Vilayanur Ramachandran

Read and recently re-read “The Emerging Mind” originally prepared as the 2003 BBC Reith Lectures byVilayanur Ramachandran – Rama to his friends aparently.

First time through (the book) I was initially disappointed (as ever) but in fact the book of 5 lectures is a gem. I was initially put off by his early suggestion that studying neurological syndromes “had largely been ignored” as a means of acquiring insights into normal brain functions. My experience of much research reading is that this is become the standard means to understand brain functions from the study of individual “malfunctions”. I even suggested it had become a meme in itself, although clearly normal science often proceeds by observing narrower variables within wider controlling conditions. Anyway, Rama is no different to many others in presenting such examples from his case-book. Edelman, Zeman, Austin, Sacks, Wegner, Damasio to name a few.

Where he is different is in being brief, engaging and witty – a great place to start for anyone sceptical or ignorant of real evidence of neural correlates of conscious and subconscious mental behaviour.

Several specific things I liked.

Some very simply presented stats, glossary and physical brain anatomy.

A good debunking of the idea that Libet had shown free-will to be illusory. Wegner and Blackmore take note.

A very powerful, physically and phonetically symbolic, case for the complete evolution of spoken language – leaving Chomsky well behind and building where Pinker leaves off.

“Apologetic” but necessary use of “meta” level concepts – supervisory / control levels of free-wont etc – perilously close metaphorically to the old homunculus idea or the “Cartesian Theatre”. Apologetic, because “meta” terms are often associated with woolly-thinking arm-waving social scientists he says – but clearly well-founded enough for this eminent scientist to use them.

“Apologetic” use of apt Indian mystical  metaphors. They might not sound scientific but to this eminent scientist they fit the observed facts.

A tremendous stock of notes and references to reading others – many I already have. As Sacks joked with Rama previously “The real book is in the end-notes.”

A hugely optimistic proposition that neuroscience is the new philosophy, and that the only sensible view of anything is the evolutionary one. Needless to say Dennett figures highly in the notes and references. [Post Note : Must review Hacker and Bennett “Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience”].  He also suggests:

“No enterprise is more vital to the well being and survival of the human race [than understanding the human brain]. This is just as true now as it was in the past. Remember that politics, colonialism, imperialism and war all originate in the human brain.”

‘Twas ever thus. So apart from taking a wider view of “the brain” as part of a wider physio-chemical human information processing system – see Damasio and somatic markers earlier – not much to disagree with. A wonderful little resource.

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