Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Brainstorming the Mind

Reviewed by Kuldip Dhiman

The Emerging Mind
By Vilayanur Ramchandran.
BBC-Profile Books.
Pages 208. Rs 195.

DR Vilayanur Ramachandran, the author of The Emerging Mind, mentions the case of David who had sustained head injury in a car accident, and was in a state of coma. He came out of coma and seemed quite normal, except he started having one delusion—he would look at his mother and say, "Doctor, this woman looks exactly like my mother but she isn’t, she is an impostor".

Then, there are patients whose legs have been amputated, yet they feel pain in these so-called phantom limbs, and this pain seems to be real. There are others who see only half of the scene before them. So, when they eat from a plate, they eat only one half of it, leaving the other untouched, as they can’t see it. Some have a normal vision but are blind to one particular colour. All these patients have suffered damage to their brain, and these cases are important in understanding the functioning of the brain which is the most complex and mysterious structure in the universe.

It is with the advances made in neuroscience that we have just begun to slightly appreciate the sheer complexity of the brain, which is made up of one hundred billion nerve cells or neurons that form the basic structural and functional units of the nervous system. Each neuron makes 1,000 to 10,000 contacts with other neurons and these points of contact are called synapses. It is here that exchange of information occurs. It has been calculated that the number of possible permutations and combinations of brain activity, in other words, the numbers of brain states, exceeds the number of elementary particles in the known universe!

There is a further complication. Although the brain might be the most structure, we can still hope to understand it one day as it is after all a physical structure. What is more illusive to comprehend is the mind.

Many take the brain and the mind to be one, but this view is not accepted by several thinkers and scientists. And what about consciousness? We do not see the world like a camera, we actually feel it. Although the brain might be a necessary condition for consciousness, it is difficult to explain how consciousness arises out of nerve tissues and neurons. Many scientists, who have been studying cases of near-death experiences and other paranormal activities, have begun to question the assumption that to be conscious a brain is necessary.

However, since Ramachandran is a mainstream neuroscientist, he limits his arguments to the brain being necessary for consciousness. He is humble enough to concede that in spite of all the impressive advances we have made, there is hope that we might get some understanding of the mind. Especially, after the discovery of the molecular structure of DNA, we are for the first time in a position to understand directly DNA’s contribution to the mind.

Ramachandran has studied brain-damaged patients in order to solve the brain-mind mystery. In the case of David, the author explains that vision is a very complex process. When we see a thing, it is analysed by thirty different visual areas at the back of our brain. Only then can we recognise the object we are seeing, whether it is a cat, a table, or mother. This identification takes place in a small brain region called the fusiform gyrus—which is damaged in patients with face blindness. Finally, once the image is recognised, the message is relayed to the limbic system, the emotional core of the brain, which allows you to gauge the emotional significance of what you are looking at. "In David’s case," says Ramachandran, "perhaps the fusiform gyrus and all the visual areas are completely normal, so his brain tells him that the woman he sees looks like his mother. But to put it crudely, the ‘wire’ that goes from the visual centres to the amygdala, to the emotional centres, is cut by the accident. So, he looks at his mother and thinks, "She looks just like my mother, but if it’s my mother why don’t I feel anything towards her? No, this can’t possibly be my mother, it’s some stranger pretending to be my mother."

This book also tackles other eternal questions such as selfhood, free will, and aesthetics. Art, its creation and enjoyment, is a mysterious activity. Although art is a subjective and individualistic, Ramachandran wonders if there are any universal principals of art. Many thinkers have held that art is a social activity, inspired by the environment. While this is certainly true, many human beings have innate artistic capabilities of either creating or appreciating art. What follows is a lively discussion of the emergence of art and art styles, which is rather long to be discussed in detail here. The author does not merely speculate, he shows how his theory of art could be empirically tested by studying how the brain circuitry behaves while creating art. The same method can be applied to study romantic love.

Ramachandran gives an example of two people in love sometime in distant future. As they make love, their brains are being mapped, and the electrochemical activity that is going on becomes apparent. The man says to the girl, "You mean that’s all there is to it? Your love isn’t real? It is all just chemicals?" The girl replies, "On the contrary, all this brain activity provides hard evidence that I do love you, that I’m not just faking it."

These questions are notoriously difficult to answer, but the author says maybe there is a single answer to the problem just at DNA base-pairing was the solution to the riddle of heredity.

The question of selfhood is defined by a set of attributes such as embodiment, agency, unity, continuity. The author says maybe we will succeed in explaining each of these attributes individually in terms of what is going on in the brain.

Whether you agree with the contention or not, this is a very interesting and informative book.