Vilayanur S. Ramachandran

He's a neuroscientist. Author of: 'Phantoms in the Brain'. Works at the University of California, San Diego and is Professor of Biology at The Salk Institute.

I attended one of the BBC Reith Lectures in 2003 where Ramachandran provided us with new perspectives on the mind and phantom limbs.

One interesting occurrence he found was with a patient who had been in a coma for a fortnight after a car crash. When he came to, his mother entered the room. Unfortunately, to him, he saw only a stranger... that looked exactly like his mother! To him, she was an impostor. He did not believe that she was his mother, despite looking just like her.

Then when his mother phoned him an hour later, the man brightened up and recognised her for who she was! He responded to her with affection!

Ramachandran explained that this man could not associate emotions with a visual reading. A 'wire' in his brain was cut in the car accident. It once connected the visual cortex to the 'Amygdala' - a part of the brain connected to the 'Limbic System' (which is associated with emotional response). The wiring for the audio input remained intact. This is referred to as 'Capgras Syndrome'.

Ramachandran & Phantom Limbs

Ramachandran's most exiting work has been in the study of phantom limbs. He blindfolded a man with a phantom left arm and poked different parts of his body with a stick. Ramachandran poked him in the stomach, the man would respond 'you're poking me in the stomach'. He poked him in the knee, the man would respond 'you're poking me in the knee' and so on. Then he poked the man on the cheek. The man was shocked and exclaimed that he was poking him on his phantom index finger - on the phantom limb! A different part of the cheek would result in a sensation on the phantom wrist and so on. Ramachandran eventually determined that there was a map draped over his face. The brain, in the absence of the limb, rewrote its position on the body. This part of the brain is called the 'Penfield Homunculus' which contains a map to each part of the body. But the part of the map linked to the arm is right next to the part of the map containing the co-ordinates for the face. So the brain re-organised its map and the result was that the arm was connected to the face... within the man's mind. This goes some way to explaining the nature of phantom limbs.

He claims to have found a way to remove the phantom limb sensation, you just put the patient in front of a mirror and get them to watch themselves moving or exercising their existing opposite limb. The more they watch the mirror-image limb, the more the phantom dissipates.

A member of the audience pointed out that a patient of hers was disconnected from their entire body. Nothing in the world evoked any emotion to him. He saw the world as a dream, whilst other similar cases report a belief that they are dead. Typically, these patients would cut themselves to try to make some sort of connection. Ramachandran explained that this was Cotard's Syndrome. A sort of 'phantom body'.

'The Abubba & Kiki' Test

He defines a genetic version of phantom limb phenomena in the form of 'Synesthesia'. Synesthetes' are people who associate numbers printed on paper with a particular colour, or perhaps a sound will be sensed as a smell. It is a swapping of senses. In the Reith lecture, Ramachandran suggests that we are all synesthetes' and he proved it with the following test:

Ninety eight percent of the population would call the shattered glass Kiki and the egg-shape Abubba. This association goes beyond mere onomatopoeia, past the origin of language, to the cognitive foundations of the mind and its links with the external world. There are many exotic variations of synethesia. For example, words can induce tastes in the mouth: 'Handbag' = peanut flavour. In addition, Ramachandran noted that he had a patient who laughed when pricked with a needle - the wrong response to pain stimuli.

Laughter is just an 'all clear' alert

Ramachandran has got to the bottom of humour too. Ramachandran, in his lectures, displays a keen sense of humour. But apart from this, he concludes that laughter is the result of a possible emergency that turns out to be okay. One part of the brain sees a potential danger, but the other half of the brain sees no actual emergency - it is a false alarm. And to laugh is to send out a signal to others that there is no danger after all. A man slips on a banana, but is unharmed, everything is fine - so you laugh. If the man cracked his skull open and started haemorrhaging, well that's not quite as funny...

The end of beauty?

Eventually we will understand why we respond to beauty, art, love, and fear. Your conscious mind is a collection of subtle elaborations on things that the mind simply does for mundane reasons.

I'm no neuro-psychiatrist, but my fear is that once this guy figures out why we respond to art and beauty, we will no longer be able to appreciate beauty's power. In other words, is it possible that the driving effect of emotion on humanity will be lost when we understand its mechanism?