Annals of Indian Academy of Neurology
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Year : 2013  |  Volume : 16  |  Issue : 3  |  Page : 450-451

The Tell-Tale Brain: Unlocking the mystery of human nature

Chairman, National Brain Research Center, Manesar, New Delhi, India

Date of Web Publication26-Aug-2013

Correspondence Address:
P N Tandon
Chairman, National Brain Research Center, Manesar, New Delhi
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

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How to cite this article:
Tandon P N. The Tell-Tale Brain: Unlocking the mystery of human nature. Ann Indian Acad Neurol 2013;16:450-1

How to cite this URL:
Tandon P N. The Tell-Tale Brain: Unlocking the mystery of human nature. Ann Indian Acad Neurol [serial online] 2013 [cited 2020 Jul 11];16:450-1. Available from:

Year of Publication: 2010, pp 357

Publisher: Random House, India

Author: V. S. Ramachandran

Ann Indian Acad Neurol 2013;16:450-1

This gem of a book, by someone called 'The Marco Polo of Neuroscience', is a unique collection of essays by V. S. Ramachandran, Director of the Centre for Brain and Cognition at the University of California, San Diego. He is a practicing neurologist who uses his observations in the clinic to postulate hypotheses, with much wider implications for his quest to unravel the structure, functions, and organization of the human brain. He, in turn, utilizes these theoretical postulations to evolve unconventional therapeutic strategies to relieve the suffering of his patients. In this quest, he effortlessly crosses the conventional boundaries of neuroscience, entering into the realm of psychology, psychiatry, cognitive and behavioral sciences, and philosophy, as also the disciplines of aesthetics and art. As he states in the preface to the book, "From genes to cells to circuits to cognition, the depth and breadth of neuroscience…………… is light years beyond where it was when I started working in the field". And yet fully conscious of the limits of our knowledge, he states, "………. We need to stay completely honest with ourselves and acknowledge that we have only discovered a tiny fraction of what there is to know about human brain……….". Modestly he states, "And so this book is my modest contribution to the grand attempt to crash the coast of the human brain……".

Starting with his favorite topics like Phantom Limbs and Plastic Brain, Seeing and Knowing, and Synesthesia, he seeks explanation for some well-known and some bizarre clinical syndromes (some of which I must confess I had not even heard of) like de Clιrambault's syndrome, koro, apotemnophilia, somatoparaphrenia, Capgras syndrome, Cotard syndrome, and so on. These, no doubt would be of interest both to neurologists and psychiatrists alike. His purpose in writing about these is not merely to catalogue these rare entities encountered in his clinical practice but to speculate, hypothesize, and explore their neural basis. In the process, he does not hesitate to challenge authority and established conventional wisdom. Yet, this reflection of self-belief is tempered with humility to accept ignorance. This effort reflects his erudition and command of vast knowledge not only of neuroscience but much beyond. He thus finds an evolutionary explanation for the most commonly relied-upon neurological sign - the Babinski sign.

Based on these anecdotal case studies, he moves to more complex aspects of human behavior. The very title of these chapters, "The Neurons That Shaped Civilization", "The Power of Babble: The Evolution of Language", "The Artful Brain: Universal Laws", and "An Ape with a Soul" takes us to every complex aspect of human behavior, its evolution, and its likely neurobiological basis. Thus he not only discusses the neural basis of language and its three different aspects, namely, lexicon, semantics, and syntax, but even more interestingly its characteristics that make human language unique. Quoting Tagore's famous description of Taj Mahal as a "tear drop on the Cheek of time", he delves into the importance of metaphor and analogy and 'puns and poems' as the unique aspects of human language. One may or may not agree with him but this is certainty a thought-provoking statement, "But in my account, synkinesia sowed the initial seeds of lexicon, helping to form the original vocabulary base on which subsequent linguistic elaboration was built". Or "Synkinesia may have played a pivotal role in transforming an earlier gestural language of hands into spoken language." Recognizing the unconventional nature of his own proposition, he forcefully argues, "This hypothesis may seem speculation to orthodox psychologists, but It provides a window of opportunity - indeed, the only one we have to date - for exploring the actual neural mechanism of language".

Moving from the subject, at least familiar to neurologists and psychiatrists, Ramachandran embarks on areas not common in their parlance - civilization, culture, humor, art, and aesthetics. He invokes the role of mirror neurons in humans for a variety of functions like empathy, embodied cognition, imitation, and language evolution on the one hand and autism, chronic syndromes, phantom limbs, and some exotic syndromes like Munchausen's syndrome and Cauvade syndrome, and even some Freudian phenomena like projection, counterprojection, and so on, on the other. He claims to provide "evidence that a paucity of mirror neurons or circuits they project to may underlie autism." At another place he mentions, "………. mirror neurons may have played a pivotal role in our becoming the one and only species that veritably lives and breathes culture." In his poetic style, he goes on to designate mirror neurons as "Gandhi neurons" because they blur the boundary between the self and others - not just metaphorically but quite literally. The present reviewer who has enough familiarity with the current literature on this subject finds Ramachandran crossing the limits of scientific objectivity concerning the functional importance of these neurons at least in some of his postulations. These lack experimental proof and are based on logico-deductive premises. It must be added to his credit that at one place he acknowledges this, "Obviously I am not claiming to have 'explained' these syndromes, I am merely pointing out how they might fit into our overall scheme and how they may give us hints about the manner in which the normal brain constructs a sense of self." Lest the readers get an impression, as I had, that Ramachandran seems to ascribe all kinds of functions to the mirror neurons, he himself comments at another place, "……. we must be careful not to attribute all puzzling aspects about brain to mirror neurons. They don't do everything! Nonetheless, they seem to have been key players in our transcendence of apehood." And yet he goes on to propose, "Human mirror neurons achieve a level of sophistication that far surprasses that of any lower primate, and appear to be the key to our attainment of full-fledged culture."

There is yet another area to which Ramachandran is inevitably drawn from his wide-ranging neuropsychological studies - one that relates to the ultimate human attributes - humor, morality, self-awareness, abstract thoughts, and, in passing, his concept of God.

I would not like to delve in any detail on these aspects of Ramachandran's deliberations but recommend to the readers interested in these quasi-philosophical human attributes to share the amazingly erudite exposition of these subjects by the author. Notwithstanding his uncanny ability to find a neurological basis for many normal human traits and brain disorders, Ramachandran, called 'the modern Paul Broca' by Nobel Laureate Eric R Kandel, recognizes that, "It would be arrogant for a scientist to deny that there are still many important questions about the evolution of the human mind that remain unanswered."

Let me conclude this by stating how much I enjoyed reading this book, and I am sure all students of the human brain and mind will find it a rewarding experience. In his own words, for the neuroscientists, psychologists, and cognitive scientists the author "provides us with a new and unique opportunity to understand the structure and function of the self, not only from the outside by observing behavior, but also from studying the inner workings of the brain".


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