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The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist's Quest for What Makes Us Human

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V. S. Ramachandran is at the forefront of his field-so much so that Richard Dawkins dubbed him the "Marco Polo of neuroscience." Now, in a major new work, Ramachandran sets his sights on the mystery of human uniqueness. Taking us to the frontiers of neurology, he reveals what baffling and extreme case studies can teach us about normal brain function and how it evolved. Syn V. S. Ramachandran is at the forefront of his field-so much so that Richard Dawkins dubbed him the "Marco Polo of neuroscience." Now, in a major new work, Ramachandran sets his sights on the mystery of human uniqueness. Taking us to the frontiers of neurology, he reveals what baffling and extreme case studies can teach us about normal brain function and how it evolved. Synesthesia becomes a window into the brain mechanisms that make some of us more creative than others. And autism--for which Ramachandran opens a new direction for treatment--gives us a glimpse of the aspect of being human that we understand least: self-awareness. Ramachandran tackles the most exciting and controversial topics in neurology with a storyteller's eye for compelling case studies and a researcher's flair for new approaches to age-old questions. Tracing the strange links between neurology and behavior, this book unveils a wealth of clues into the deepest mysteries of the human brain.


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V. S. Ramachandran is at the forefront of his field-so much so that Richard Dawkins dubbed him the "Marco Polo of neuroscience." Now, in a major new work, Ramachandran sets his sights on the mystery of human uniqueness. Taking us to the frontiers of neurology, he reveals what baffling and extreme case studies can teach us about normal brain function and how it evolved. Syn V. S. Ramachandran is at the forefront of his field-so much so that Richard Dawkins dubbed him the "Marco Polo of neuroscience." Now, in a major new work, Ramachandran sets his sights on the mystery of human uniqueness. Taking us to the frontiers of neurology, he reveals what baffling and extreme case studies can teach us about normal brain function and how it evolved. Synesthesia becomes a window into the brain mechanisms that make some of us more creative than others. And autism--for which Ramachandran opens a new direction for treatment--gives us a glimpse of the aspect of being human that we understand least: self-awareness. Ramachandran tackles the most exciting and controversial topics in neurology with a storyteller's eye for compelling case studies and a researcher's flair for new approaches to age-old questions. Tracing the strange links between neurology and behavior, this book unveils a wealth of clues into the deepest mysteries of the human brain.

30 review for The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist's Quest for What Makes Us Human

  1. 5 out of 5

    Petra X's driving in a Mustang GT to Key West

    Ramachandran is as wonderful a writer as he is a brilliant scientist which easy reading of not always simple science. In his book, Phantoms In The Brain: Human Nature And The Architecture Of The Mind, neurologist Ramachandran was more concerned with how the physical brain and what goes wrong with it affects the mind. A very similar field to Oliver Sacks. (They really differ in that Sacks thought of all his patients as people who had an often very interesting disorder. Ramachandran thinks of them Ramachandran is as wonderful a writer as he is a brilliant scientist which easy reading of not always simple science. In his book, Phantoms In The Brain: Human Nature And The Architecture Of The Mind, neurologist Ramachandran was more concerned with how the physical brain and what goes wrong with it affects the mind. A very similar field to Oliver Sacks. (They really differ in that Sacks thought of all his patients as people who had an often very interesting disorder. Ramachandran thinks of them as patients!) In this book, he is concerned with how disorders of the person that originate in the brain are related to the physical brain, to the structures of it and how it works. In both books, everything is illustrated with examples of people and their behavioural problems with roots in neurology not psychology. Sometimes the author uses them as a jumping-off point for a lecture on the brain, neurons, the very important but hitherto unknown by me, mirror neurons, our senses and various structures of the brain. One of the most interesting to me because I have experienced it many times in my wonderfully mispent youth (view spoiler)[ not over yet, well the youth is but the 'wonderfully mispending' or I hope not anyway (hide spoiler)] is synesthesia . This is where the senses cross over from the appropriate, like being able to see the colour blue, to the very odd or inappropriate, like also being able to listen to it, feel it, possibly smell it or associate it with a particular number. I experienced it on LSD, everyone on acid did I think, it was one of the reasons to like it so much. I used to listen to music and then watch it unfold, dance in front of me in wonderful colours and patterns. sometimes ribbons in the sky, sometimes in puffs of warm air I could feel. An orange I peeled and ate exploded in my mouth into tiny pinpricks of colours, pure primaries and jewel tones. You never forget it's so extraordinary the sensation of there being an additional sense to the one you expect. These were not hallucinations but sensory experiences. Sometimes though the synesthesia edged off into hallucinations (even more enjoyable). I remember that once the notes of the music got up and formed two tiny armies and marched across the carpet unfurling flags at each other in perfect time to the beat, changing colours like a chameleon keeping time with the bass guitar line. (I was kneeling by the electric fire saluting, I kid you not, kind of taking the march past of these musical note armies).\ Ultimately, in the book Ramachandran is on a quest for what makes us human and not like the animals, not one step up from the primates but completely different. What is consciousness and self-awareness, the soul if you like, and where does it lie? In what structure of the brain does it reside in us and no other? Is our humanity, our selfhood, not a sum of how we experience the world and think and dream at night about it? Is it really to be found in a physical structure? Ramachandran's book was a quest to find it and it is a good journey he takes us on, but the end is not in sight.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Riku Sayuj

    Brilliant book - Informative, entertaining and never too pedantic. Some of the concepts teeter on the edge of wild speculation but is cheerfully admitted to be so by the author. Am truly lucky to have an autographed copy of this pathbreaking book. :) Will try to give a longer review with some of the more important points later. Anatomy IS Destiny!

  3. 4 out of 5

    David

    This is a brilliant book by a first-rate scientist. Ramachandran has personally made some amazing discoveries in the field of neuroscience. His writing is lucid, and his enthusiastic, personable style makes this an informative, as well as a very entertaining book. Ramachandran's approach is to investigate patients who have had varying degrees and types of brain defects or injuries. These patients acquire abilities or handicaps that Ramachandran interprets and analyzes, in the hope of casting ligh This is a brilliant book by a first-rate scientist. Ramachandran has personally made some amazing discoveries in the field of neuroscience. His writing is lucid, and his enthusiastic, personable style makes this an informative, as well as a very entertaining book. Ramachandran's approach is to investigate patients who have had varying degrees and types of brain defects or injuries. These patients acquire abilities or handicaps that Ramachandran interprets and analyzes, in the hope of casting light on the underlying structure of the brain. Some of these handicaps are quite bizarre, for example: blindsight, in which a person has only subconscious ability to see; synesthesia, in which a person sees numbers (or musical notes) in colors; fantom limbs, in which an amputee "feels" pain emanating from the missing limb; a condition where a person with partial paralysis vehemently denies that he/she has any problem; and many, many more interesting cases. Ramachandran shows how important mirror neurons are, in making us "human". He explains why they evolved in our brains, and how central the feeling of empathy is to human survival. This topic is made exquisitely interesting, by Ramachandran's original analyses and hypotheses. What's more, Ramachandran often proposes experiments that could be used to test his hypotheses. Given enough time, I think that he would personally perform all of these experiments.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Lightreads

