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
kate_nepveu: sleeping cat carved in brown wood (Default)

From: [personal profile] kate_nepveu


Oh, I'd read about that research. Cool. *wishlists*

From: [identity profile] spectralbovine.livejournal.com


That sounds really interesting! And entertaining. I've added it to the ever-growing List.

From: [identity profile] tavella.livejournal.com


Oooh, may have to check that out. I've loved his New Yorker articles on the subject. I think he wrote the one on the neurology of the itch, too, which was possibly even more freaky.

From: [identity profile] thomasyan.livejournal.com


Was that maybe Atul Gawande? Gawande's article talked a lot about Ramachandran his work with phantom limb pain.

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com


Yes, I think that was actually Gawande citing Ramachandran.

From: [identity profile] tavella.livejournal.com


Quite possibly, I was thinking it was him because there was first person stuff with him using the mirror techniques, but maybe he was just using Ramachandran.
ext_6283: Brush the wandering hedgehog by the fire (Default)

From: [identity profile] oursin.livejournal.com


Heh: I see that there is correspondence with him among the Crick papers (Crick is no longer among us). V cool.

From: [identity profile] shweta-narayan.livejournal.com


I think a fair amount of pop psychology uses "normal" or something like it to mean "control group". It bothers me. It's not intended as a pejorative -- at least, guessing from the psychologists I know, and guessing from my few encounters with Rama -- but it certainly comes across as one in cases like phantom limb syndrome.

Bah.

From: [identity profile] sparkylibrarian.livejournal.com


I got several teens to read this books last year for science reports. One actually went and bought her own copy. It's readable but still science-y, and less foofy than Sachs.

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com


Foofy! That must be what I mean when I say "wifty." I know exactly what you mean, anyway.

From: [identity profile] sparkylibrarian.livejournal.com


Yeah, Sacks is very readable and personable, not to say that Ramachandran isn't, but they're very different writing styles. Ramachandran also has a TED talk, which is worth checking out, and part of the reason I was able to push the book on those kids. :)

From: [identity profile] asakiyume.livejournal.com


I remember hearing about that mirror cure on NPR. Very cool.
ext_7025: (Default)

From: [identity profile] buymeaclue.livejournal.com


That sounds fabulous! I wonder if my library has the audiobook.

From: [identity profile] tool-of-satan.livejournal.com


Thanks for recommending this! I just read it and it was extremely interesting, especially since I hadn't really read much in this area since I was a teenager.

I also read Ramachandran's A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness, which is based on a lecture series he did for the BBC. It repeats a lot of material from Phantoms of the Brain, but does have some interesting bits based on newer experiments, so possibly still worth reading (it's quite short). Also, the introduction mentions the interesting factoid that when he was a child living in Bangkok, one of his (few) friends was Somtow Sucharitkul (he transliterates the name as "Somthau" but I am assuming it is the same person).

Ramachandran's UCSD page says he had another book out in 2008, The Man With the Phantom Twin, but as far as I can tell it has not actually been published yet (one place says it will be out in October 2010, but it may not be reliable).

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com


I hope that other book shows up eventually.

Also, wow! Somtow must be one of the most interesting and unusually connected people in the world.

From: [identity profile] tool-of-satan.livejournal.com


Very likely. Of course being interesting helps with the connections, in that people are much more likely to remember meeting him than they would, say, me. As an example, I certainly remember meeting him at Independence Day parties when I was a teenager, but I met lots of other people at the same parties, not one of whom I can now name. But they weren't playing "The Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine March" on the piano.
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