his I-Function cannot direct his food but his “other” or undamaged spinal tissue can in fact move his foot. Ramachandran offers that one pathway directs conscious awareness while neurons in a parallel area of the brain carry out complex computations without being conscious, which is exactly what Reeve’s neurons did unconsciously. With blindsight, the information processed by the unconscious pathway cannot be accessed even through conscious attention. Another interesting thought was that we all have “blindsight” when multitasking, we can’t consciously carry on a conversation while crossing a street and our unconscious navigates our path and monitors cars on either side of us.
One topic that was not covered in our course which is discussed in A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness is cases of “neglect,” where patients with damage on one side of the brain are completely indifferent to the opposite side of the world and will eat only from one side of their plate, shave only one side of their face and draw only one half of a flower. The author discusses the issue of mirror agnosia and mirror treatment for this sort of damage as well as the development of mirror neurons in development which aids in predicting other’s behavior and is crucial for social interactions. Ramachandran also explains that as a neuroscientist he has two practical agendas, the first being the practical application of research for treating patients and the theoretical insights into normal brain function by studying its abnormalities. In our course on Neurobiology and Behavior we heavily focus on the second agenda because we have no patients to treat, however if we could relate the theoretical to the practical medical applications more often it would add a greater dimension of relevance beyond the classroom and our own exploration to the course.
Ramachandran focuses for one chapter of the “Artful Brain” and the possibility of artistic universals that have been present in all artwork from its origins. I had never heard of neuroaesthetics before and was fascinated by the idea that art is entirely about exaggeration and its pleasing affects on the brain as well as the lawful principles of distortion that are universal. Ramachandran used an example from our course when describing individual’s natural preference for an amplified source which was proven when baby birds preferred several red dots on a yellow stick to a single red dot on their mother’s yellow beak. Artists have discovered “figural primitives of our perceptual grammar...they are tapping into these and creating for the human brain the equivalent of the long stick with three stripes (Ramachandran, 47).” He also comically relates art investors to these chicks, which is personally fascinating because I have always wondered why different artists and even periods of art attract some people far more than others. The idea of the origin of art as virtual reality, that is for the practical instruction of offspring about everything from sex to bison hunting, is something that I never considered. Ramachandran offers that the solution to the problem of aesthetics can be found in understanding the connections between the thirty visual centers in the brain and the emotional limbic structures. This goes along with our course idea that the brain is entirely interconnected and interrelated and that we will never be able to define the brain in terms of separate divisions with separate functions.
The first of the two most personally important points made by Dr. Ramachandran was the historic parameters necessary for a curious medical phenomenon to be included in mainstream science. Ramachandran states that to have an impact it must,” First it has to be a demonstrably real phenomenon (reliably repeatable under controlled conditions), secondly it must be a candidate mechanism that explains the phenomenon in terms of previously known principles, and thirdly it has to have significant implication beyond the phenomenon itself (Ramachandran 62).” This provides the basis for our course study because most of the cases and curiosities we have discussed have yet to achieve impact within mainstream science. In A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness, Ramachandran’s excitement about these cases is palpable and I know that if more attention was given to these anomalies then great strides would be made in understanding the function of the normal brain. This is crucial because in my opinion (and as we have discussed in class) current psychiatric practice is only masking the source of most mental illness and single solutions are applied to far too many cases. This leads to the second most personally important point:” There have traditionally been two different approaches to mental illness. The first one tries to identify chemical imbalances, changes in transmitters and receptors in the brain, and attempts to correct these changes using drugs… The second approach we can loosely characterize as the so-called Freudian approach. It assumes that most mental illness arises from early upbringing (Ramachandran 84).” Ramachandran offers a third approach, which is the understanding of how each mental change produces the bizarre symptoms that it does and why it affects different patients in such diverse ways. Only with this understanding is it possible to identify and treat patients.
I would highly recommend V.S. Ramachandran’s A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness not only for its broad base of practical and necessary insight into the function of the brain but also for its immense intellectual stimulation. Ramachandran is right in saying that the entirety of our conscious and unconscious self is the activity of tiny specks in our brains, and after reading this book one can easily agree that this fact can only help to make us appreciate the richness and limitless possibility of our mental lives.
Ramachandran, V.S. A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness: From Imposter Poodles to Purple Numbers. New York: Pi Press, 2004.