Review of Ramachandran’s “The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human”

Science writer Karen A. Frenkel reviews V.S. Ramachandran’s sixth book, “The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human,” (W.W. Norton, 2011). Ramachandran  is Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition and Professor with the Psychology Department and Neurosciences Program at the University of California, San Diego, and Adjunct Professor of Biology at the Salk Institute.

Like the “Tell-Tale Heart,” Edgar Allen Poe’s heart-pounding short story,  V. S. Ramachandran ’s The Tell-Tale Brain is an exciting read. In his sixth book, the acclaimed neuroscientist explains the brain’s most intriguing and enigmatic characteristics. But the similarity between the two works ends there, because Poe’s narrator is notoriously unreliable, whereas Ramachandran is a hugely talented authority in his field. He is also a gifted storyteller who delves into areas beyond his direct expertise. He explains why our brains are plastic, the reasons amputees sense their missing limbs, the blending of senses known as synesthesia, and hypothesizes about the riddle of autism. But he also extends his exploration beyond neuroscience, offering insights into why art appeals to us. He examines this highly cross-cultural human endeavor through the new realm of neurasthenics.

My favorite chapter is the one on autism, perhaps because this worldwide phenomenon has eluded us for so long.  Ramachandran thinks that because autistic children have difficulty miming and imitating other’s actions, the key to unraveling this mystery may be mirror neurons, or rather a deficiency in them. This, in turn, results in a “deficient theory of other minds,” he says, that is, the inability to “automatically project intentions perceptions, and beliefs into the minds of others.” But that is not truly an explanation, says Ramachandran; it doesn’t do much more than restate autistic symptoms – lack of empathy, impaired intention-reading, no mimicry, non pretend play, and hampered language learning. So Ramachandran offers a hypothesis – that the main cause of autism is a dysfunctional mirror-neuron system – and also takes the reader through the design and implementation of an experiment. He shows that in certain circumstances, a medium-functioning autistic boy named Justin does not produce the same brain waves as a normal child. Specifically, when Justin watched someone perform a simple action like opening and closing his fingers, electrodes on Justin’s scalp did not show the suppression of mu waves (electromagnetic oscillations in the frequency range of 8 to 13 Hz and appear in bursts of 9 to 11 Hz. The wave patterns arise from synchronous and coherent electrical activity of large groups of neurons in the human brain).

Ramachandran and his team concluded that although Justin’s motor-command system was intact because he could open doors, eat, and draw, for example, his mirror system was deficient. Ramachandran and his colleagues performed the same test on ten more children and since then other scientists have confirmed this observation using other techniques. Thus Ramachandran not only sheds light on autism, but along the way teaches readers about the scientific method. This is his MO throughout this fine book. He fluidly weaves in his questions, takes the reader on a scientific journey, and rewards us with the method’s payoff – results.

Two chapters on art and the brain, “Beauty and the Brain: the Emergence of Aesthetics,” and The Artful Brain: Universal Laws,” are interesting, but less successful.  Ramachandran writes that beneath all the staggering variety of styles of art, there may be general principles or artistic universals that cut across cultural boundaries. He asks whether we can derive a “science of art,” and despite acknowledging that art is a celebration of individual imagination and spirit, goes on to try to convince the reader that we now know enough about human vision and the brain to “construct a scientific theory of artistic experience.” This will involve universal laws or principles, analogous to the Buddha’s eightfold path to wisdom and enlightenment. Ramachandran’s list actually has nine laws of aesthetics, and he defends it by stating that the list does not diminish the important role of culture in the creation and appreciation of art. They are: grouping, peak shift, contrast, isolation, peekaboo (or perceptual problem solving), abhorrence of coincidence, orderliness, symmetry, and metaphor.

I enjoyed Ramachandran’s explanation of the law of grouping (the repeated use of a color on unrelated objects throughout a canvas) in terms of evolution—that it evolved to defeat camouflage and to detect objects in cluttered scenes. But Ramachandran really captivated me with his discussion of Isolation, describing the artwork of an autistic girl named Nadia. Three-year-old Nadia drew a horse with fabulous lines that evoked speed and aggression so that the animal seemed to leap from the paper. But the artist could not converse or barely tie a shoelace.

