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Book Review Journal and Software Designs


Phantoms in the Brain – Review

By V.S. Ramachandran, M.D., PH.D. and Sandra Blakeslee


Copyright 1998


HarperCollins Publishers Inc, 10 East 53rd St, NY,NY 1002


reviewed by:  Lynard Barnes


On page 56 of PHANTOMS IN THE BRAIN, Ramachandran gives us this refreshing gem:

Popularized by artificial intelligence researchers, the idea that the brain behaves like a computer, with each module performing a highly specialized job and sending its output to the next module, is widely believed.”

Nearly every topic discussed in PHANTOMS IN THE BRAIN demolishes the “widely believed” assumption that the brain functions like a computer. It is a cumulative argument rather than a straight-out demolition. Dr. Ramachandran explores the science of the brain and adds a healthy and very refreshing dose of speculation. In sum, the book presents the strongest case possible against the human brain obeying the logical constructs of even the most complex computer algorithm. A more recent book by New York Times columnist David Brooks, THE SOCIAL ANIMAL, (published by Random House, 2011) appears to take negation of the “widely believed” assumption to its logical extreme and examines the consequences. (TGBR will review THE SOCIAL ANIMAL at a later date. A review by Times reviewer Thomas Nagel is available.

Debunking the “brain as a computer” stuff is the good part of PHANTOMS IN THE BRAIN. The bad part is when Ramachandran takes one speculative step beyond necessary to examine how “the activity of neurons give rise of perceptual experience”. To his credit, he speculates rather than pontificates. But his speculation is based on what seems a faulty premise which we will return to in a moment.

It should come as no surprise that what little we do know about the functioning of the brain is derived from observing brain metafunctions at variance with the expected. A point of clarification is in order here. Terminology is of uppermost importance when discussing human behavior.

No where in PHANTOMS IN THE BRAIN do the authors use the term metafunctions. The term implies the final “result” of a subset of functions with the metafunction being a behavioral result. So, a better way of phrasing the above statement is that what knowledge science has about brain functions has been obtained by observing behavioral activity resulting from defects in brain activity. But “defects” implies that there is some “normal” or “standard” result of brain activity. The major conclusion implied from PHANTOMS IN THE BRAIN is that there is no “normal” when it comes to human brain activity. Ramachandran states from the get-go that “we are not yet at the state where we can formulate grand unified theories of mind and brain”. Yet, we are left with a brain state called consciousness—the “I think, therefore I am” proposition of Rene Descartes. Ramachandran begins a rewarding exploration of the concept of consciousness in a later chapter of the book titled “Do Martians See Red?” in which he examines the “host of unconscious zombies” within the brain which perform most of our daily activity.

Dissecting the physical brain is the domain of neurology and it is the foundation from which Ramachandran starts his journey of exploration. In recent years, neurology has, as Ramachandran says, expanded to the science of “experimental epistemology (the study of how the brain represents knowledge and belief) and cognitive neuropsychiatry (the interface between mental and physical disorders of the brain)”. Ramachandran uses the latter to delve into the former.

Starting with subjects who have suffered brain injury of one sort or another—a stroke, a head injury—the author introduces us to the nurse who developed a blind spot in her field of vision after suffering a stroke. She reported seeing cartoon characters “cavorting within the blind spot itself”. We also learn of Arthur who suffered a head injury in an automobile crash. Normal in all other respects, Arthur arrived at a point in which he viewed his parents as imposters—not his real parents. A casual assessment, or non-scientific assessment of both the nurse and Arthur might conclude that they fit into some post-Freudian niche of mental illness.

Thus begins Ramachandran’s explanation of the complex pathways leading from external stimulation of the senses to the physical processing centers of the brain, which in turn lead to perception or understanding of the stimulation. He examines other non-typical perceptions, such as a stroke victim denying they have lost use of a limb; a confabulation in which a denial with rationalization is offered for not being able to make use of a paralyzed limb; he also examines the epileptic process as a possible explanation for some religious or mystical experiences—the ‘”temporal lobe personality”’. Rather than behaving like a computer algorithm to deduce “reality”, the brain is more like a switch amplifying some stimulations and diminishing others. (In David Brook’s THE SOCIAL ANIMAL, the author mentions the man Ramachancran’s vignette of the man who experiences an orgasm when his left foot is touched).

The holy grail of brain research is perception. On page 155 of PHANTOMS IN THE BRAIN, Ramachandran writes:

. . . for me, it’s exciting to contemplate that we scientists can begin encroaching on territory that until now was reserved for novelists and philosophers.”

