An extremely readable and fascinating book by a neuroscientist (Ramachandran) and a science writer (Blakeslee), about using case studies of brain-injury patients to examine how the brain works.

Ramachandran’s speculations on the cause of phantom limb pain from amputated limbs produced a cure which works extremely well for some (not all) patients. But considering how intractable the condition usually is, that’s a remarkable achievement. His cure— which succeeded in some cases where medication and surgery failed— consists of a box with a hole cut into it, and a mirror he bought for five dollars…

Even if you’ve read other popular works on the brain and cognition before, this should be of interest to you, as even when it seemed that Ramachandran was going over familiar territory, he went so much more in-depth that even topics I thought I was already well-acquainted with became completely new. A lot of popular science either over-simplifies too much and doesn’t tackle the questions it raises, or else is too technical to be easily followed by a layperson. This book was easy to read but dug into the deeper implications of its topics nearly every time. Ramachandran at times reminded me of This American Life’s Ira Glass in his ability to ask not just the obvious follow-up question, but the much less obvious and more revealing follow-up to the follow-up.

His enthusiasm for his field and the possibility of doing extremely low-tech experiments in it is contagious and charming. (A number of his experiments require nothing more than a human volunteer, a pencil, a table, a box, a mirror, and an undergraduate hiding under the box.) I also enjoyed his sense of humor: he’s evidently friends with Francis Crick of DNA fame, who is apparently a fervent atheist, and uses Crick as an example any time he mentions atheism, as in (from memory), “It would be interesting to see if stimulating the temporal lobe could also cause atheists to experience a sense of oneness with God. Perhaps I should try it on Francis Crick.” I am an atheist myself, and this cracked me up. He also has a hilarious take-down of the more unlikely theories of sociobiologists in the endnotes to one chapter. Don’t neglect to read the endnotes, there’s great stuff in there.

I thought this book was extremely entertaining, thought-provoking, and educational. My one possible warning is his use of the phrase “normal people” (both with and without quotes) to mean people without brain injuries. Given the context, I’m not sure that would be considered pejorative, but I’m mentioning it in case it is. If that’s not a dealbreaker, I highly recommend the book.

View on Amazon: Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind


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