Drawing by 3-year-old Nadia

Many people preferred her equine rendition to one by Da Vinci, says Ramachandran yet how can an autistic child draw better than one of the greatest geniuses, he asks. The answer is that a portion of her brain — a “spared island” in the right parietal lobe (which is responsible for special skills) functions normally. Furthermore, Ramachandran suggests that the poor functioning in many other brain areas free Nadia’s right parietal to get the lion’s share of her attentional resources. Ironically, Nadia outgrew some of her autism during puberty only to completely lose her artistic ability; she could no longer allocate the bulk of her attention to that activity.

This prompts Ramachandran to ask two questions: Is it possible that we less-gifted, normal people also have latent artistic talents waiting to be liberated by brain disease? And if so, would it be possible to unleash these talents without actually damaging our brains or paying the price of destroying other skills? Ramachandran describes pioneering work by another scientist in transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), which harmlessly and temporarily inactivated portions of normal adults’ brains. Interestingly, subjects in the experiment suddenly produced beautiful sketches. The astonished Ramachandran thinks up a way to use fMRI to explore this further.

Although Ramachandran’s nine laws are intended to explain why artists create and why people enjoy viewing it, I enjoyed section on metaphor mainly because of his enthusiastic description of the Nataraja, a 12th century Indian sculpture of the cosmic dance of Shiva. Ramachandran writes:

But the sculpture is much more than that; it is a metaphor of the dance of the Universe itself, of the movement and energy of the cosmos. The artist depicts this sensation through the skillful use of many devices. For example, the centrifugal motion of Shiva’s arms and legs flailing in different directions and the wavy tresses flying off his head symbolize the agitation and the frenzy of the cosmos. Yet right in the midst of all this turbulence – this fitful fever of life – is the calm spirit of Shiva himself. He gazes at his own creation with supreme tranquility and poise. How skillfully the artist has combined these seemingly antithetical elements of movement and energy. . . .

Throughout his book, Ramachandran invites us to share his curiosity, his zest for exploration, and his love of knowledge. Through his eloquence, he makes them contagious.

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2 thoughts on “Review of Ramachandran’s “The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human”

  1. First, V.S. Ramachandran is not an adjunct professor at the Salk Institute. If you check the roster of adjunct professors posted on the Salk web site you can verify this fact for yourself.

    Second, there is virtually no one in the community of neuroscientists who supports Ramachandran’s theory about the link between autism and mirror neurons. His reliance on mu-wave suppression as an index for mirror neuron activity has been rejected by no less than Patricia Churchland (who is an adjunct professor at the Salk). You can find her opinion about mu-wave suppression in her most recent book. Braintrust. See Chapter 6 for her thoughts on this matter. You can also find some very good discussions about mirror neurons on Greg Hickok’s web site Talking Brains. He is the head of the Cognitive Neuroscience Center at UC Irvine.

    Finally, Ramachandran’s original theory (formulated in 1992) about the relationship between phantom limb phenomenon and the reorganization of the Penfield map on the surface of the cortex was proven wrong in 1995 — 1996 by the work of scientists such as Herta Flor at the University of Heidelberg. Much of what he has written in his books on this subject is both out of date and inaccurate.

    Ramachandran has offered quite a few intriguing speculations about the brain but almost none of them are backed up by actual research.

    • As an Indian (drawn towards Cognitive Neuroscience),I can understand Professor Ramachandran in a slightly better way than many western reviewers: the reason for his confusion is that he is torn between the ‘uniquess of being human’ and the ‘uniqueness of being a Parabrahman’, the icon of the Indian dualism (god himself). No doubt his researches draw him in one direction and the Indian traditions put a check on this so as to propose a creationist solution. This is the reason why real cognitive science has not taken deeper roots in India. Hardly anyone discusses about his book. However I advised my students in the Cognitive Science Group to be ready with questions on his lack of understanding of the mentally-challenged (Capgras or Cotard illusion) so as to open a new areas of research that will benefit India. This seems to be the need of the hour for India.

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