    I've never read Ramachandran in long form before, and I don't think I ever will again. This stuff is right up my tree – popular neurology – but . . . no. I started having a sinking feeling at "Over the years I have worked with hundreds of patients afflicted, though some feel they are blessed, with a great diversity of unusual and curious neurological disorders." Oh really said my eyebrows, because that could either be a careless turn of phrase, or a blunt dismissal of the social model of disabil I've never read Ramachandran in long form before, and I don't think I ever will again. This stuff is right up my tree – popular neurology – but . . . no. I started having a sinking feeling at "Over the years I have worked with hundreds of patients afflicted, though some feel they are blessed, with a great diversity of unusual and curious neurological disorders." Oh really said my eyebrows, because that could either be a careless turn of phrase, or a blunt dismissal of the social model of disability and the understanding of disability as anything other than a curse. I forged on with an open mind. Spoilers: it was the second one. A few of the lowlights: a lot of clinically accurate yet deeply disturbing discussion of autism in which Ramachandran all but questions the place of autistic people in the human race; repeated descriptions of how brave it is for patients to try to remain happy despite their afflictions (I mean, can you imagine actually being happy with a disability!); an endorsement of Cure Autism Now, which I will put in the correct disability politics context by explaining that my hiss and recoil was exactly the same you'd make if you were a lifelong liberal who discovered the person advising you on political facts was an ardent Tea Partier. So yeah. Really wish I hadn't given him any money.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Nicholas

    I don't really know all that much about neuroscience or the field in general, so please take this review with a grain of salt. I have to say that I was pretty disappointed by The Tell-Tale Brain, which billed itself to be an overview tour of the brain and how it is used to delineate our sense of self. This is primarily achieved by examining brain-based maladies with the thinking that really outlandish and odd neurological conditions can highlight what different parts of the brain are responsible I don't really know all that much about neuroscience or the field in general, so please take this review with a grain of salt. I have to say that I was pretty disappointed by The Tell-Tale Brain, which billed itself to be an overview tour of the brain and how it is used to delineate our sense of self. This is primarily achieved by examining brain-based maladies with the thinking that really outlandish and odd neurological conditions can highlight what different parts of the brain are responsible for and how they might work together. This is a sound, logical approach, and some of the conditions hinted at in the introduction were so bizarre that I was readying myself for a wild ride. For the most part, the informational content of the book is sound. Ramachandran is a leader in the field of neuroscience, a giant among his peers and worthy of a lot of the praise he receives for the therapies and intuitions he's developed over the years diagnosing and treating neurological conditions using a Sherlock Holmesian approach. Unfortunately, it seems that a lot of that praise has gone to Dr. Ramachandran's head and he feels compelled to constantly insert his self into the tale in ways that I personally found obtrusive and distracting. I'm willing to concede that maybe I was being really picky and finicky, or that maybe the thought of my vacation's imminent end distracted my with upcoming responsibilities while reading through the book preventing immersion and heightening my focus on words and phrases that jarred. In fact, I'm hoping someone I know will read this and give a second opinion to either tell me I'm crazy or if there's really something there and I'm not just imagining things. Anyway, there were several things that bothered me about this book as a scientific work, even one designed for popular audiences and most of these problems are stylistic. Each chapter is divided into a different aspect of brain function and follows a general problem of examining curious cases of neurological maladies and what it reveals about how our brains work within that process. There are chapters relating to vision and perception, feeling, and consciousness. The approach and format work well and provide interesting stories and one would expect that most of these stories would be from personal experience. Ramachandran gives the impression in almost every single chapter and disease that he was absolutely instrumental in the diagnosis and development of treatment. The general pattern of disease/revelation is followed by a not-so-subtle pattern of "And that led me to propose in 199X, blah blah blah, which was later confirmed by so-and-so and is now the standard treatment in dealing with blah blah blah disease...." This latter habit casts the rest of the work in a very poor light to me. It shifts the focus of the book from the evolutionary and functional development of the brain to the achievements of Dr. Ramachandran the Great and Magnificent (and by the way, here's some stuff about the brain that I figured out to sate your curiosity). Am I being unfair? Maybe. Ramachandran is a very well-respected neurologist and a lot of the works he congratulates himself for have been professionally published and reviewed. In short, he deserves the praise - but doing so yourself is really distracting. Perhaps I'm especially cognizant of this self-congratulation because of the volume of scientific memoirs and pop-sci books I consume. True, I usually stick to the physical sciences, but earlier this year I did read The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee and the experience was very different. In Emperor, Mukherjee used case studies to give a personal context to the disease being studied, to bring the science and history of cancer to life. There's a reverence when dealing with the patients that seems befitting and less like they're being used by the author. Dr. Ramachandran seems to do quite the reverse. At times, it feels like his list of patients are rungs on the ladder of achievement and excuses for self-congratulation and personal aggrandizements. Again, Dr. Ramachandran is indeed a renowned neuroscientist with plenty of professional publications and treatment methods ascribed to his name. He has earned bragging rights, but there are whole chapters of this book where he comes across as narcissistic. I've also read Einstein and Feynman in their own words, pivotal figures in the development of physics and wonderful people to boot. Their works are personal yet filled with humility and almost never bespeak their personal achievements. If you didn't know what they achieved before picking up their autobiographies, you wouldn't really have any idea about them after, even when they were talking about developments in their respective fields to lay audiences. Ramachandran's style was just a major turn-off to me. The second major problem I had was probably more the fault of the editors of the work. Ramachandran has a rather annoying habit of giving asides that come across as flippant or pedantic. He includes references to other fields and terminology or to literary works not because they elucidate some principle he's discussing, but because it makes him look smart. Or at least that's the way I read it. Here's an example: "Note that the fusiform area itself mainly performs a dry classification of objects: It discriminates Ps from Qs, hawks from handsaws, and Joe from Jane, but it does not assign significance to any of them. Its role is analogous to that of a shell collector (conchologist) or a butterfly collector (lepidopterist), who classifies and labels hundreds of specimens into discrete nonoverlapping conceptual bins without necessarily knowing (or caring) anything else about them." Again, call me picky. Both of these are good analogies, however it seems redundant and almsot braggadocious (boastful) to give the jargon once you've already made the point. Either use conchologist and lepidopterist and expect your audience to know what you mean or just stick with shell collector and butterfly collector and move on. Doing otherwise makes it appear that you're showing off your fancy lexicon like you're trying out for Jeopardy or something. One instance may be forgiven, but the redundant use of these parentheticals continues throughout the work. As an editor, I'd have eliminated them. The last problem I had (again, stylistically) was the inclusion of dialogue in significant portions of the book. Certainly, science writers make use of occasional bits of dialogue and quotation in their works, Mukherjee does this in Emperor of all Maladies, but these instances are usually well-contained and brief or are extracted from recordings or interviews. Ramachandran seems to re-invent whole passages of conversations from 15 years ago right down to the jokes he used and the responses he's gotten. Either his memory is incredible or he's just making them up to suit the point he's trying to make, usually points that are already well-made by their invocation in the narrative. The following example was from the early part of the chapter on synesthesia: Certain otherwise normal people claim they see sounds, or that certain numbers always evoke certain colors,” we told the class. “If any one of you experiences this, please raise your hands.” To our disappointment, not a single hand went up. But later that day, as I was chatting with Ed in my office, two students knocked on the door. One of them, Susan, had striking blue eyes, streaks of red dye in her blonde ringlets, a silver ring in her belly button and an enormous skateboard. She said to us, “I’m one of those people you talked about in class, Dr. Ramachandran. I didn’t raise my hand because I didn’t want people to think I was weird or something. I didn’t even know that there were others like me or that the condition had a name." Ed and I looked at each other, pleasantly surprised. We asked the other student to come back later, and waved Susan into a chair. She leaned the skateboard against the wall and sat down. “How long have you experienced this?” I asked. “Oh, from early childhood. But I didn’t really pay much attention to it at that time, I suppose. But then it gradually dawned on me that it was really odd, and I didn’t discuss it with anyone…I didn’t want people thinking I was crazy or something. Until you mentioned it in class, I didn’t know that it had a name. What did you call it, syn…es…something that rhymes with anesthesia?” “It’s called synesthesia,” I said. “Susan, I want you to describe your experiences to me in detail. Our lab has a special interest in it. What exactly do you experience?” “When I see certain numbers, I always see specific colors. The number 5 is always a specific shade of dull red, 3 is blue, 7 is bright blood red, 8 is yellow, and 9 is chartreuse.” I grabbed a felt pen and pad that were on the table and drew a big 7. “What do you see?” “Well, it’s not a very clean 7. But it looks red…I told you that.” “Now I want you to think carefully before you answer this question. Do you actually see the red? Or does it just make you think of red or make you visualize red…like a memory image. For example, when I hear the word ‘Cinderella,’ I think of a young girl or of pumpkins or coaches. Is it like that? Or do you literally see the color?” “That’s a tough one. It’s something I have often asked myself. I guess I do really see it. That number you drew looks distinctly red to me. But I can also see that it’s really black—or I should say, I know it’s black. So in some sense it is a memory image of sorts…I must be seeing it in my mind’s eye or something. But it certainly doesn’t feel like that. It feels like I am actually seeing it. It’s very hard to describe, Doctor.” “You are doing very well, Susan. You are a good observer and that makes everything you say valuable.” The dialogue to me is just a huge distraction and deviation from the otherwise scientific tone of the work in general and don't do well to personalize the condition (as I'm sure was the intention) - especially that bit about Susan mispronouncing synesthesia. To sum up, The Tell Tale Brain does contain some really good information and the sections where the information is presented without commentary work really well. I liked the detective-like approach to making inferences and assumptions about how the brain functions and I liked Ramachandran's overall approach toward psychology, Freudian psychology specifically, and his attempt to enhance those fields with a brain-based physiological understanding of certain common disorders like anxiety and depersonalization. I also liked that he made it a point to highlight areas for future research and to make clear to the reader when he was straying into the realms of speculation. Overall, there were just too many narrative and stylistic distractions for me to fully appreciate the science going on here. If you're interested in neuroscience, I have no alternatives to suggest since I'm rather new to the field myself, but give it a shot anyway. It's comprehensive and maybe I am just crazy. Let me know.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Catherine

