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Authors: V. S. Ramachandran,Sandra Blakeslee

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Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind

BOOK: Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind
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Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind

V.S. Ramachandran, M.D., Ph.D., and Sandra Blakeslee

Copyright © 1998

ISBN 0688152473

To my mother, Meenakshi

To my father, Subramanian

To my brother, Ravi

To Diane, Mani and Jayakrishna

To all my former teachers in India and England


To Saraswathy, the goddess of learning, music and wisdom


The great neurologists and psychiatrists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were masters of description, and some of their case histories provided an almost novelistic richness of detail. Silas Weir Mitchell—who was a novelist as well as a neurologist—provided unforgettable descriptions of the phantom limbs (or "sensory ghosts," as he first called them) in soldiers who had been injured on the battlefields of the Civil War. Joseph Babinski, the great French neurologist, described an even more extraordinary syndrome—anosognosia, the inability to perceive that one side of one's own body is paralyzed and the often−bizarre attribution of the paralyzed side to
another person.
(Such a patient might say of his or her own left side, "It's my brother's" or "It's yours.") Dr. V.S. Ramachandran, one of the most interesting neuroscientists of our time, has done seminal work on the nature and treatment of phantom limbs—those obdurate and sometimes tormenting ghosts of arms and legs lost years or decades before but not forgotten by the brain. A phantom may at first feel like a normal limb, a part of the normal body image; but, cut off from normal sensation or action, it may assume a pathological character, becoming intrusive, "paralyzed," deformed, or excruciatingly painful—phantom fingers may dig into a phantom palm with an unspeakable, unstoppable intensity. The fact that the pain and the phantom are

"unreal" is of no help, and may indeed make them more difficult to treat, for one may be unable to unclench the seemingly paralyzed phantom. In an attempt to alleviate such phantoms, physicians and their patients have been driven to extreme and desperate measures: making the amputation stump shorter and shorter, cutting pain or sensory tracts in the spinal cord, destroying pain centers in the brain itself. But all too frequently, none of these work; the phantom, and the phantom pain, almost invariably return.

To these seemingly intractable problems, Ramachandran brings a fresh and different approach, which stems from his inquiries as to what phantoms
and how and where they are generated in the nervous system. It has been classically considered that representations in the brain, including those of body image and phantoms, are fixed. But Ramachandran (and now others) has shown that striking reorganizations in body image occur very rapidly—within forty−eight hours, and possibly much less— following the amputation of a limb.

Phantoms, in his view, are

generated by such reorganizations of body image in the sensory cortex and may then be maintained by what he terms a "learned" paralysis. But if there are such rapid changes underlying the genesis of a phantom, if there is such plasticity in the cortex, can the process be reversed? Can the brain be tricked into
a phantom?

By using an ingenious "virtual reality" device, a simple box with a transposing mirror, Ramachandran has found that a patient may be helped by merely being given the sight of a normal limb—the patient's own normal right arm, for example, now seen on the left side of the body, in place of the phantom. The result of this may be instantaneous and magical: The normal look of the arm competes with the feel of the phantom.

The first effect of this is that a deformed phantom may straighten out, a paralyzed phantom may move; eventually, there may be no more phantom at all. Ramachandran speaks here, with characteristic humor, of

"the first successful amputation of a phantom limb," and of how, if the phantom is extinguished, its pain must also go—for if there is nothing to embody it, then it can no longer survive. (Mrs. Gradgrind, in
Hard Times,
asked if she had a pain, replied, "There is a pain somewhere in the room, but I cannot be sure that I have got it." But this was her confusion, or Dickens's joke, for one cannot have a pain except in oneself.) Can equally simple "tricks" assist patients with anosognosia, patients who cannot recognize one of their sides as their own? Here too, Ramachandran finds, mirrors may be of great use in enabling such patients to reclaim the previously denied side as their own; though in other patients, the loss of "leftness," the bisection of one's 2

body and world, is so profound that mirrors may induce an even deeper, through−the−looking−glass confusion, a groping to see if there is not someone lurking "behind" or "in" the mirror. (Ramachandran is the first to describe this "mirror agnosia.") It is a measure not only of Ramachandran's tenacity of mind but of his delicate and supportive relationship with patients that he has been able to pursue these syndromes to their depths.

The deeply strange business of mirror agnosia, and that of misattributing one's own limbs to others, are often dismissed by physicians as irrational. But these problems are also considered carefully by Ramachandran, who sees them not as groundless or crazy, but as emergency defense measures constructed by the unconscious to deal with sudden overwhelming bewilderments about one's body and the space around it. They are, he feels, quite normal defense mechanisms (denial, repression, projection, confabulation, and so on) such as Freud delineated as uni−

versai strategies of the unconscious when forced to accommodate the intolerable or unintelligible. Such an understanding removes such patients from the realm of the mad or freakish and restores them to the realm of discourse and reason—albeit the discourse and reason of the unconscious.

Another syndrome of misidentification that Ramachandran considers is Capgras' syndrome, where the patient sees familiar and loved figures as impostors. Here too, he is able to delineate a clear neurological basis for the syndrome—the removal of the usual and crucial affective cues to recognition, coupled with a not unnatural interpretation of the now af−fectless perceptions ("He can't be my father, because I
nothing—he must be a sort of simulacrum").