In the most interesting chapter of PHANTOMS IN THE BRAIN, the aforementioned “Do Martians See Red”, Ramachandran goes beyond neurology and speculates on the philosophical question of consciousness. He goes deeply into the conundrum of qualia which is philosopher jargon for subjective sensation. It is here that Ramachandran falls into a trap. He gives two examples of qualia: one in which a person who is color-blind, unable to distinguish colors, attempting to understand a second person’s narrative perception of the color red. The gap between the science of color perception as a precise wave-length and eye receptors responding to those wave-lengths and the cognitive experience of seeing “red” can not be bridged by science. The second example is an imaginary Amazonian electric fish which is very intelligence has “the ability to sense electrical fields using special organs in its skin”. The neurophysiology of the fish allows us to map in great detail how the pathways from the fish’s skin to its brain permits it to respond to electrical fields, but, if the fish could talk, it would tell us that we have no idea how it feels to sense electricity. The conundrum. Science can provide exquisite detail of physical reality that leads to perception. Yet, science can not explain the perception.

Ramachandran, contrary to what philosophers have assumed for centuries, dose not believe that there really is a division between brain and mind. For him, it’s all semantics. (Where have we heard that before?)  A conclusion which resurrects the behaviorism and automatons of B. F Skinner.

The semantics of Ramachandran assumes that the language of the physical world, of “nerve impulses” is different from the language of self-perceived reality, of communication “across the air between two people” in the same room. He posits an experiment in which the neural pathways of a person who can see the color “red” is linked to the neural pathways of a person who can not see the color “red”. The color blind person then exclaims, “’Oh, my God, I see exactly what you mean. I’m having this wonderful new experience.’” Thus, the conundrum of qualia is overcome. Really?

The premise Ramachandran uses to construct his experiment, adhering to the age-old philosophical definition, is that qualia is uniquely personal, solitary. It is where self experiences physicality and translates it to emotive sensation. But more than that, in the truest philosophical meaning, qualia is a cauldron in which physical reality and past precepts and concepts of physical reality are blended, resulting in the vapor we call communication “across the air between two people”. Thus, the person who has no feeling for the color “red” is suddenly gifted with experiencing red as a color. Ramachandran insists that crossing this gap makes “red” a new perception for the non-red seeing person. The implication is that “red” is a new physical-emotive experience. The problem with the assessment is that we are elevating an outside condition—seeing the color red for the first time—into a unique ingredient of the qualia for the person who has not experience the color “red” before. Simply put, the conclusion is erroneous. To understand why the conclusion is erroneous one need only go back to the opening chapters of PHANTOMS IN THE BRAIN. At one point, discussing why the brain is most unlike a computer, Ramachandran writes that connections in the brain “are extraordinarily labile and dynamic”. Can we imagine that over the lifetime of the brain—from birth to day one—the experience of the color “red”, even for a neurological system lacking sensors for red on the color spectrum—has never experienced “red” before.

So the problem with defining brain and mind is not in their separateness but in their unity. The short-cut definition does not work. In this one area Ramachandran falls short. But for every other topic covered in PHANTOMS IN THE BRAIN, the author brings a stimulating and informative discussion.

ADDENDUM– December 16, 2012

After the review for V. S. Ramachandran’s PHANTOMS IN THE BRAIN, a great deal of interest was directed at his supposed mention of Martians and color vision. Actually, Ramachandran does not address the issue of Martians and color vision, though he mentions both—sort of.

On page 73 of PHANTOMS, Ramachandran mentions neurologist and academic Oliver Sacks’ AN ANTHROPOLOGIST ON MARS [Vintage Books, Paperback, 1995 ] during his discussion of the V4 visual processing area.  Ramachandran says that when bilateral damage occurs to the V4 area, the victim becomes completely color-blind. It is a color-blindness different from congenital color blindness. The color blindness resulting from bilateral V4 area damage is complete—no red, no green, no yellow. To illustrate the point, he mentions the story related by Sacks in which an artist suffers a very minor stroke, goes home and discovers that all his paintings lack color.  He even sees his wife as a muddy gray-color, rat-like creature.

So Ramachandran does not discuss Martian visual perception.  He does however raise the question of whether color vision is “localized” or “non-local” on page 11. The question really does become rather fundamental to his examination of the brain and the mind.  In my book, A SHORT HISTORY OF MEMORY, Ramachandran’s brief forays into the division between internal and external definitions of reality formed the basis for my question of where visual imagery originates.

PHANTOMS IN THE BRAIN remains on the list of must read books.


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