    Brilliant books as expected from the prestigious reviews seen on its cover. It's a book about various aspects of human brain functions, explained in lay language, but without compromising the quality of the information. A case study illustrates the issue at the start of each chapter, then the chapter goes into explaining what is known about the issue - but the author is a researcher and a clinician and this book goes far beyond just describing the state of the art. Many new hypotheses are presen Brilliant books as expected from the prestigious reviews seen on its cover. It's a book about various aspects of human brain functions, explained in lay language, but without compromising the quality of the information. A case study illustrates the issue at the start of each chapter, then the chapter goes into explaining what is known about the issue - but the author is a researcher and a clinician and this book goes far beyond just describing the state of the art. Many new hypotheses are presented and the author discusses them in all honesty, presenting the evidence indicating that these hypotheses are plausible and presenting also the possible experiments that could be done in the future to support the hypotheses. I particularly enjoyed the parts dealing with mirror neurons, intropspection and evolution of langage. I truly learned a lot. I have been a researcher in psycholinguistics for about 6 years in the past (about 8 years ago) and I have never come accross such a good synthesis of the main issues and main hypotheses on the topic of the evolution of language - of course a lot more could be written but it's an excellent read and the author has brilliant new ideas on this topic... like on many others. The author has been compared to a new Marco Polo. Yes indeed, fantastic journey!

  7. 4 out of 5

    Martha Love

    Ramachandran explores through fascinating case story telling and research data the mysteries of the human brain. His examples of brain memory are an eye opener and give a new perspective on how we view the dynamics of consciousness and health issues related to brain defects and injuries. I am most grateful after reading his book to finally understand why people feel pain in their stomach first when they have appendicitis (just one of those mysteries in life I always wondered about). Although qui Ramachandran explores through fascinating case story telling and research data the mysteries of the human brain. His examples of brain memory are an eye opener and give a new perspective on how we view the dynamics of consciousness and health issues related to brain defects and injuries. I am most grateful after reading his book to finally understand why people feel pain in their stomach first when they have appendicitis (just one of those mysteries in life I always wondered about). Although quite technical, I found this to be one of the most informative books in brain science that I have read. Martha Love, Author of What's Behind Your Belly Button? A Psychological Perspective of the Intelligence of Human Nature and Gut Instinct and Increasing Intuitional Intelligence: How the Awareness of Instinctual Gut Feelings Fosters Human Learning, Intuition, and Longevity

  8. 5 out of 5

    Cassandra Kay Silva

    I have to emotionally review this book and then write a response to another reviewer. AMAZING! So fun, so many good facts and brain candy. I love how out of so many things that we consider "disorders" we can piece together ourselves in our many arrayed fashion and find similarities and Synesthesia? What who ever heard of people responding to number-color categories in the fashion fabulous! So many interesting and intriguing case studies. Our mind is so variable and so fragile, we are all humble I have to emotionally review this book and then write a response to another reviewer. AMAZING! So fun, so many good facts and brain candy. I love how out of so many things that we consider "disorders" we can piece together ourselves in our many arrayed fashion and find similarities and Synesthesia? What who ever heard of people responding to number-color categories in the fashion fabulous! So many interesting and intriguing case studies. Our mind is so variable and so fragile, we are all humble creatures with the minds to see ourselves withing the universe. How unique how beautiful! Now I want to respond to a number of reviewers who have commented that his tone in this work made it seem as if our brain capacity is at such a higher level as to make us the pinnacle of the evolutionary tree. I completely agree that this is not the case and I must say that yes the author did come across in this manner and that it is disappointing from an evolutionary view to have the author jummp to this conclusion. I first realized that we are certainly not the pinnacle of anything when viewing and learning about the life cycle of moss in my biology class and finding out that they live a large diplontic phase, instead of the traditional haploid/diploid phases of plants which makes them very unique indeed and in their own way the pinnacle of their kind. This only shows me that there is no pinnacle, there is no such thing. We can never have a diplontic life cycle we are not built to and in this way moss is superior to us if we want to apport superiority. In addition we can never gather our own energy from light as many plants do and in this way they too are superior to us. We do have a fascinating brain though and interesting capacities in our own right, and while I must say to the author that I think he made a mistake in treating us as the pinnacle, I do think our intellectual capacities should be expounded and celebrated and that we should search for new insights into this vastly interesting world we call neuroscience and consciousness. In this regard the book is fabulous and he did an excellent job of conveying some of the uniqueness of the mind.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Laurie Graham