Dr. Ramachandran has countless other interests too: in the nature of religious experience and the remarkable

"mystical" syndromes associated with dysfunction in the temporal lobes, in the neurology of laughter and tickling, and—a vast realm—in the neurology of suggestion and placebos. Like the perceptual psychologist Richard Gregory (with whom he has published fascinating work on a range of subjects, from the filling−in of the blind spot to visual illusions and protective colorations), Ramachandran has a flair for seeing what is fundamentally important and is prepared to turn his hand, his freshness, his inventiveness, to almost anything.

All of these subjects, in his hands, become windows into the way our nervous systems, our worlds, and our very selves are constituted, so that his work becomes, as he likes to say, a form of "experimental epistemology." He is, in this way, a natural philosopher in the eighteenth−century sense, though with all the knowledge and know−how of the late twentieth century behind him.

In his Preface, Ramachandran tells us of the nineteenth−century science books he especially enjoyed as a boy: Michael Faraday's
Chemical History of a Candle,
works by Charles Darwin, Humphry Davy and Thomas Huxley. There was no distinction at this time between academic and popular writing, but rather the notion that one could be deep and serious but completely accessible, all at once. Later, Ramachandran tells us, he enjoyed the books of George Gamow, Lewis Thomas, Peter Medawar, and then Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould.

Ramachandran has now joined these grand science writers with his closely observed and deeply serious but beautifully readable book
Phantoms in the Brain.
It is one of the most original and accessible neurology books of our generation.

—Oliver Sacks, M.D.


In any field, find the strangest thing and then explore it. —John Archibald Wheeler
This book has been incubating in my head for many years, but I never quite got around to writing it. Then, about three years ago, I gave the Decade of the Brain lecture at the annual meeting of the Society for 3

Neuroscience to an audience of over four thousand scientists, discussing many of my findings, including my studies on phantom limbs, body image and the illusory nature of the self. Soon after the lecture, I was barraged with questions from the audience: How does the mind influence the body in health and sickness?

How can I stimulate my right brain to be more creative? Can your mental attitude really help cure asthma and cancer? Is hypnosis a real phenomenon? Does your work suggest new ways to treat paralysis after strokes? I also got a number of requests from students, colleagues and even a few publishers to undertake writing a textbook. Textbook writing is not my cup of tea, but I thought a popular book on the brain dealing mainly with my own experiences working with neurological patients might be fun to write. During the last decade or so, I have gleaned many new insights into the workings of the human brain by studying such cases, and the urge to communicate these ideas is strong. When you are involved in an enterprise as exciting as this, it's a natural human tendency to want to share your ideas with others. Moreover, I feel that I owe it to taxpayers, who ultimately support my work through grants from the National Institutes of Health.

Popular science books have a rich, venerable tradition going as far back as Galileo in the seventeenth century.

Indeed, this was Galileo's main method of disseminating his ideas, and in his books he often aimed barbs at an imaginary protagonist, Simplicio—an amalgam of his professors. Almost all of Charles Darwin's famous books, including
The Origin of Species, The Descent of Man, The Expression of Emotions in Animals and
Men, The Habits of Insectivorous Plants
—but not his two−volume monograph on barnacles!—were written for the lay reader at the request of his publisher, John Murray. The same can be said of the many works of Thomas Huxley, Michael Faraday, Humphry Davy and many other Victorian scientists. Faraday's
History of a Candle,
based on Christmas lectures that he gave to children, remains a classic to this day.

I must confess that I haven't read all these books, but I do owe a heavy intellectual debt to popular science books, a sentiment that is echoed by many of my colleagues. Dr. Francis Crick of the Salk Institute tells me that Erwin Schrödinger's popular book
What Is Life?
contained a few speculative remarks on how heredity might be based on a chemical and that this had a profound impact on his intellectual development, culminating in his unraveling the genetic code together with James Watson. Many a Nobel Prize−winning physician embarked on a research career after reading Paul de Kruif's
The Microbe Hunters,
which was published in 1926. My own interest in scientific research dates back to my early teens, when I read books by George Gamow, Lewis Thomas, and Peter Medawar, and the flame is being kept alive by a new generation of writers—Oliver Sacks, Stephen Jay Gould, Carl Sagan, Dan Dennett, Richard Gregory, Richard Dawkins, Paul Davies, Colin Blakemore and Steven Pinker.

About six years ago I received a phone call from Francis Crick, the codiscoverer of the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), in which he said that he was writing a popular book on the brain called
Astonishing Hypothesis.
In his crisp British accent, Crick said that he had completed a first draft and had sent it to his editor, who felt that it was extremely well written but that the manuscript still contained jargon that would be intelligible only to a specialist. She suggested that he pass it around to some lay people. "I say, Rama," Crick said with exasperation, "the trouble is, I don't
any lay people. Do you know any lay people I could show the book to?" At first I thought he was joking, but then realized he was perfectly serious.

I can't personally claim not to know any lay people, but I could nevertheless sympathize with Crick's plight.

When writing a popular book, professional scientists always have to walk a tightrope between making the book intelligible to the general reader, on the one hand, and avoiding oversimplification, on the other, so that experts are not annoyed. My solution has been to make elaborate use of end notes, which serve three distinct functions: First, whenever it was necessary to simplify an idea, my cowriter, Sandra Blakeslee, and I resorted to notes to qualify these remarks, to point out exceptions and to make it clear that in some cases the results are preliminary or controversial. Second, we have used notes to amplify a point that is made only briefly in the main text—so that the reader can explore a topic in greater depth. The notes also point the reader to original references and credit those who have worked on similar topics. I apologize to those whose works are not cited; my only excuse is that such omission is inevitable in

BOOK: Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind
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