Review of Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind, By V.S. Ramachandran
In Phantoms in the Brain, Dr. V.S. Ramachandran recounts his work with patients who have bizarre neurological disorders, such as blindsight, phantom limb pain, and anosognosia. His findings shed light on the complex structural design of the brain and how the brain enables us to construct our body image, control our emotions, dream, make decisions, and have beliefs. These findings tell us about who we are. In addition, his studies confirm the idea that the self (I-function) consists of an illusion from the interactions of many brain functions.
I will be focusing on laughter and pseudocyesis (phantom pregnancy), as there are many neurological phenomenons explored throughout the book. While reading, I found these two neurological mysteries to be the most intriguing. In addition, I feel that they are good examples of how the brain and in particular the I-function, contributes to our understanding of how signals from inside of the box get translated to outputs.
In Chapter 10, The Women who Died Laughing, Ramachandran opens with a story about Willy. While Willy was attending his mother's funeral he broke into a fit of laughter that wouldn't stop. His family checked him into the local hospital for evaluation. The doctors could find nothing wrong, save for his uncontrollable laughter. Two days later, a nurse found Willy unconscious in his bed, having suffered a subarachnoid hemorrhage, and he died without regaining consciousness. The postmortem showed a large ruptured aneurysm in an artery at the base of his brain that had compressed part of his hypothalamus, mammillary bodies, and other structures on the floor of his brain. According to Ramachandran, "the abnormal activity or damage that sets people giggling is almost always located in portions of the limbic system, a set of structures including the hypothalamus, mammillary bodies, and cingulate gyrus that are involved in emotion" (1) . This theory fits perfectly with what we learned in class about the role of the I-function. If part of the limbic system is sending out a constant signal to the I-function that says 'laugh', then the I-function might override the signal from the frontal lobes saying 'this is inappropriate'. I think it's fascinating that one small change in the brain's wiring causes a whole cascade of processes to go wrong.
In the next chapter, You Forgot to Deliver the Twin, Ramachandran explores the phenomenon of phantom pregnancies. Mary was nine months pregnant when she first visited Dr. Monroe. She felt the baby kicking and suspected that labor was about to begin and wanted Dr. Monroe to make sure the baby was in the right position. While Dr. Monroe was examining her, he found that her abdomen was vastly enlarged and low, suggesting that the fetus had dropped and her breasts were swollen, the nipples mottled. However, he could not get a fetal heatbeat and her naval was all wrong. One sure sign of pregnancy is a pushed-out belly button; Mary's was inverted. Mary was exhibiting a classic case of pseudocyesis. Some women who want to get pregnant or dread pregnancy develop all the signs and symptoms of a true pregnancy. Everything seems normal except there is no baby. Dr. Monroe knew that if he told Mary that there was no baby she would not believe him. Instead he told her he was going to put her to sleep and deliver the baby. When she awoke he told her the baby had died during birth. Right away her abdomen began to subside.
Can one's mind really will oneself to be pregnant? Ramachandran explains this phenomenon as a case of operant conditioning and depression. "When Mary, who wants to be pregnant, sees her abdomen enlarge due to gas and feels her diaphragm fall, she learns unconsciously that the lower it falls, the more pregnant she looks" (1) . In addition, intense longing for a child and associated depression might reduce levels of dopamine and norepinephrine which could in turn reduce production of both prolactin-inhibition factor and follicle-stimulating hormone. Low levels of these hormones would lead to no ovulation and menstruation and breast enlargement and lactation, as well as maternal behavior.
Pseudocyesis is a perfect example of how forming new observations can lead to a better understanding. One of the things I enjoyed learning this semester was not to take everything at face value. Science is not exact and new observations are always being made and tested. This is very important because one should always question since you never know what you'll prove or disprove. Science is not about being right, but about being less wrong. Ramachandran does a wonderful job of explaining the step by step processes he took to get science less wrong.
This book paralleled the course of the semester well because as I was reading it, we were going more into depth about the subjects in class. For example, while we were learning about vision, I was reading the chapter on blindsight. I was able to take the knowledge that I learned in class and apply it to what I was reading. I think it would be very helpful to students if this book was assigned as mandatory reading during the semester. It's easy to read, funny, and relates exactly to the class material.
1) Ramachandran, V.S. Phantoms in the Brain. New York: HarperCollins, 1998.