Phantoms of the Brain

This is an outstanding book — one that anybody will learn a lot from, and which is told in an engaging, entertaining manner. It’s a book about neurobiology, but it is framed more as how humans think and why we act as we do. It’s fascinating and fun, and I would highly recommend it to anybody.

Sandra Blakeslee and V.S. Ramachandran wrote the book together, though it sounds like Rama (as the writing refers to him) led the way. It infuses some eastern influence from health and religion into western medicine and beliefs, and he leaves all ideas and theories open and on the table. He rarely says “that cannot be true” — only when something is empirically proven otherwise. Most of the time, he talks about peculiar or very unusual situations, and approaches them as “how can we integrate this into our current understanding?” It’s fascinating to hear a neuroscientist walk through his thinking. So the attitude of the book, if you will, is really open and curious and wonderful.

The stories he tells are exceptional as well. The title comes from what seems to be his primary area of study: people who have lost limbs or some physical capacity, and yet still “feel” that limb or ability is there. The most common example is a soldier who returns from war having lost an arm, and yet constantly feeling it present — wanting to reach for something, or feeling pain in the arm, or trying to use it in some manner. For some who have lost limbs, it can be essentially frozen in excruciating pain; these are people experiencing real pain in limbs that no longer exist, and rather than dismissing them as crazy, he set about how to understand what is happening in their minds. One interesting approach he seems to have created is to build a box with mirrors so that, when a patient looks into it, the mirrors make it appear that the person’s one good arm looks like it is attached to the missing arm. His patients appear to have had some moderate success with this, like 50% success rate, and he has theories as to how visually seeing an arm there, and ‘moving’ it, helps to rewire the brain. There was a section of the book that explained how touch operates, mapping each part of the body to a very specific part of the brain. It explained why some people have foot fetishes (that brain region is very near the genitals, and there may be some overlapping). And that if one part of the brain is unable to operate, such as a person born without that limb, then the nearby parts of the brain start to use those areas — giving a person the sensation that both body parts are experiencing the sensation at once. There was a section on how a person had lost partial vision in their eye due to a brain issue (maybe a stroke), and they said that they could not see something in one area of their visual field. And yet, when asked to do a task in that field, the person was able to do it without issue! They could not verbally acknowledge it, because that contradicted their active mentality that they couldn’t see it, and yet somewhere beneath the surface, a part of their brain was able to see it and act upon it, without ever reaching consciousness. There are dozens of wild stories like this, and he tells them well.

Overall, my big takeaway is that the brain is an absurdly complex part of our bodies, and that scientists are just beginning to learn a little bit about it. I loved that he was seeking a unified theory of the brain, which he says is still a couple generations away, and that he never doubted or questioned people’s physical or faith experiences, instead trying to fit them into his overall paradigm. It is a brilliant book, and I’m sure that I’ll be telling — and mangling — stories from it for years to come.