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Phantoms in the Brain (thoughts)

September 10, 2009

Science Book ChallengeIf you had visited our house on Monday, you would have seen my mom and I, standing a good distance apart staring at each other with one eye closed and the other one moving around. You would have heard our intermittant laughter, along with “Ok, we have to be serious,” and finally you would have heard some shrieking along with “It worked! That was so creepy! Let’s do it again!” Why? Well, because I’d been reading Phantoms of the Brainby V.S. Ramachandran and Sandra Blakeslee and came across this passage:

First, you can decapitate your friends and enemies, using your natural blind spot. Standing about ten feet away from the other person, close your right eye and look at his head with your left eye. Now, slowly start moving your left eye horizontally toward the right, away from the person’s head, until your blind spot falls directly on his head. At this critical distance, his head should disappear.


I’m here to tell you, it is very disturbing to suddenly see someone without their head!!! I highly encourage you to do this at home-just measure out the ten feet, because otherwise it won’t work.

PhantomsintheBrain So, Phantoms in the Brainis about neuroscience, and all of the weird things our brains get up to. It’s a combination of general knowledge of the brain, stories about individual patients, and Ramachandran’s scientific speculation. The chapters are pretty much self-contained, and have clever titles like “The Zombie in the Brain” and “The Sound of One Hand Clapping.” They all deal with ‘medical mysteries’ doctors have been confronted with throughout the past couple of centuries.

There was a lot that I really enjoyed about Phantoms. Ramachandran takes a lot of delight in being a scientist, and that comes through in the book. He provides a lot of experiments you can try out at home (obviously), and he discusses how he came up with simple experiments to test complex hypotheses. He’s not afraid to go out on a limb either, for as he says:

I’d also like to say a word about speculation, a term that has acquired a pejorative connotation among some scientists. Describing someone’s idea as “mere speculation” is often considered insulting. This is unfortunate. As the English biologist Peter Medawar has noted, “An imaginative conception of what mightbe true is the starting point of all great discoveries in science.” …Several of the findings you are going to read about began as hunches and were later confirmed by other groups (the chapters on phantom limbs, neglect syndrome, blindsight and Capgras’ syndrome). Other chapters describe work at an earlier stage, much of which is frankly speculative (the chapter on denial and temporal lobe epilepsy). Indeed, I will take you at times to the very limits of scientific inquiry. I strongly believe, however, that it is always the writer’s responsibility to spell out clearly when he is speculating and when his conclusions are clearly warranted by his observations.


I enjoyed reading the speculations, because it was fun to see how a doctor-scientist’s brain worked.

I also liked the emphasis on case studies; although many of them are from literature vs. Ramachandran’s personal experience, I still found them to be humanising. And when Ramachandran is discussing his own patients, there is always a tenderness and respect there, which I very much appreciate. He sees stroke victims who deny their own paralysis, and while he obviously finds this fascinating for medical reasons, he never makes them sound cartoonish or takes cheap shots at their expense. There’s always an awareness that what is for him a scientific mystery is for the patient a personal tragedy.

All of that being said, Ramachandran is not Oliver Sacks, and I wouldn’t say Phantoms in the Brainis perfect. Some of it felt almost uncomfortably derivative, from a few of the cutesy chapter names (“Do Martians See Red?”) to the writing within. Occasionally, it felt a bit too precocious, a kind of ‘look at me-aren’t I clever?’ tone to the text that alienated me. And the writing style is nothing to write home about.

More seriously, when Ramachandran veers towards more philosophical territory, the book feels clunky and dull. I’m not sure if this is because he has less of a background in philosophy than science, or that I was once a philosophy geek, but I found myself rolling my eyes at certain passages, and the whole last chapter rather pained me.

This is definitely a fun and interesting book, and I think it will appeal to many laymen (like myself) simply because it talks about our brains and gives many demonstrations we can try out ourselves. I enjoyed reading it. But it doesn’t even come close to Sacks’ books, in either writing style or the depth and richness of ideas. It must be frustrating to be writing in a field that inevitably invites comparisons to Sacks, so I feel for Ramachandran. I recommend his book, but if you’re only going to read one book about the brain, I have to say Oliver Sacks would be the way to go.

