Inside human brain
Reviewed by Jayanti Roy

Phantoms in the Brain
By V.S. Ramachandran and Sandra Blakeslee.
Fourth Estate. Pages 328. Rs 299.

THE human brain is one of the most complex and least understood parts of the human body and even in Biology textbooks there are huge gaps in the information regarding functions and structure of brain. The descriptions given are rather sketchy and vague. Reading them one hardly gets a clear understanding of the organ. In popular science writings too, we scarcely find articles tacking this grave and intricate topic of how the brain functions. This book gives the common reader a rare opportunity not only to venture on a journey through the surrealistic landscape of the brain but also to explore the rich and stimulating virgin areas of a higher order concerned with self-image, consciousness, illusions and spirituality, etc.

Popularisation of science is a domain where scientists fear to tread. As one goes up in the rarefied hierarchy, the scientist often finds lack of time as well as a gradual loss of grip on the vocabulary to communicate with the common man. Jargons, technically-worded research publications, narrower and narrower field of specialisation and expertise and ivory tower communication with knowledgeable peers and colleagues characterise their lives, and it becomes more and more tiresome and difficult for scientists to speak to the layperson. Yet, the world needs to know and understand what is going on, on the cutting edge of science and the layperson needs be a co-pursuer of knowledge. This will happen only if the expert is ready to speak in common manís language, howsoever difficult it might be. This gap between the expert and the uninitiated has widened, as science grows from strength to strength and one hardly finds books that explain nuclear physics, human genomics or nanotechnology in a layperson-friendly format.

The author, Dr V.S. Ramachandran, a world-renowned neuroscientist, must be congratulated for taking this initiative to take courage to speak to the common man, to invent a vocabulary that is both enlightening and engaging and above all, to give dignity and respect to the intellect of the uninitiated by not assuming that everyone else beside the expert is dumb.

The book reveals about the functioning of the brain by taking up strange cases of patients who have had brain damage of some type and explaining their bizarre behaviour in terms of the functions and structure of the damaged brain part. The author builds up each case and defends with such a brilliant lucid style that the reader not only starts understanding the complex phenomena but also starts enjoying. The writing has a powerful communicative flow and the reader strongly feels the presence of Dr Ramachandran making a point, arguing his perspective or just sharing a funny observation as one reads along.

The author moves effortlessly from one to the next domain, bringing in examples from entirely unrelated fields and quoting from the Gita, the Puranas, and literary works like Alice in Wonderland and Shakespeare with the same spontaneity as the intricate medical details. What causes phantom pain in the amputated limbs of an amputee? Can a person with one functional hand clap? To what extent mind influences body? Can a physically blind person see? How can a brain-damaged person think of his father and mother as imposter when he sees them but acknowledges them through their voice? The case studies he takes up to explain his arguments are intriguing, yet when we get the explanations bizarre seems plausible. That is the magic of Dr Ramachandran.

In addition to the communicative vocabulary, the author illustrates his writing with lots of exercises or experiments that the readers can themselves perform sitting in their chairs. This interactive technique makes his presentations live and vivid and the readers immediately connect with the concrete example of the abstract concept. One also cannot help but notice the simple experiments that Dr Ramachandran himself devises in his practice to reach to the core of understanding of such a complex organ as brain. He solves the mystery of Phantom limbs with a cheap mirror! In the way, he is also demolishing the popular belief that higher levels of research can be done only with heavy funds. It comes vividly through his writing that he is not only a great scientist, a greater writer but also an excellent creative teacher as well.

The book makes the reader acutely conscious about how scientific explorations can actually lead to answering questions of religion, philosophy, theology and several other seemingly unrelated fields. Not only for the layperson, this book with its extensive notes and bibliography and suggested reading is a goldmine for the researchers in the field, too.

Neuroscientists and experts from the field might differ from the author regarding his theories, but as a layperson, one feels grateful that pressures of his highly demanding profession has not kept him from writing this book. Otherwise, the common man would have been denied the enriching experience of peeping into the secrets of the human brain.