Saturday, July 07, 2007

Phantoms in the Brain

"Man is made by his belief. As he believes, so he is." - Bhagavad Gita.

Have you ever heard of Bill Marshal, an ex-Air Force Pilot, who met a stroke and lost some of his brain functionality? Since then, his capability of dealing with numbers was lost. He could explain you the fighter planes and share his experience of flying with them. But once you ask him about what is the value of one hundred minus three, he fails to answer. Not only that he can’t deal with numbers at all.

Did you hear the story of Mirabelle Kumar, a cheerful young lady, who was born without her hands? But she used to feel the existence of her hands from her childhood. Philip Martinez, who lost his arm in a motorcycle accident in San-Diego freeway, feels pain in his non-existing elbow and fingers.

One might not even heard of Diane Fletcher, a lady who survived an accident from carbon-monoxide fumes, could not recognize or count any object - largest letters on an eye-chart or number of fingers shown. Literally, she was a blind - would have failed all standard tests of blindness. But, she could pick up things or walk or even place a letter in the letter box with dexterity - without any help or even without touching the slit of the letter box.

A more interesting case was that of Ingrid, a Swiss woman, who suffered a brain damage to lose the visibility of continuity of motion. She could perfectly read books or cook in the kitchen but if she looked at a person running, she could only have seen a succession of static snapshots of the continuous motion.

The history of James Thurber sounds more common to us. He lost one of his eyes at the age of six, and later lost the vision of the other eye in a gradual process. At the time he became blind, he claimed that he could see a fantastic world full of surrealistic images. He could see bridges rise lazily into air, like balloons. He used his 'vision' creatively and drew a lot of whimsical cartoons and pictures, those became very popular.

There is a story of one-hand clapping also. Mrs. Dodds, who was paralyzed on her left side of the body after a stroke, knew that it was working very well. When she was asked to clap, she just made clapping movement with her right hand and was confident of her action.

Last, but not the least, the amazing story of Arthur, the son of a diplomat from Venezuela, who met a near-fatal accident and went to coma. Once he's back from coma, he could recall all the past and seemed to be normal with respect to outward appearances. But he had one credible delusion about his parents - that they were imposters, posing as his parents - and nothing could convince him. He even recognized the facial similarity with his 'actual' parents, but never agreed that they are his parents - even he conjured up some imaginary reasons as justification as why would they pose as his parent.

All these and much more are the topics of the book I am going through - Phantoms in the Brain by V. S. Ramachandran, an eminent neuroscientist. He explains all these cases in depth without using much of jargons in Neuroscience. He starts with an assumption of our brain as a set of black boxes and then gradually goes onto describe each one's functionality and how they interact with each other and the limbs. More importantly, other than the above mentioned and many more case studies, he devises a few simple experiments those let us understand his point of view properly. In one of his later chapters, he explains the relationship between our brain and the image of God from the angle of Neuroscience as well as Evolutionary Psychology. In his concluding chapter, he deals with the apparent philosophical question - what is a self and what is consciousness - and how these are closely linked with our brain.

The book I would recommend for the readers who like to explore new fields and want to know about a vaguely understood area of science - neuroscience. As a deeply scientific-minded reader, I enjoyed the book from beginning to the end. It gives me the feel that how correct Newton was when he said :"I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me."

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