    This book repeats a lot of stuff that's in Phantoms in the Brain so I regard it as a rip-off. Read one or the other but you don't need to read both. I also found the way Ramachandran's politics and his antipathy to religion intrude into his neuroscience quite obnoxious. He seems to be winking at the reader and saying 'you and me, we're Democrats, right? We're smarter and saner than guys like Dick Cheney.' This kind of thing is insulting to people who've ponied up 15 dollars for his book but may n This book repeats a lot of stuff that's in Phantoms in the Brain so I regard it as a rip-off. Read one or the other but you don't need to read both. I also found the way Ramachandran's politics and his antipathy to religion intrude into his neuroscience quite obnoxious. He seems to be winking at the reader and saying 'you and me, we're Democrats, right? We're smarter and saner than guys like Dick Cheney.' This kind of thing is insulting to people who've ponied up 15 dollars for his book but may not share his opinions. He should confine himself to the neuroscience, which is, needless to say, very interesting.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Chrissy

    I deeply respect Ramachandran and I believe his unique "Holmesian" approach to research is an invaluable benefit to a field that risks moving at a snail's pace, possibly backwards, in it's quest to functionally image everything to death. So many of his far flung hunches have proven correct, and many of his random ideas have fuelled entire directions in research. I absolutely admire him. That being said, I was unimpressed with this book. It felt disjointed and repetitive, swinging wildly from one I deeply respect Ramachandran and I believe his unique "Holmesian" approach to research is an invaluable benefit to a field that risks moving at a snail's pace, possibly backwards, in it's quest to functionally image everything to death. So many of his far flung hunches have proven correct, and many of his random ideas have fuelled entire directions in research. I absolutely admire him. That being said, I was unimpressed with this book. It felt disjointed and repetitive, swinging wildly from one fascinating patient to the next in anecdotal abandon, reiterating everything Ramachandran has said in previous books and trying to tie it all together with a flimsy theme, so broad you could make a case that every psychological observation fits into it. Falsifiability is an important (the most important?) aspect of science, and while the individual lines of inquiry the author proposes are certainly falsifiable, his overarching theme of human uniqueness is not-- though it may seem counterintuitive, a theory that can be reshaped ad-hoc to explain every observation is NOT a good theory. I still generally enjoyed the read, I just expected better from someone so simultaneously avant-garde and anachronistic in his approach to science. Better editing may have helped tighten it (and fix the typos and grammatical failures). In particular, the last paragraph of the book is a throwaway attempt at a conclusion that, instead of concluding the contents of the book, actually introduces an entirely new topic without getting into any of the serious discussion it warrants. It's jarring, overpersonal and aggressive, misplaced as the concluding statement to a fairly cool and objective read. Despite its fragmentary feel, there are plenty of tidbits of information, countless ideas for new research, and a few interesting "big questions" to ponder. Ramachandran is an amazing scientist, and generally a great writer, but I think he tried too hard to make this one BIG and ended up doing the science in it a slight injustice. The field in which he works is an absolutely engrossing one, really in its infancy and ripe for exploration in every direction; I understand his intention in this book was to underline that point and offer a multitude of broad speculative ideas that could lead to new discoveries, but in the process I think he lost some of the framing that holds the science together. As Ramachandran himself states in the book, good science is a meeting of vague hunches and rigorous experimentation; I expected a bit more of the latter from him, but still appreciated the ride offered by the former.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Bob Nichols

    Ramachandran's description of the physical operation of the brain and its various maladies is probably all good stuff, but his cheerleading for human separateness and his writing about the conscious brain as if that were "the" brain gets in the way with what could be a good book. The author's theme is human uniqueness. As all species are unique, Ramachandran is really talking about human exceptionalism in life's grand scheme. Humans are special in ways that other life forms are not. He does this Ramachandran's description of the physical operation of the brain and its various maladies is probably all good stuff, but his cheerleading for human separateness and his writing about the conscious brain as if that were "the" brain gets in the way with what could be a good book. The author's theme is human uniqueness. As all species are unique, Ramachandran is really talking about human exceptionalism in life's grand scheme. Humans are special in ways that other life forms are not. He does this by emphasizing our obvious cognitive ability to transcend the here and now and to do all of the special things our conscious brain can do. In a matter of fact sort of way, he sets up his argument for human specialness by identifying those unique human capacities that other life forms don't have. That seems like an unfair way to argue. He says an eagle can't read newsprint. That's Ramachandran's standard, but why is that a higher standard than an eagle flying and reading the landscape below for prey unaided by machines? Once you get into implied standards of what's higher and lower, you evaluate by some standard. By the standard of evolutionary success, cockroaches have been around a long time and might long outlive us and have the last laugh (even though as Ramachandran points out only humans can laugh). The book also almost screams out, "where is Freud in all of this?" Not specifically Freud, but the unconscious and, for that matter, all of those evolutionary drives that direct our brain in ways that we are, at most, only faintly aware. Can we really understand the brain without touching on these deeper undercurrents? On that side of things, Ramachandran is almost silent. For him, even though he says he comes at his topic from an evolutionary development perspective, the brain just operates, without energy, without fears and passions. Consciousness is our unique trait relative to other life, but how does this give us an accurate picture of the brain in the absence of those evolutionary motivations that make us tick and make our brains operate the way they do. Sure, we can decipher the world of quantum physics with our sophisticated capacity for abstract thought but that same brain can use such knowledge to destroy life through nuclear warfare. Does the human brain operate on its own, as a human head with no body, or does that brain reflect and serve its ancient heritage of fear and hatred, of we-versus-they tribalism, of desire for domination and rank? If cognitive neuroscience can't go here, it should at least acknowledge its limitation as opposed to claiming the field. Clearly, we can agree with Ramachandran that we are "no mere ape," but have we really left most of the ape behind? Intentionally or not, he articulates a view that we are the charioteers in charge of our animal nature, but there's a substantial body of evidence that has it the other way around. In that view, our uniqueness is not our consciousness per se, but in a consciousness that expresses and serves our animal impulses, for good or bad. This is where a Darwin and Demasio perspective about our continuity with other life forms might give us a fuller picture of who we are and what our brains are about.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Andrew

