Book review: Phantoms in the brain

Ordered this book on Flipkart, based on my cousin’s recommendation. When I read the back-cover and saw that it was all about neurology, I had my doubts whether I would be able to get to the end in one piece. As always I checked it out on Amazon and was convinced that it was a book any layman could read! V.S. Ramachandran, the author is reputed to be the kind who makes neurology approachable to the common man, and many of his students weighed in that his classes were among the best to attend because of this approach.

He starts off well, explaining how neurology holds the answer for different behaviours observed in people which are sudden and inexplicable. Like the woman who felt her left hand trying to strangle her sometimes, moving on to ‘phantom limbs’, where amputees who have lost their limbs feel the presence of the limbs in the form of sensations. Cases which would be considered psychological, but were actually neurological, where some ‘wiring’ in the brain had gone a bit wrong. Like in the case of the suicidal arm, where the connection between the left and the right side had been destroyed in a stroke giving the emotional and now suicidal right side full control over the left arm!

At some points I wondered if it was a bit like a spiritual book where all the Yogi mostly talks about are miracles performed by Gurus to establish their credentials. But eventually the approach made sense. VSR explains that the brain is one of the least understood parts of the body and most things about it are still beyond our realm of understanding. So he approaches the problem by looking at people who had quirks and issues, and approaching the brain from the perspective of what could be wrong that is causing this issue. To put it in Software terms, you have an idea of a complex system where there are modules which you have assigned different roles to. And then there is a bug which you debug to understand better about which module or interface between modules could be wrong! Another book that it reminded me of was Isaac Asimov’s ‘I, Robot’, where he defines a Robot’s wiring and programmed brain as mainly governed by the 3 laws of Robotics established at the start of the novel. Different stories explore some mistake or quirk caused by the wiring either malfunctioning, some situation that goes beyond the laws confusing the robot, or the programmers’ own not understanding the complete implications of a robot’s performing in a situation under the laws. (Another book, I’d recommend btw.)

There are many things that are interesting to learn. The balance between the emotional right side and the logical left side of the brain and how a stroke which affects one side can leave you in a state of looking at life through the working side’s perspective. The chapter on ‘denial’ where paralysis patients deny the paralysis if it happens on the left side of the body (right side of the brain) is really interesting. The world view as seen by the two sides and how they reconcile to give you the view and perspective you see is especially interesting. It’s common to read that the brain looks for patterns to fill things into it. He explores that idea deeper and how different sides of the brain function for that to happen – where the left side does the pigeon-holing and the right side mainly calls out when things are different and need to be given a closer look!

There is one chapter which talks of what we call the instinct, where muscles fire without ‘us’ ;registering’ the full event. Like the hand that manages to catch a ball flying by leaving you surprised and joyous – ‘the ball caught the hand’ scenario commonly seen in cricket! He brings out how different parts of the brain get the input from the eyes, one for the ‘what you are seeing’ and the one for the ‘how to deal with it’. A case where a patient can’t really ‘see’ properly but can post a letter into an angled slot at a distance precisely illustrates how inputs go to different parts and it’s like another ‘Zombie’ lives in us!

Slowly he moves into emotion-handling with a case where a patient, after an accident, recognizes his parents, but thinks of them as impostors. Intriguing, but he gets to the issue and finds that the right emotions were not fired due to an injury to a part of the brain. This meant that his eyes told him who they were, but the brain said they were not who they were because of the lack of the right emotions. It eventually reconciled the two by concluding that they were impostors! This also meant that he had no such qualms when they called him and spoke on the phone as the emotions were not expected to fire for visual cues there!

When he goes into epilepsy and the ‘other-worldly’ experience of epileptics, especially of the temporal lobe, there are really interesting questions he raises at different points, like the Nurture vs Nature, as to what is learned by us and what is inherent. Like music, art appreciation etc. Again, it brought back memories of ZAMM and his concept of quality. Like there, he proposes interesting solutions, more like his suggested hypothesis and how evolution would have helped it along. The last couple of chapters mainly deal with these and religion and mostly his idea of how the brain could’ve been helped along. He asks interesting questions about ‘how religion evolved’ and what parts of the brain deal with it. Again, there are no straight answers and he provides only his best guesses and hypotheses which he says are very difficult to prove by experiment!

There are other very interesting issues he deals with like how much power the brain wields over the body, the placebo effect etc. The case of false pregnancies where the body goes through every physiological thing a pregnant woman does, including a bloated belly, except that there is no child inside is very interesting. He lists out cases of people with the Bollywood-obsession Multiple personality disorder and how one personality even has diabetes while the other does not. He does note that these MPD cases are recorded cases and he can’t confirm how true and valid they, or even MPD is.

This is a very interesting book and there are lot here that we never knew and should know! I cannot recommend this enough. At around 250 odd pages (excluding the detailed notes at the end, and some 280+ if you include them), it’s not a tome and the stories and presentation keep you interested right till the end!

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