Phantoms in the brain (V. S. Ramchandran)

“Your own body is a phantom, one that your brain has temporarily constructed purely for convenience.”

“Phantoms in the brain” is one the first non-fiction I have read, and even though I moved on to different genre of non-fiction, this book has stayed with me as one of the most interesting. V. S. Ramachandran is an eminent research neuroscientist who works in the sub-field of Phantom Limbs. This phenomenon is widely evident in amputees, such that they feel their limbs even after the amputation. These amputees not only feel their limbs, but some of them suffer from excruciating pain where their phantom limbs begin such that a lot of them are driven to suicide. Majority of the book is concerned about this phenomenon, but Ramachandran also dwells into other neurological disorders which he believes gives us great insight into how the brain processes actually function. The author has also been one of the first scientists to be able to alleviate phantom pain by using simple devices and experiments, all of which are fascinating to read.

The first few chapters of the book are mainly dedicated to phantom limbs. He writes about immensely interesting cases that are a joy to read. He talks about Mirabelle, who, in spite of being born without limbs at all, experiences phantom arms which are shorter than her prosthetic arms and she feels this quite intensely. He also mentions Tom, whose phantom arm can move each finger.

Ramchandran explains Diane’s condition, who, after being poisoned with carbon monoxide, was rendered blind. Even though she was blind, when asked to put a letter in the mailbox, she puts in in perfectly, almost like she could see. She denied being able to see the mailbox, but her hand oriented itself perfectly to put the letter in. Ramachandran concluded that this is almost like a “phantom” is in the brain that passes instructions in such bizarre a manner. He explains that a layman might think that they have an idea about how the brain works, but nothing could be as far from the truth. He proceeds to talk about disorders like “hemi-neglect” , when a person has the left side of their body paralyzed but does not realize it and continues to feel healthy, they even see their own left arm and leg moving. This is almost like a severe case of denial, which is common psychological phenomenon.

“What I didn’t realize when I began these experiments is that they would take me to the heart of human nature. For denial is something we do all our lives, whether we are temporarily ignoring the bills accumulating in our tray or defiantly denying the finality and humiliation of death.”

Ramachandran also mentions and explains the Capgras’ delusion and Cotards’ syndrome both of which were odd and interesting. He covers even points of great debate by the end; whether or not spiritual experiences are a result of neurological significance, or real experiences.

This book has been written such that it is understood by someone who has no experience in biological sciences at all. It would be clichéd a statement, but the book really made me wonder of how nature has worked its course in building the human body, and how it is so much more complex than anything we will probably create in the next century. For anyone who enjoys the cases in House as much I did, this book should be a guaranteed read.

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