    I read Dr. Ramachandran's previous book, Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind, as an undergraduate in an artificial intelligence class. The book was a complete paradigm shift in my worldview. It was the first time I'd heard anyone explain with such clarity all that modern neuroscience had uncovered and aspired to learn. Now a decade later, I was intrigued to see how far Ramachandran had progressed. In The Tell-Tale Brain, I was happy to find that his passionate, inquisit I read Dr. Ramachandran's previous book, Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind, as an undergraduate in an artificial intelligence class. The book was a complete paradigm shift in my worldview. It was the first time I'd heard anyone explain with such clarity all that modern neuroscience had uncovered and aspired to learn. Now a decade later, I was intrigued to see how far Ramachandran had progressed. In The Tell-Tale Brain, I was happy to find that his passionate, inquisitive, quirky personality is still in full force. One does get the impression that he's a person who truly has never "worked" a day in his life, because he loves his job so much. I was slightly disappointed that the first third of the book was largely a recap of his previous work (much of which was covered in Phantoms). The most exciting section of book deals with mirror neurons. It has been discovered that neurons in the brain will fire not only when performing an action like picking up a cup. They will also fire when you watch another person pick up a cup. Sensory neurons override the signals in the brain so we don't accidentally think we are actually picking up the cup also when we watching. It's a remarkable discovery to know that our brains essentially have an empathetic component hardwired into them. It's not hard to imagine how these type of mechanics could be the underpinning of our entire emotional and social experience. The final third of the book feels much like a call to action for the new generation of neurologists. He postulates on dozens of theories regarding the physiological roots of everything from thinking to our appreciation of art. While interesting, because these ideas are primarily theoretical, for lay-person like myself it lacked the impact of the previous sections where Ramachandran is describing the results of his actual research. However, I did find his investigation into the location of the self-awareness in the brain quite interesting. The following quote gives a good synopsis: "The conscious self is not some sort of 'kernel' or concentrated essence that inhabits a special throne at the center of the neural labyrinth, but neither is it a property of the whole brain. Instead, the self seems to emerge from a relatively small cluster of brain areas that are linked into an amazingly powerful network." I would highly recommend that anyone interested in Ramachandran's work listen to his 1993 BBC Reith Lecture entitled "The Emerging Mind". He is an absolutely unique personality, and hearing him describe his research in his own voice lends a whole new dimension to the experience.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Aravind P

    Mirror neurons are simply fascinating. Going 4000 years back, closeness of all the early inventions like the invention of wheel, fire, self-awareness, civilization etc had always baffled the scientific world as to what made them wait for 3000 years to make the first civilization or discovery of mind and gods, in spite of having the same brain formation. What the recent studies have indicated is that at that point of time something evolved in brain which didn’t exist for other animals, something Mirror neurons are simply fascinating. Going 4000 years back, closeness of all the early inventions like the invention of wheel, fire, self-awareness, civilization etc had always baffled the scientific world as to what made them wait for 3000 years to make the first civilization or discovery of mind and gods, in spite of having the same brain formation. What the recent studies have indicated is that at that point of time something evolved in brain which didn’t exist for other animals, something that helped humans to learn and understand things and eventually evolve from a simple animal into a complex personality, a bunch of neurons that apparently has an ability to empathize and emulate from its surroundings as opposed to the basic motor neurons(the one that works on command from senses). Mirror neurons form a cluster of neurons sitting on the front lobe of the brain. What it does is, it tries to mirror the events that it ‘sees’. For instance, if you are pinched on your hand you would instantly know the pain, which is quite natural as there is physical connection between the skin and the brain. But a similar emotional pain is felt when you see someone else being pinched, in a way you tend to empathize with that person. But what tells you that it is painful?. When we see someone cry a similar emotional thing tries to send us to the same state of despair, why? Ramachandran tells how the discovery of mirror neurons gave the neurologists an answer to all these questions. Getting back to the evolution of human beings, the formation of mirror facilitated the Lamarckian evolution, named after Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. While Darwinian theory was slow and involved physical transformation, Lamarckian was quick and evolved brain instead of physique. The example he quoted was, for a Polar bear it must have taken about 1000s of years to evolve itself with the thick white coat to survive in the polar region – this is the Darwinian evolution. A boy learns by watching his father kill that polar bear, skin it and use that fluffy coat to survive in the polar region, in a matter of 10 minutes – that is the Lamarckian evolution. There is a saying in Malayalam “kaateethu kaatunnavan kurangan”(the one who imitate others are monkeys), one must have heard it while trying to imitate another person. And not just that, the elders amongst the children often get caned for showing all bad habits to youngsters to imitate. Damn it mirror neurons! The mirror neurons are quick in capturing the ‘characteristic images’ in the brain and is quick in reproducing it later, it appears. How it works is, say we see one person getting beaten up. The brain gets a signal from mirror neurons telling that getting beaten up on arm is painful (as if it is his/her hand that is getting thrashed), the brain tries to verify that with the nerves from the arm and finds that it is not true. Then a cancellation signal goes and cancels the physical pain ‘application’, but it cannot cancel the emotional bit of the pain. So when we see someone beating a kid, we don’t feel the physical pain but we do feel the emotional pain(empathy). The interesting thing is, when the arm of this person is paralyzed or amputated there is no nerves connecting the arm with brain. Hence at that stage the brain cannot cross check the genuineness of the pain. Upon experimentation, what the neurologists have found is that people with such syndromes can even feel the physical pain. So which means if you try to pinch your arm in front of another person who doesn’t have that arm he feels the exact physical and emotional pain that you just felt, in his phantom arm!!. This is used by neurologists and physiotherapists to cure ‘learnt paralysis’ - A person sitting opposite to the patient massages or exercise his own hand, the patient in turn gets the real feel of the massage and eventually gets cured. He points out the formation of civilization and its development by accounting it under the development of mirror neurons. How a person become insensitive after being tortured for a while, how a child learns about smoking by just seeing from his/her parent, despite of many no-smoking signs etc implies the significance of understanding the surroundings a key to human development. What this implies is that of all the senses, the brain uses visual signals as primary. He also narrates about some of his patients who have had the visual connection severed, unable to identify his mother but at the same time he knows the fact that it is his mother. So, he is deluded that that person is an imposter who looks like his mother! That emotional connection being dis-functional. I may need to re-read the bits around languages though. This book covers what makes us to be like a human. He also tells us varied syndromes and abnormalities of brain which may bridge the neurology and psychiatry studies, one of the important one being autism which primarily is due to disfunctional mirror neurons.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Ms.pegasus

