A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness: From Impostor Poodles to Purple Numbers
By V.S. Ramachandran
208 Pages • Pages Pi Press 2004
The riddle of consciousness is perhaps the most enticing question in neuroscience. Consciousness and its disorders are regular considerations in clinical practice, and investigation into these issues is proceeding at a rapid pace. Advances are being made along many avenues of research, and neurologists now recognize, at one extreme, the minimally conscious state one step above the vegetative state, and, at the other, subtle perturbations in awareness related to focal brain lesions that leave most cognitive domains intact.
In A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness: From Impostor Poodles to Purple Numbers, the neurologist and experimental psychologist V.S. Ramachandran brings his impressive intellect to the venerable notion of consciousness with an engaging book featuring a remarkable degree of insight, originality, and erudition.
The book is based on a series of BBC Reith lectures given in Great Britain in 2003. In the tradition of Bertrand Russell, who founded this series in 1948, Ramachandran approaches consciousness as a neutral monist, echoing Russell's view in the first Reith lecture “… that there is no separate ‘mind stuff’ and ‘brain stuff’ in the universe; the two are one and the same.”
He then considers a fascinating range of neurologic disorders that permit the exploration of consciousness and, ultimately, a more complete understanding of the human brain. The intended audience includes neurologists, neuroscientists, philosophers, artists, writers, humanists, and anyone interested in the connections of brain and mind. The book will likely appeal to all of these readers, although by no means is it a light read.
UNDERSTANDING THE HUMAN BRAIN
The first chapter begins with the statement that after three major scientific revolutions in the last 300 years – Copernican, Darwinian, and Freudian – “… now we are poised for the greatest revolution of all – the understanding of the human brain.” Ramachandran is clear in his intention to explain the richness of mental life by studying the activity of the brain, adding that to this end, “There is nothing else.”
He goes on to provide the obligatory introduction to the basics of neuroanatomy, but never burdens the reader with excessive detail. His aim is to proceed promptly to many of the intriguing human syndromes caused by disorders of the brain. A strong advocate of the “Geschwindian” single case method, Ramachandran will appeal to many in and out of neurology who find that introspection about their own minds is not just absorbing but illuminating.
We are taken on a journey through various clinical entities – everything from the Capgras syndrome, prosopagnosia, synesthesia, achromatopsia, to ideomotor apraxia. Many of these are familiar to readers of his previous book, Phantoms in the Brain, written with Sandra Blakeslee, but here the treatment is more condensed, reflecting the lecture format from which the book was generated.
My favorite syndrome may be enantiophobia, or the Nosferatu syndrome, which is the fear of mirror images, but many other curious clinical oddities are covered. Mirrors also appear in the author's ingenious experiments to investigate and assist patients with phantom limb syndrome and neglect.
THE PHENOMENON OF SYNESTHESIA
Ramachandran is captivated by the phenomenon of synesthesia, the merging of the senses in conscious experience – for example, perceiving colors in numbers, letters, and when hearing certain sounds. After pointing out that 1 in 200 people are true synesthetes, he then observes that all of us have some, albeit typically modest, synesthetic capacity.
Because true synesthesia is seven times more common among artists, poets, and novelists, he continues, perhaps the important capacity for metaphor can be explained as the commingling of seemingly unrelated concepts by neural processes in the brain. Thus, appealingly, Shakespeare's “Out, out brief candle,” in which life and a candle are linked, is a metaphor representing the cross-activation of concepts occurring in a brain prepared for making novel connections. Ramachandran's candidate region for this ability is the temporal-parietal-occipital junction, especially the angular gyrus, and there may even be a specialization for cross-modal metaphors (such as a “loud shirt”) on the left side, and for spatial metaphors (as in “he stepped down from his post”) on the right. Further speculations provided on the origin of language are equally provocative.
ART AND THE BRAIN
Ramachandran also treats in-depth the subject of art and the brain. Few neuroscientists have ventured into this mysterious area, one of the strongholds of humanism that has largely defied scientific analysis. Here, however, we are introduced to a proposed field of “neuroaesthetics.”
Ramachandran boldly lists ten universal laws of art, and even though space restrictions limit the discussion to only four of them, he offers a fascinating attempt to correlate these laws to neural activity using artistic examples such as Indian bronze statuary, Picasso's cubism, and the paintings of the Lascaux Caves. The author also deftly weaves in references to ethology, psychophysics, and evolutionary biology in this exhilarating tapestry of ideas, illustrating the breadth of his intellectual interests. One can only await with anticipation his book on the subject that is announced to appear in 2005.
The final chapter turns to philosophical aspects of consciousness. The reader is given an introduction to what Ramachandran calls evolutionary neuropsychiatry, and then led into revealing discussions of familiar topics such as the readiness potential and free will. Revisiting consciousness as the book closes, he writes that its explanation must consider both the qualia of experience – the redness of red, the flavor of wine – and the problem of the self. The assertion that these are two sides of the same coin launches yet another interesting discourse.
At the conclusion, there is a strong statement that neuroscience can indeed approach all of these matters, and begin to answer questions that were previously the sole province of metaphysics. Furthermore, engaging in this enterprise is vital for the survival of the human race; a somber final sentence reminds us to: “Remember that politics, colonialism, imperialism and war also originate in the human brain.”
The book is concise, well written, and generally a pleasure to read. A minor problem is the 45 pages of notes that follow the 112 pages of text; the reader is constantly obliged to turn to the often lengthy endnotes at the back of the book to follow up on ideas from the text. On the other hand, the presentation of the five chapters without the extra detail in the endnotes helps maintain the accessible, exuberant spirit of the original lectures. Other useful features include a helpful glossary and a concise bibliography.
The genre of popular science writing can be justifiably proud of a distinguished tradition with many capable contributors, and Dr. Ramachandran can now take his place among the best of these writers. He is an extraordinarily thoughtful and inventive neuroscientist who finds enormous value in the study of individuals with unusual neurologic syndromes, and has the literary gift to make these problems, and their implications, come alive for his readers. We are indebted to him for this short and marvelous book that offers his innovative views on consciousness and the brain. Neurologists will find much to gain from this work, and many readers who encounter this material for the first time will surely be entranced by the stimulating new vistas to which they will be introduced.