Ramachandran: The Tell-Tale Brain

This book contained more idiosyncrasies than I expected. Time was spent on the Victorian sentiments of R’s research paradigm, with his preference for simple experiments with everyday tools.

R was also uncomfortably rigid in his treatment of the ape-human divide. While postulating a continuous evolutionary link between different species within our clade, R claimed that the evolutionary progress between homo sapiens and our near-neighbors are about as significant abiogenesis itself.

I wouldn’t characterize the above as an extreme position, perhaps, but R does not hesitate to remind the reader every few pages, how this behavior is unique to humans. Some of these claims were well-founded, but many lacked evidence, and some were plainly false (“apes don’t have theory of mind”, “apes don’t appreciate humor”, etc).

For a researcher seeking to democratize scientific progress, Ramachandran displayed a disappointing poverty of integrative thinking. In particular, R’s tone towards psychology is sometimes measured, sometimes awkwardly uninformed (dismissing out of hand the psychometric concept of the general intelligence factor, g, as “absurd”), but never collaborative. A more promising way to progress in the sciences: higher-level fields structure lower-level fields, and fields closer to implementation details constrain those engaged with more general abstractions.

I was unhappy with the degree to which Ramachandran leaned on mirror neuron systems. Mirror neurons are neurons discovered in apes that fire for some arbitrary action, regardless of whether it is performed by the observer, or by some other agent. To me, it felt like Ramachandran abstracted this idea to be the neurological basis of two distinct things: theory of mind, and conceptual representation. And, because these two things are such important conceptual building blocks,
mirror neurons appear practically everywhere Ramachandran looks…

All of that said, this book does have a lot to offer to those uninitiated in neuroscience. Its introduction to the nervous system felt especially competent. The section on body map failures, e.g., people whose body map for an arm is corrupted and they seek amputation, was particularly interesting. Some connections were made from these neurological structures, to sexual orientation and transgender behavior, which I bookmarked for further research. Finally, I appreciated the book’s breadth, particularly enjoying its explorations in theories of humor (Benign Violation Theory), the tri-stream visual systems, autistic savants, and neuroaesthetics.