    I was prepared to dislike this book. Ramachandran goes to great length to emphacize the uniqueness that separates humans from animals – an argument often misappropriated by those who countenance the inhumane treatment of animals. He also seeks explanations in evolutionary biology. I tend to associate this with the popular oversimplification that we perceive symmetrical faces as attractive because our brains see symmetry as a marker for healthiness and therefore a better gene pool for offspring. I was prepared to dislike this book. Ramachandran goes to great length to emphacize the uniqueness that separates humans from animals – an argument often misappropriated by those who countenance the inhumane treatment of animals. He also seeks explanations in evolutionary biology. I tend to associate this with the popular oversimplification that we perceive symmetrical faces as attractive because our brains see symmetry as a marker for healthiness and therefore a better gene pool for offspring. In addition, Ramachandran deluges the reader with a chapter on neuroanatomy that is a dense atlas of Latin terms. Fortunately, the author's personality rebuffs these doubts. For one thing, he has a slyly geeky sense of humor. He relates being awakened in the wee hours of the morning by a lawyer who wants him to testify in a lawsuit. The client supposedly is suffering from Capgras Syndrome and cannot recognize his wife. Ramachandran quips that the man is actually reaping a benefit. She will always be a novelty to him, and that should enhance her sexual attraction! He apologizes to the reader for a joke that might be construed as in bad taste – but then goes on to marshal a final volley of scientific data! On the serious side, Ramachandran opens up a view of true scientific inquiry. In his discussion of synesthesia, he iterates over 10 tests that are performed to ascertain not only the reality of the phenomenon, but its various aspects. The prolific questions that spring to his mind, as well as his patience in devising tests, are truly astonishing. Moving from the “what,” he then forms some hypotheses about “how.” This is where the neuroscience begins. An extensive break-down of the components of vision (color, object identification, perception of motion, affective associations, distance – he alludes to over 30 different pathways) are integrated by the brain. The theory outlines a possible cross-wiring or leakage between the channels of color and number recognition which are located next to each other in the brain. Ramachandran then indulges in some philosophical speculation. There is some evidence of a link between synesthesia and creativity. Part of the art of writing is the ability to conjure up unusual and compelling metaphors. Perhaps all of us are to some degree synesthetes in the sense that we have the capacity to understand and appreciate metaphor as well as broader aesthetic principles. This is part of the “why” section of his inquiry. Later in the book, he returns to the theme of connections between neurological evidence and the development of culture. The book covers Phantom Limb syndrome of amputees, Synesthesia, Autism, Language and Aesthetics. Along the way, it describes mirror neurons, brain circuits that entail constant feedback loops and complex integration of information. Evolution, as well, is not oversimplified in Ramachandran's world. Nature is a master at recycling old parts to perform new functions. As an example, Ramachandran describes how the multi-hinged jaw of reptiles was transformed into components of the ear that enable us to hear air-born sound rather than ground-transmitted vibrations. This is a difficult book that does not stint on the science. I only began to appreciate how much Ramachandran had simplified when I started looking up some of the afflictions on the internet. I found the chapters on Language and Aesthetics overly speculative, and the writing lacking in literary flair. What Ramachandran does offer is an honest approach to the interrogations of science – interrogations that involve not just questions, but imagination.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Rohini

    The Tell-Tale Brain: a story that leaves nothing unimagined yet a lot to comprehend about this enigmatic 3-pound jelly residing within us. This is the second book of an Indian author that I cherished reading in past few months. The author takes you on a roller coaster ride in trying to unravel the mysteries of the mind, the last chapter being a peep hole into countless maladies that one can encounter with it. A must-read for all those intrigued by the powers of the brain and its careful delegati The Tell-Tale Brain: a story that leaves nothing unimagined yet a lot to comprehend about this enigmatic 3-pound jelly residing within us. This is the second book of an Indian author that I cherished reading in past few months. The author takes you on a roller coaster ride in trying to unravel the mysteries of the mind, the last chapter being a peep hole into countless maladies that one can encounter with it. A must-read for all those intrigued by the powers of the brain and its careful delegation of physical and metaphysical role in making us a unique creation of nature.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Marcus

    There's a ton here. The first half of the book covers a lot that's pretty well discussed elsewhere, but in the second half, Ramachandran just explodes into a huge fireball of ideas that are expansive not only in their reach but are also impressive in their novelty and creativity. You get the feeling that the only thing keeping him back is time. It's definitely not a lack of important questions and well-designed experiments. I especially liked his discussion of art and aesthetics and his speculati There's a ton here. The first half of the book covers a lot that's pretty well discussed elsewhere, but in the second half, Ramachandran just explodes into a huge fireball of ideas that are expansive not only in their reach but are also impressive in their novelty and creativity. You get the feeling that the only thing keeping him back is time. It's definitely not a lack of important questions and well-designed experiments. I especially liked his discussion of art and aesthetics and his speculations on why we like abstract art and what makes some art almost irresistible to the human brain. He comes to it with a refreshingly different perspective due to his Indian background. He's unwaveringly scientific, but seems to have a much greater pool of examples to draw from due to the vast cultural landscape India offers. A lot of the book is speculative, but the speculation isn't far-fetched, certainly nowhere near as speculative as most of what today's physicists write about, and he clearly indicates what's solid and what's remains to be tested, often suggesting experiments for others to try.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Anita

    I loved 'Phantoms in the Brain' and was therefore eager to read this, but found it hit and miss. Some parts were really interesting like the chapters about aesthetics, language and the various case studies, but a lot of it was repeating stories and theories from his first book. I also found his writing to be too self-aggrandising-especially in the latter half of the book. His opinions seem to take over the book with no concrete basis and i found myself disagreeing with some of his 'theories' and I loved 'Phantoms in the Brain' and was therefore eager to read this, but found it hit and miss. Some parts were really interesting like the chapters about aesthetics, language and the various case studies, but a lot of it was repeating stories and theories from his first book. I also found his writing to be too self-aggrandising-especially in the latter half of the book. His opinions seem to take over the book with no concrete basis and i found myself disagreeing with some of his 'theories' and the way he went about explaining them.He undermines linguists and psychologists-and basically anyone who isn't a neurologist. I felt like someone told him he needed to write another book, and he was struggling to come with novel ideas to write about that have proven research findings, so he just ended up writing about his opinions on various pathways of the brain.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Mir

    I just attended a lecture by the author, very interesting.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Essam Munir

    I've been introduced to the field of neurology/neuroscience by Ramachandran and his amazing cases. This book summarizes what Ramachadran has done till now and his great innovative way of thinking. I've been introduced to the field of neurology/neuroscience by Ramachandran and his amazing cases. This book summarizes what Ramachadran has done till now and his great innovative way of thinking.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Rachel