When you read books that mention experiments, do you feel the need to go do them?

21 Comments leave one →
  1. September 10, 2009 9:32 am

    Finally a topic I can really comment on! ;) As someone who is going for her PhD in cognitive neuroscience, Ramachandran is a well-known individual in my field. While he is respected, a lot of people feel that his methods are sometimes unorthodox (not always a bad thing, but of course in science one must make sure that one uses the most stringent and controlled measures possible), and most of his results are taken with HUGE grains of salt (to be fair, we’re scientists so we’re always trying to tear one another apart!). He’s kind of considered to be a bit flakey, a little out there… he’s not a charlatan, it’s just that he’s not known for publishing (any more, at least) in the most scientifically rigorous journals, if you catch my drift. There’s the impression that he’s become a “popular psychologist”, more interested in peddling his ideas to public, rather than making genuine breakthroughs/contributions to the academic field (hence his preponderance of books aimed at the general public). Ramachandran makes his ideas and hypotheses very alluring (“sexy” as we like to say), but I think it’s important for everyone to know that much of what he says has NOT been proven unequivocally, but are still mysteries that are likely to remain unsolved for QUITE some time! I haven’t read this book so I can’t comment on particular cases or statements he makes, but there is still much debate about disorders like neglect and phantom limb, so even if he is qualifying something as a speculation, it’s important to remember that it is HIS speculation, and there are probably alternate accounts out there.

    • September 10, 2009 3:49 pm

      He had published in Science, Nature, and The Proceedings of the Royal Society. It doesn’t get much better than those journals in my opinion! The researchers interviewed in the recent New Yorker article about Ramachandran had a more positive take on him as well.

      • September 10, 2009 4:23 pm

        It isn’t as simple as what journals but whether the content is right. I haven’t read Ramachandran so I’m not going to get into anything involving his work. However, I wouldn’t automatically class a work iron-proof until I’ve read it.

        Of course, haven’t read Ramachandran I have no right to say more.

      • September 11, 2009 3:49 pm

        Rich, the Nature articles are well over 10 years old (not saying they’re not valid, but he hasn’t been publishing there recently) AND are not on any of this “phantoms in the brain” stuff; it was a totally different area of research. Same is true of his Science publications – it’s not the same work, and it was over a decade ago.

        Am I saying that Ramachandran is a hack? No, in fact I say in my comment point blank that he’s not. And he has an impressive pedigree, but he may be one of those researchers who made a big impact 10 years ago and is no longer doing the same caliber of research. If you look at his more recent publications, they’re in places like NeuroReport, Scientific American, and Medical Hypotheses, which is a FAR cry from Nature & Science.

  2. September 10, 2009 9:33 am

    Ooh, this sounds really interesting. I love learning about the brain and people’s perceptions of things. And *yes* – when I read about experiments, I have to do them. God knows why. :P

    BTW, Eva, I have an award here for you:


  3. September 10, 2009 9:35 am

    I love that little tidbit and plan to try it out, but I don’t think I could read that book. I’m so bad when it comes to nonfiction.

  4. September 10, 2009 10:22 am

    It depends on the experiment, but I plan to try that one.

  5. September 10, 2009 11:18 am

    Decapitation – how cool an experiment is that! I’m going to try it when hubby comes in – sometimes I’d love to chop his head off LOL ;)

  6. historyofshe permalink
    September 10, 2009 12:10 pm

    Very cool aside from all the not so cool points. I will definitely be trying this experiment out. It’ll go in my repertoire of awesomely fake decapitation styles alongside the finger-squishing-head demonstration. :)

  7. September 10, 2009 12:23 pm

    It does sound like an interesting read. I will definitely have to try the decapitating exercise.

