Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Phantoms in the Brain

I just picked up, Phantoms in the Brain, by V.S. Ramachandran. Dr. 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. He is best known for his study of visual perception and behavioral neurology. Phantoms in the Brain delves into both of these areas as Ramachandran explores the mysteries of the mind.

What I have found most amazing about this book so far is the fact that the adult brain is so malleable. Damage may be reversed, or at least compensated for by other areas. Neural pathways are not set in stone. Scientists are just beginning to understand how our brains perceive ourselves and our environment, and this understanding will open doors only previously imagined. With further understanding, doctors may one day be able to treat stroke patients by building new neural pathways that will allow sectors of the brain to take up the cues and commands of the damaged portions.

Furthermore, Dr. Ramachandran has discovered that visual cues play a significant role in our perceptions. Sight can dictate our perceptions ourselves as well as the outside world. He found that amputees' experiences of phantom limbs had a direct correlation to their sight-induced body image. If the limbs were paralyzed before amputation, he found that many of the patients experienced paralyzed phantoms, and that this was caused and (in about 50% of cases) could be cured by visual cues.

As a reader with little scientific training, I found this book both fascinating and easy to understand. Dr. Ramachandran writes for a lay audience as opposed to neurologists. The book also contains numerous images and diagrams to aid in understanding, as well as very detailed end-notes and bibliography. Science may be generations away from explaining the inner workings of the mind and perception, but Phantoms in the Brain is an important stop along that road.

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