    In The Tell-Tale Brain, V. S. Ramachandran addresses the question of what makes human beings different from all other animals. Of course, the culprit is the brain. Thinking, beating, beating…whoops, that’s Poe. The author is at the forefront of neuroscience; the book describes the current state of the art, which is not as far advanced as some other sciences. In the epilogue, he compares it to the stage of chemistry in the nineteenth century, “discovering the basic elements, grouping them into cat In The Tell-Tale Brain, V. S. Ramachandran addresses the question of what makes human beings different from all other animals. Of course, the culprit is the brain. Thinking, beating, beating…whoops, that’s Poe. The author is at the forefront of neuroscience; the book describes the current state of the art, which is not as far advanced as some other sciences. In the epilogue, he compares it to the stage of chemistry in the nineteenth century, “discovering the basic elements, grouping them into categories, and studying their interactions. We are still grouping our way toward the equivalent of the periodic table but are not anywhere near atomic theory.” This book goes into detail on some of those elements and their interactions. Mirror neurons fire not just when you do something, but when you see someone else do it. Googling mirror neurons, I find that the interpretation of what they do is highly controversial. But Ramachandran makes a good case for them being important in human social behavior. Then there are areas in the brain that determine body image and map how the body relates to the space and objects around it. I just read a book by a psychiatrist (The Naked Lady Who Stood on Her Head by Gary Small) in which he relates a case of a man who felt like his arm didn’t belong there and who had a fairly strong desire to have it amputated. Dr. Small of course looked at it as more of a psychological problem, though he balked at a Freudian interpretation. Ramachandran postulates convincingly that this problem is caused by defective cells in the area of the brain that controls the arm part of body image. In other parts of the book, he discusses many aspects of language, the senses, and consciousness. I give the book five stars because it is full of fascinating concepts, many of them new in the last ten or fifteen years. Yet I have problems with the basic thesis that humans are unique among animals because we are so much smarter, we have language, and we have consciousness of self. It’s unarguable that we are unique; we’ve populated the planet and filled it with our structures (and trash). I love thinking and reading and all kinds of human stuff. But Ramachandran’s viewpoint, and that of most of his fellow scientists, seems rather, well, speciesist. He obviously considers humans to be superior to and more important than any other species because of our differences. This kind of thinking holds us separate from that ecosystem, and I disagree. We have crowded those other species out of most of the planet; our effect on the ecosystem has been devastating. I also am appalled to see him casually mention research in which the researchers observed (using electrodes) how monkey brain cells fired under various circumstances. Yikes! These are the people who torture and murder monkeys and other animals. My beliefs go against animal research (yes, I’m vegetarian too). (And I’m trying not to get recursive about how Ramachandran’s theories might predict or explain my viewpoint.) Some of Ramachandran’s speculations will undoubtedly turn out to be true. Many of them won’t. In particular, many of the ideas in the chapter about art seem silly to me, and my guess is that in fifty years they will look as archaic as the idea of phlogiston does now. This doesn't take away from the quality of the book, as he emphasizes how speculative it all is. The book is full of concepts that I found exciting and stimulating, and I highly recommend it.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Raluca

    For all practical purposes, most English speakers have a vocabulary of about ten thousand words (although you can get by with far fewer if you are a surfer). This quote. This quote right here. It isn't even his first unexplainable jab at surfers, mind you. Is it supposed to be funny? Is it supposed to let the author's character shine through? But at least that's largely harmless, as are his overwrought metaphors and his frequent bouts of self-aggrandizingly tooting his own horn. His frequent o For all practical purposes, most English speakers have a vocabulary of about ten thousand words (although you can get by with far fewer if you are a surfer). This quote. This quote right here. It isn't even his first unexplainable jab at surfers, mind you. Is it supposed to be funny? Is it supposed to let the author's character shine through? But at least that's largely harmless, as are his overwrought metaphors and his frequent bouts of self-aggrandizingly tooting his own horn. His frequent overuse of technical details is also a choice I can understand - not one I like, since the topic is too foreign for me to remember lobes and cyngulates without taking notes, but one he does announce from the get-go as an antidote to dumbing down the text. But then there are his jokey-jokes about how "human females are said to be sexually available all the time but that's never happened to me, hardy-har-har", his contrast of autistic and "normal" children, and his description of transgender people as having a disorder which, "bizarrely", they don't want cured. It's hard to believe this book is only 7 years old, 'cause this stuff did NOT age well. There's good content in there, no doubt about it. But too many things about the presentation made me unable to access it. Pity.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Angie

    After seeing him speak on a TED talk, I was curious to read his latest book. He's made his complicated field accessible and overall I found it entertaining and thought provoking. As he states, neurology is a field that's rapidly changing, we learn more each day, and what he presents here is a work in progress and certainly not the final word. But as neurology can explain questions that have long perplexed us, it seems well worth it to learn from an expert how much more we've already been able to After seeing him speak on a TED talk, I was curious to read his latest book. He's made his complicated field accessible and overall I found it entertaining and thought provoking. As he states, neurology is a field that's rapidly changing, we learn more each day, and what he presents here is a work in progress and certainly not the final word. But as neurology can explain questions that have long perplexed us, it seems well worth it to learn from an expert how much more we've already been able to understand already (and how far we have to go). I especially liked the chapter on autism. On the negative, I didn't enjoy the meander towards the end on art and thought these chapters felt disjointed from the rest of the book. Throughout, he made interjections that I think he thought would lighten the tone...but seemed to be irrelevant and detract from the point. Not his fault, but reading this on the Kindle meant that the illustrations were hard to decipher. Overall, anyone can get something out of this book. And I suspect that now that I've read it, I'll get more out of other articles or books dealing with some of the subjects he discusses and be happy to have a deeper understanding.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Kevin

    Another stunning science-for-you book, this time about neurology, the study of how the brain works. Author starts off with a promising premise: he will explain how we are not merely descended from the apes, but something more. Our brains have evolved to much higher levels of complexity and abstraction, and he recites the well-known (to science) experiments to demonstrate just exactly what is going on in your brain today, and then suggests why we have developed this way. He gets to the fundamenta Another stunning science-for-you book, this time about neurology, the study of how the brain works. Author starts off with a promising premise: he will explain how we are not merely descended from the apes, but something more. Our brains have evolved to much higher levels of complexity and abstraction, and he recites the well-known (to science) experiments to demonstrate just exactly what is going on in your brain today, and then suggests why we have developed this way. He gets to the fundamentals of "thinking" and "seeing" -- what are they physiologically?. His investigation into "synaethesia" -- where some people experience different numbers in different colors, or music, or experience different textures as different emotions (eg sadness, etc) is amazing (and obviousy memorable)! Human beings have 30 different areas of the brain involved in seeing, all adaptive traits beyond chimpanzees. There is an area of the human brain responsible for abstracting "garden things" from the perception of a hoe, a rake, and a shovel. It's not just that we can count, but that we recognize the abstraction of "quantity". That's just the first 2 chapters. This is the real thing.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Nancy

    An interesting book that might well be 5 stars if I hadn't recently read Ramachandran's earlier book, Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind. Dr. Ramachandran recycles a number of themes and examples from that book. He does add some interesting speculations on what makes art, especially Indian art, appealing so well worth reading even if you have read his earlier works. An interesting book that might well be 5 stars if I hadn't recently read Ramachandran's earlier book, Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind. Dr. Ramachandran recycles a number of themes and examples from that book. He does add some interesting speculations on what makes art, especially Indian art, appealing so well worth reading even if you have read his earlier works.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Ajay

    Mindblowing book. It talks about so many interesting brain disorders, explores the evolution of language, vision, autism, the concept of beauty, how Human beings are social, and the concept of 'self awareness'. It feels like the most exciting area of research at present (probably even more than AI). Mindblowing book. It talks about so many interesting brain disorders, explores the evolution of language, vision, autism, the concept of beauty, how Human beings are social, and the concept of 'self awareness'. It feels like the most exciting area of research at present (probably even more than AI).

  26. 4 out of 5

    Laura

    Excellent book. If you are interested in learning some basic concepts in Neuroscience, this is the book for you. Rama explains them mainly through great clinical cases. A good way to get into the field and start learning what Neuroscience can and cannot do (for now).