  8. September 10, 2009 1:52 pm

    I’ve done the blind spot thing! It is so creepy. You don’t believe you have a blind spot until you find it, but it’s there.

    I really like the sound of this book. I want to have the brain power to read more non-fiction and educate myself a little more. I’m hoping that happens when I finish my MA in a couple of weeks!

  9. Jacqui permalink
    September 10, 2009 2:07 pm

    I have read this and really enjoyed it – if you do like this I would definately recommend Oliver Sachs books especially The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and a book by Susan Greenfield called The Private Life of the Brain (a bit more ‘sciency’ but still very accessible)

  10. September 10, 2009 2:57 pm

    Well, I’m going to try the headless experiment with my husband when he gets home! It sounds like such an interesting book.

  11. September 10, 2009 3:38 pm

    I’m glad that you successfully decapitated. I have tried to do it to people at boring meetings but have not been successful. But I won’t run out of boring meetings anytime soon, so I’ll stick to it.

    I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy this book as much as I did. I loved this book and learned much about the brain from it. And I find his writing to be much more lively than Oliver Sacks’, but that’s just one guys opinion. As an evolution nut, I also appreciate the way Ramachandran takes the evolutionary view of neurobiology. If you aren’t sick of him, you can look up a BBC presentation entitled “Phantoms in the Brain” on you tube that is cool.

    My wife, Debi, thought that it might break my heart that you didn’t love this book. But, I’m glad you at least found it fun and interesting.

  12. September 10, 2009 5:14 pm

    Oh fascinating! I will do experiments in books as long as the author tells me first what is going to happen at the end of the experiment. Otherwise ANYTHING COULD HAPPEN. I don’t like surprises. :P (Can’t wait to try this though!)

  13. September 10, 2009 6:53 pm

    I’ll have to try the decapitation thing. I have really, really bad eyesight in my left eye, so I’m wondering if it will still work.

    Mitch and I once spent an evening trying out Criss Angel’s levitation trick. It’s freaky looking, too.

  14. September 11, 2009 7:08 pm

    This sounds fascinating! You really made me want to try the decapitation trick, too. I do usually try experiments like that after I come across them in my reading, provided I don’t need to do anything too fancy. Standing ten feet away from someone and moving my eye around sounds about my speed. :)

  15. September 17, 2009 4:06 pm

    Steph/Rich/Uenohama, I’m staying out of this one. ;) But it was fascinatin go read your conversation.

    Ceri, thank you!

    Amanda, I crave nonfic if I haven’t read it for awhile. :)

    BermudaOnion, I hope it works!

    Clare, lol!

    History of She, hehe! :)

    Vivienne, I hope it works for you!

    Meghan, I know-there were ltos of blindspot experiments to do and they all creeped me out! When I was in school, I read *much less* NF for pleasure!

    Jacqui, I’m a huge Oliver Sacks fan. :0 But thanks for the Greenfield rec!

    Jeane, it was interesting!

    Rich, I think it’d be harder at meetings because of the 10 feet thing. I hope it works for you some day! I can see how his writing is more lively…I just love Sacks for his more literary style-does that make sense? Thanks for telling me about the BBC show! I love reading about evolution as well, so I definitely found those parts very interesting! :)

    Jenny, LOL @ the suspense!

    Softdrink, I bet you could do it with your right eyeball moving to the left too. :)

    Memory, lol! When I was reading Complications, I not only stuck my hand in a bowl of ice water to test my pain threshold and tolerance but badgered my parents into trying it too!

  16. September 24, 2009 8:49 pm

    Tonight was a night of catching up on science-book challenge notes and I’ve added this interesting one to the collection here. As usual, do let me know if I’ve done violence to your text or totally misjudged the ratings. Links appear, as usual, in your contributor’s page and the book-challenge page.

    And I still enjoy saying “thanks for your contribution!” This year’s challenge is going fine — but what’s with all these comments here about not being so good with nonfiction books? There are nonfiction books for everyone, and I think we’re proving it.


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