Like a lot of people, I’m fascinated by the brain. I love reading about neuroscience and psychiatry, but I’ve never formally studied science beyond year 10 in high school – so it’s always exciting to find a book that covers interesting aspects of the field in a way that is accessible and engaging to someone like me.
In Phantoms in the Brain, neuroscientist VS Ramachandran (with the help of writer Sandra Blakeslee) weaves together the stories of some of his most interesting cases and the discoveries he has made about the “phantoms” that lurk inside the human mind. These phantoms are the things that cause the most absurd of disruptions, like being able to feel and even move a limb that has been amputated, or seeing cartoons in the middle of a giant blind spot, or becoming convinced that your parents are in fact imposters who just happen to look exactly like your real parents.
It’s these strange disorders that provide insights into the normal workings of a functioning mind – it’s when things go wrong that we can start to learn how things should be working. Amazingly, the entirely bizarre starts to sort of make sense, and even if his theories don’t necessarily explain everything (as no theory in neuroscience ever really can), or even turn out to be correct they are definitely thought provoking.
Over the first few chapters, Ramachandran presents a fascinating theory to explain phantom limbs – the peculiar phenomenon in which a person who has had a limb amputated continues to feel as if the limb is still there. Some experience the sensation of being able to move their phantom limbs – like Tom, whose felt that his phantom arm could reach out for objects, and even experienced the sensation of picking them up – and some suffer intense pain, which can’t be treated because to our limited knowledge it doesn’t exist.
Through his discussion of phantom limbs, Ramachandran provides a clear illustration of the way our brain constructs our body image, which opens up so many interesting ideas. Maybe the most interesting sidenote (which will be useful for pulling out when the right moment comes up in conversation) is a theory he puts forward about foot fetishists. When you look at the way the body is mapped out onto the brain, the genitals are located right below the foot. There are some interesting cases of people who have had a leg amputated and say that whenever they have sex they feel it in their phantom foot. When you think about it, it makes perfect sense – it’s the same theory as cases where touching the face causes a sensation in phantom arms or hands. So it could be that even in “normal” people, who don’t have phantom limbs, a degree of cross-wiring in the body-brain-map between the feet and genital regions can occur, so that sexual feelings can actually be experienced in the feet.
This same concept and ideas about the relationship between the body and the mind keep returning throughout the book, and we start to see potential links between all these seemingly disparate conditions. For example, there is a chapter devoted to “hemi-neglect”, a phenomenon in which a patient who has suffered a stroke in the right side of the brain seems to ignore anything that lies to their left side, including their own body. They might apply makeup to only the right half of their face, and eat food only from the right side of their plate, only becoming aware of the left side of the world when you draw their attention towards it. Similarly, “denial” sometimes occurs in patients who have been paralysed on the left side of their body – their brain simply will not acknowledge the paralysis. They will claim to be able to move their left hand and perform complex tasks with it, and even make up elaborate excuses when they are challenged.
Ramachandran’s theories provide some insight into why these conditions might occur, but just as interestingly, he connects it to the everyday functioning of a “normal” human brain. “What I didn’t realize when I began these experiments is that they would take me to the heart of human nature,” he says. “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”.
I started to wonder more about how this body-mapping, along with ideas about denial and neglect, could impact body image in the way we usually think of the term, and how maybe some of Ramachandran’s ideas could be used to treat (or gain a better understanding of) conditions like body dysmorphia and eating disorders. What if you could somehow “trick” the brain into seeing what it is unable to see?Ramachandran briefly touches on the possibilities of this and I hope one day he or someone else looks into it more closely, because I think it could be fascinating.
Other case studies Phantoms in the Brain explores include Diane, who suffered carbon monoxide poisoning that left her completely blind – but was able to grasp objects and navigate complex tasks with startling precision. For example, if you asked her to post a letter through a mail slot, she could do it perfectly, with no knowledge of being able to see. This is a phenomenon called “blindsight”, described by Ramachandran as almost like a zombie inside Diane performing those actions without her being aware of it. Cases like these open up a complex discussion about what vision actually is – over 30 regions in the brain are involved in seeing, and only a small few of them are responsible for the consciousness or awareness of sight.
The book touches on a number of other interesting conditions, like Carpgras syndrome, where a patient believes his close relatives are imposters, and pseudocyesis, known commonly as phantom pregnancy. In the last few chapters, he turns his focus to spiritual experiences – not, as he is quick to clarify, to determine whether or not these experiences are “real”, but to gain an insight into what happens in the brain when one experiences them.
This is a book that is engaging and easy to read, without being too simplistic. Key concepts are explained to provide enough of an understanding for the layman to connect with the theory, so that no matter what level of scientific knowledge you come to the book with, you’ll still go away from it with some fascinating ideas about that eternal puzzle of how our brains work to perceive reality.