  27. 5 out of 5

    Kate Fulford

    An excellent science book. The author beautifully straddles the neuroscientist & storyteller roles with a rare skill of making complex material easy to understand & compelling, leaving you much richer for the experience.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Theresa

    Heard about V.S. Ramachandran through watching his stuff on PBS. His speaking and writing are both very engaging!

  29. 4 out of 5

    Bernie Gourley

    A brain injury patient simultaneously becomes demented and develops a previously unwitnessed artistic talent. Another patient’s brain lights up identically when seeing another person being poked as it does when he, himself, is prodded. An amputee brushed on a specific area of the cheek has a sensation in a specific area of the lost limb—i.e. phantom limb sensations can be mapped to points on the face. A stroke victim develops “metaphor blindness,” and suddenly “the 800 pound gorilla” becomes an A brain injury patient simultaneously becomes demented and develops a previously unwitnessed artistic talent. Another patient’s brain lights up identically when seeing another person being poked as it does when he, himself, is prodded. An amputee brushed on a specific area of the cheek has a sensation in a specific area of the lost limb—i.e. phantom limb sensations can be mapped to points on the face. A stroke victim develops “metaphor blindness,” and suddenly “the 800 pound gorilla” becomes an actual gorilla. A test subject’s right angular gyrus has an electrical charge delivered to it through an electrode and the person has an instantaneous out-of-body experience. There are temporal lobe epilepsy patients who literally feel one with other people—or, in some cases, the natural world in general. These are just a few of the fascinating cases that Dr. Ramachandran presents in “The Tell-Tale Brain.” Many of these phenomena would have once been attributed to purely psychological or spiritual causes, but now their biological origins in the brain are being revealed. Dr. Ramachandran is a neuroscientist whose claim to fame is making a noteworthy contribution to our understanding of the brain using mostly low-tech and non-invasive experiments with subjects who have brain abnormalities or injuries. Before there was EEG (electroencephalogram) and fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) machines, much of what scientists learned about the brain came from determining what capabilities were lost (or, occasionally, gained) by patients who had specific brain damage. In this way, we gained a great deal of insight into what areas of the brain are responsible for what tasks and we’ve learned that many aspects of the mind that were largely thought to be beyond biology are—in fact--not. It’s fascinating to see what bizarre effects can result from brain damage or abnormalities, from people who think they are dead to others who want to have a limb amputated because it doesn’t feel like it belongs to them to yet others who think their loved ones are imposters. The central question addressed by this book is best summarized by a quote from the book’s introduction: “Are we merely chimps with a software upgrade?” Ramachandran proposes that any answer to this question that can be scientifically investigated must reside in the brain. Most of our organs and our general structure are not that different from those of our primate brethren. But our brains are infinitely more capable than those of other species. In responding to the question, Ramachandran considers the brain’s role in topics like language, aesthetics, and belief that are the sole domain of Homo sapiens. One of the most interesting discussions is how our brains fill in the blanks and a give meaning to what we see, such that we sometimes find signs in random data streams. The final chapter deals with introspection and how we come to define ourselves by what we think and what we feel and here Ramachandran gets into some of the most fascinating conditions mentioned in the book, such as Cotard Syndrome in which subjects firmly believe that they don’t exist. There are a few topics that he delves into in particularly deep detail. One of these topics is that of mirror neurons. These neurons are integral to our relationships with others and are essential to our ability to learn. They fire in mimicry of movement (e.g. facial expressions) we see others perform. The author also uses his work with phantom limbs and synesthesia to illuminate the workings of the brain. Phantom limbs occur when an amputee can still feel sensations in the amputated limb. While phantom limbs were at one time believed to be residue of the soul or the like, studies have offered insights into its origins in the brain. Synesthesia is when the brain is mis-wired such that there is a blending of the senses. As an example, a person might see a different color associated with each musical note or with each number. Synesthesia was once considered a delusion and people were institutionalized for this cross-wiring of the brain. Autism is also addressed in a chapter, and-in particular—the theory that this affliction may be linked to the mirror neurons. I found this book to be fascinating and insightful. While it delves into our tremendously complex brains, it does so in a readable and comprehensible manner. The fact that Ramachandran’s focus is largely on low-tech and relatively simple experiments means that one can readily understand them in a manner that one might not with studies based on fMRIs or EEGs. I’d recommend this book for anyone interested in the magnificent human brain.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Marcelo Bahia

    I couldn't wait further to get more of this. When I love a book as much as I loved Phantoms In The Brain and realize the author has other ones on the same subject, I usually let the dust settle before reading them. In this case I couldn't: after reading an investing book for some variety, I picked up The Tell-Tale Brain immediately. I'm glad I did. While Phantoms In The Brain was published in 1998 and had a lot of untested hypotheses throughout the text, The Tell-Tale Brain is a 2011 book reveali I couldn't wait further to get more of this. When I love a book as much as I loved Phantoms In The Brain and realize the author has other ones on the same subject, I usually let the dust settle before reading them. In this case I couldn't: after reading an investing book for some variety, I picked up The Tell-Tale Brain immediately. I'm glad I did. While Phantoms In The Brain was published in 1998 and had a lot of untested hypotheses throughout the text, The Tell-Tale Brain is a 2011 book revealing a more mature scientist and writer who goes even deeper in the mysteries of the brain and mind. The core of what makes Ramachandran so pleasant to read is still there: the bizarre neurological cases and the elegant and easy to grasp explanations for them, the witty humor (he now reveals an accentuated annoyance with Californian surfers), Shakespearean quotes, the link between neurology and philosophy, among others (still, no Rush lyrics yet). Of course 13 additional years of experience and experiments make a difference in a field where we know so little and growth has been exponential. The experiments are more sophisticated and the harder discussions are tackled more frequently with neurology weapons instead of philosophical artillery. That's the kind of science I prefer: let's see what's actually going on with neurons inside our brains while the philosophical discussions about consciousness remain too hard. As Ramachandran shows, recent discoveries are indeed showing us important clues about the long sought consciousness problem (but no solution yet, sorry). If I list here all the phenomena he deals with in the book, you'll want to read it right away. Examples are why phantom limbs are common among amputees, why we laugh and why the smile is an universal greeting gesture, how language evolved, what could be behind autism, the role of our mirror neurons in a diverse set of instances (heck, I thought I knew a lot about mirror neurons, but then Ramachandran showed me the light), why we are wired to find beauty in the world and in the arts and what seem to be the laws behind our beauty sensor and, of course, he concludes with a grand neurological tour on consciousness, self-awareness and free will. This last theme is also the last one in Phantoms In The Brain, but the approach is much more pragmatic and tied to scientific method experiments than before, like in other sections of the book. The ingenious experiments the author devises hold an important lesson: even very difficult hypothesis can be tested if you think and work hard enough. What the hell, the guy is able to do an experiment proving the existence of our innate love for art! As a financial market professional, this is a concept I try very hard to inculcate among my business partners. This is akin to the lesson brought by the excellent statistics-driven How To Measure Anything, one of my all-time favorites. Now I have to promise myself I won't read additional Ramachandran books for a while, and that will be hard.

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