The human brain is arguably the most complex and sophisticated organ to ever exist. The deep secrets of the mind continue to be elusive, even to the greatest cognitive experts. If you want to delve into the enigmatic nature of the science of understanding the brain, there is no better book to pick up than “Phantoms in the Brain”.
This book is best described as a crossover between a sleuth novel showcasing the power of keen observation and sharp reasoning. The author V.S. Ramachandran draws on his decades of experience treating patients with neurological disorders. Through his personal notes on his patients who present with strange and puzzling disorders, we get a glimpse of the mysterious rules by which the human brain works.
This is not a dry and technical textbook on neurological case studies that presents patients as “brains on a stick”. The author gives detailed and personal accounts of the stories of these patients, accounts of how the disorder emerged in them, what their lives were like before, and how they changed after being diagnosed.
There are intimate accounts of how the disorders wreak havoc on their lives, with descriptions of their emotional trauma and their battle against their own brains. The reader becomes familiar with each patient, so much so that their names instantly help you recall their stories, like the tales of old friends.
The reader will often feel as though they are sitting in the corner of Dr. Ramachandran’s office, as he has lengthy conversations with patients about their disorder, tests them in detail for a diagnosis, updates his theories, and conducts experiments. Eventually, he reaches a solution, or at least understands what exactly went wrong in their brains to cause the disorder.
The book not only exposes the brains of the patients to the reader, but also that of the author himself—the myriad racing questions that arise in his mind as he interacts with the patients, along with his creative process of diagnosis and conclusion. This is not purely a book on neuroscience, but rather a confluence of ideas from neuroscience, philosophy, evolutionary biology, and even religion.
The book begins with an overview of brain anatomy. This supplies a layperson with the necessary details to understand the brain regions described later in the case studies throughout the book. The author has a knack for making anatomy—possibly the driest topic in neuroscience—palatable and even enjoyable to both the layperson and the expert.
The initial chapters are devoted to case studies on phantom limb phenomenon. Patients with an amputated body part can often feel their missing limb. Why do these phantoms happen? Through the question the author investigates how our body is represented in “maps” within the brain. He humorously remarks that to a neurologist, God seems to be a cartographer, rather than an architect.
Case studies on blindness, hallucinations and Scotoma explain the basic principles of how vision in the brain works, such as “filling in” information that seems incomplete. He argues that seeing is to some extent a “hallucination”!
Midway through the book, the reader graduates from studying primary brain functions, such as motion and vision, to more abstract and higher-order functions, such as attention.
At the end of chapters, the reader is left with philosophical “food for thought”. For example, he points out the absurdity of how we see using case studies of Hemispatial neglect. Aliens in a four dimensional world would find our three dimensional vision as baffling as we find the ‘halved’ reality of patients with Hemispatial neglect.
Near the end, the book breaks into a half-philosophical, half-Freudian discussion on how brain science, cosmology, and evolution make humans feel insignificant, and how we probably enjoy this because it makes us feel like we are a part of something larger than ourselves.
Just when you think that all the fundamental ideas of our existence have thus far been questioned and your trust in them has been shaken by the book, it proves you wrong by presenting the most controversial topic of all — religious and spiritual experience.
The author introduces cases studies of patients with temporal lobe epilepsy who experience “God” and details how these are linked to our limbic system. The author explores the “God module” of the brain, along with proposing his theories and experiments to test them in patients with epilepsy. The author calls this “the twilight zone” of neurology, blurring the lines between brain science, philosophy, and religion.
The book leaves readers with more questions than answers, some in the realm of brain science and others in philosophy. This may be disappointing to the fraction of readers looking for a clear understanding of brain anatomy and concrete answers on its mechanism of functioning, but this is not a textbook. Rather, it is a collection of a clinician’s musings on strange and quirky brain disorders.
The neuroanatomy and explanations of brain mechanisms serve mostly as stilts upon which the reader can stand and gaze into unreachable and enigmatic questions about ourselves. The long philosophical debates towards the end of the book may at times seem drawn out and insipid to those seeking answers from a neurologist, only to instead find themselves leaving the book with more questions than they began with.
By the end of the book, the reader has a decent understanding of how complex is brain is, and just how difficult it is to study it. It reveals just how everything we experience is questionable.
The book ends on a haunting note, touching on how neuroscience alone cannot solve the riddle of how we, the “animated stardust”, are able to reason and question everything, including our own existence in the universe. The author opines that studying the brain is nothing short of a religious experience, one that simultaneously humbles and liberates us as we come to understand that everything we feel and experience is a result of the activity of a bunch of cells. As a reader who reaches the last page of the book, I guarantee that you will agree.