Friday, May 22, 2015

The Tell Tale Brain - Unlocking the Mysteries of the Mind

That our brain works in a complex way is a grand understatement. The labyrinthine of neuroscience can completely overwhelm the ordinary reader. Even after an understanding has crystallized, the ordinary reader may feel a nuanced appreciation has remained elusive. In The Tell Tale Brain, VS Ramachandran has attempted to explain the intricacies (and sometimes absurdities) of how our brain functions to the uninitiated reader.

And although he may not have completely succeeded in doing so, his attempt has surely resulted in a fascinating read - bringing to the average reader such intellectually stimulating things as how art evolved, why does an autistic child draws better than a French master, why does a person feel the presence of a missing limb, why seeing colour is special and what seeing different colours means – and much more.

Theories in neuro science are always evolving with old theories getting reviewed, changed, challenged and sometimes replaced by new ones. Similarly, there is no single theory on anything – scientists disagree almost on everything leading to the existence of multiple theories on everything. Ramachandran has discussed every contemporary and past stream of thought and argument on every issue he has dealt with in The Tell Tale Brain.

The Tell Tale Brain, a title inspired from Edger Allen Poe’s Tell Tale Heart, also explores every angle of a brain problem – discussing not just the technical aspects (with respect to brain functionalities) but also their evolution, evolutionary purpose and how differently something has evolved for non-humans, and thus arriving at what makes us unique among those we share the planet with.

Ramachandran says the ability to copy, among other things, an ability mirror neurons are responsible for, makes humans unique. This ability is not available in animals or at least at a level as sophisticated as in humans. So while a cub can learn from its mother how to hunt, it can never learn subtler skills, like language, from its parents or from other animals. Ramachandran says this ability to learn from others (or copy) is at the heart of accomplishments that are unique to humans, like culture, language (unless you are among those who believe dolphins have a language) etc. And this ability is also responsible for empathy, which again is among the core abilities required for something which is uniquely human – art.

A survey was conducted where the participants were given two sketches of a running horse, one done by an autistic child and the other by a French master without telling the participants which one is sketched by whom. And the majority found the one done by the autistic child better than the one by the French master!

Ramachandran says there are two parts in our brain (broadly), one of them is responsible for artistic output and the other deals with logic-based activities. Since the autistic child’s other side is completely dysfunctional (since autism causes loss of social or any other skill) all his mental energies flow unconsumed into the part that’s concerned with art, unlike in the case of the French master with whom some of the energy is consumed by the non-artistic part of the brain. Read the book for more such insights on how our brain works.

The Tell Tale Brain reads like a thriller V.V Ramachandran’s erudition notwithstanding.

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