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Phantoms in the Brain:
Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind
by V.S. Ramachandran, Sandra Blakeslee
Quill William Morrow, 1998
328 pages, softcover
Review by Jim Walker

This book presents a fascinating look at how the brain works and the unusual beliefs of people who had damage to their brains, or who had their brains remapped due to amputated limbs. Ramachandran works as a professor and director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California. The writing by Blakeslee and Ramachandran gives us, not only clear descriptions of the complex workings of the brain, but it entertains us through humor and philosophical insights as to the meaning of self, consciousness, and the mechanisms of belief. The book contains many illustrations of the brain and includes several interesting visual experiments that you can perform on yourself.

The implications of Ramachandran's studies appear radical. Not only do they help confirm the idea that the self consists of an illusion from the interactions of many brain functions, but that our spiritual feelings of God and our sense of certainty come from the brain's temporal lobes. (Other scientists such as Paul Maclean and Michael Persinger had also observed that spiritual sensations or a sensed presence results from probing or stimulating the temporal lobes). According to Ramachandran, pain also comes as an illusion from a construction of the brain just as any other sensory experience. Even people with missing arms or legs can feel intense pain in their phantom limbs. It appears that our body image, our sense of self, pain and sensory experience consist of maps that help us survive in the world. Ramachandran suggests the possibility that "perhaps we are hallucinating all the time and what we call perception is arrived at by simply determining which hallucination best conforms to the current sensory input."

Ramachandran knows how to ask pertinent questions to get to the facts. Throughout this book, he examines questions, points out fallacies of past philosophers and sees features that sensations must have in order to fit the model of consciousness. He proposes that conscious sensations (qualia) must have at least three features: irrevocability (or stability), choice (the ability to make decisions), and memory. By understanding these three features, we can ask if certain actions by other animals (such as bees finding honey) or by brain damaged people have conscious awareness of their actions.

How did consciousness arrive in humans? Ramachandran sees it as a result of evolutionary and cultural pressure that interact, not only with the world around us, but with the people to whom we communicate. Both brains and culture use languages; one uses a neural language, the other a spoken language. The seat of consciousness, Ramachandran proposes, lies in the circuitry of the temporal lobes and associated limbic structures. The result of all this comes as a great irony: "that the self that almost by definition is entirely private is to a significant extent a social construct-- a story you make up for others."

A few quotes from the book:

A piece of your brain the size of a grain of sand would contain one hundred thousand neurons, two million axons and one billion synapses, all "talking to" each other.

Pain is an opinion on the organism's state of health rather than a mere reflective response to an injury. There is no direct hotline from pain receptors to "pain centers" in the brain.

Your own body is a phantom, one that your brain has temporarily constructed purely for convenience.

The mechanisms of perception are mainly involved in extracting statistical correlations from the world to create a model that is temporarily useful.

One could argue that the term consciousness doesn't mean anything unless you recognize the emotional significance and semantic associations of what you are looking at.

We have given up the idea that there is a soul separate from our minds and bodies.

Every medical student is taught that patients with epileptic seizures originating in this part of the brain [temporal lobes] can have intense, spiritual experiences during the seizures and sometimes become preoccupied with religion and moral issues even during the seizure-free or interictal periods.

But most remarkable of all are those patients who have deeply moving spiritual experiences, including a feeling of divine presence and the sense that they are in direct communion with God. Everything around them is imbued with cosmic significance. They may say, "I finally understand what it's all about. This is the moment I've been waiting for all my life. Suddenly it all makes sense." Or, "Finally have insight into the true nature of the cosmos." I find it ironic that this sense of enlightenment, this absolute conviction that Truth is revealed at last, should derive from limbic structures concerned with emotions rather than from the thinking, rational parts of the brain that take so much pride in their ability to discern truth and falsehood.

Could it be that human beings have actually evolved specialized neural circuitry for the sole purpose of mediating religious experience? The human belief in the supernatural is so widespread in all societies all over the world that it's tempting to ask whether the propensity for such beliefs might have a biological basis.

What would happen to the patient's personality-- especially his spiritual leanings-- if we removed a chunk of his temporal lobe?

The one clear conclusion that emerges from all this is that there are circuits in the human brain that are involved in religious experience and these become hyperactive in some epileptics.

It's probably not coincidence that many of the most creative scientists have a great sense of humor.

[P]erhaps it's time to recognize that the division between mind and body may be no more than a pedagogic device for instructing medical students-- and not a useful construct for understanding human health, disease and behavior.

This need to reconcile the first-person and third-person accounts of the universe (the "I" verses the "he" or "it" view) is the single most important unsolved problem in science.

For centuries philosophers have assumed that this gap between brain and mind poses a deep epistemological problem-- a barrier that simply cannot be crossed. But is this really true? I agree that the barrier hasn't yet been crossed, but does it follow that it can never be crossed? I'd like to argue that there is in fact no such barrier, no great vertical divide in nature between mind and matter, substance and spirit. Indeed, I believe that this barrier is only apparent that is arises as a result of language. This sort of obstacle emerges when there is any translation from one language to another.

I submit that we are dealing here with two mutually unintelligible languages. One is the language of nerve impulses-- the spatial and temporal patterns of neuronal activity that allow us to see red, for example. The second language, the one that allows us to communicate what we are seeing to others, is a natural spoken tongue like English or German or Japanese-- rarefied, compressed waves of air traveling between you and the listener. Both are languages in the strict technical sense, that is, they are information-rich messages that are intended to convey meaning, across synapses between different brain parts in one case and across the air between two people in the other.

If one enumerates all of the attributes that we usually associate with the words "consciousness" and "awareness," each of them, you will notice, has a correlate in temporal lobe seizures, including vivid visual and auditory hallucinations, "out of body" experiences and an absolute sense of omnipotence or omniscience.


Foreword by Oliver Sacks, M.D.
Chapter 1: The Phantom Within
Chapter 2: "Knowing Where to Scratch"
Chapter 3: Chasing the Phantom
Chapter 4: The Zombie in the Brain
Chapter 5: The Secret Life of James Thurber
Chapter 6: Through the Looking Glass
Chapter 7: The Sound of One Hand Clapping
Chapter 8: "The Unbearable Likeness of Being"
Chapter 9: God and the Limbic System
Chapter 10: The Woman Who Died Laughing
Chapter 11: "You Forgot to Deliver the Twin"
Chapter 12: Do Martians See Red?
Bibliography and Suggested Reading

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Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind (Hardcover), (Paperback)