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Brain Man: A Conversation with Dr. V. S. Ramachandran

By Murali Kamma Email By Murali Kamma
August 2011
Brain Man: A Conversation with Dr. V. S. Ramachandran In the heady realm of neuroscience, which has seen rapid advances in recent years, Dr. V. S. Ramachandran belongs to that select group of researchers who study the brain to find out how the mind works. From his home in San Diego, Ramachandran spoke to Khabar about his groundbreaking work, which continues to make a deep impression.

Call him Brain Man. Actually a better title would be Brain Mapper—which is what Time magazine dubbed V.S. Ramachandran when it picked him for the 2011 list of the world’s 100 most influential people. Another moniker, bestowed on him by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, was also mentioned in Time. “Once described as the Marco Polo of neuroscience, V.S. Ramachandran has mapped some of the most mysterious regions of the mind,” it read. And here’s yet another title: the modern Paul Broca.

Ramachandran’s work on agnosia, phantom limbs, synesthesia, mirror neurons, autism, language evolution, aphasia, etc. makes him a star in his field, and he has a large following among lay enthusiasts. Having co-authored (with Sandra Blakeslee) Phantoms in the Brain—a best-seller translated into nine languages and adapted for two television programs—and authored A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness, he came out earlier this year with The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human.

The new work, too, has attracted wide interest. However, as Anthony Gottlieb put it in The New York Times Book Review, “because Ramachandran is an exceptionally inventive researcher who tosses off suggestions at a dizzying pace, readers may sometimes lose track of what is firmly established, what is tentative and what is way out there.” Still, he remains a fascinating, accessible guide to those curious about the mysteries of the mind. Like the late Nobel laureate Francis Crick and the neurologist Oliver Sacks, a close friend, Ramachandran is known for his ability to probe human consciousness—especially by studying brain disorders—and convey his findings lucidly to ordinary readers.

In addition to being Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California, San Diego, where he is also Distinguished Professor with the Psychology Department and the Neurosciences Program, Ramachandran is Adjunct Professor of Biology at the Salk Institute in La Jolla. After obtaining a degree from Chennai’s Stanley Medical College, he earned a doctorate from Trinity College at the University of Cambridge. Ramachandran, who belongs to an illustrious family (his grandfather was a member of India’s Constituent Assembly), has received the Padma Bhushan, the Ariens-Kappers medal, the Ramon y Cajal award and the Henry Dale prize, among other honors. He is, according to Newsweek magazine, one of the 100 most prominent people to watch in the 21st century. His varied interests include archeology and history, not to mention paleontology, and he has published close to 200 scientific papers. A dinosaur fossil was named after him—and, oh yes, he took a crack at the impenetrable Indus Valley script.

Excerpts from a conversation with Dr. V. S. Ramachandran

One of your most striking achievements is the mirror visual feedback, which fools the brain of an amputee or a person with paralysis. How did you hit upon the idea of using simple mirrors to relieve phantom pain and even amputate phantom limbs?

First of all, it’s very difficult to answer how one gets an idea. I saw a mirror lying in the lab…so it’s quite straightforward. The mirror provides the effect of virtual reality much more easily. The second question is more difficult. We still don’t totally understand how it works. One possibility is that the arm is painful, [but] seeing that the arm is normal because nothing is causing the damage somehow seems to let the brain think that it’s not really hurting, that we’re imagining it. It’s not psychological; it’s done by the sensory system. A second possibility is learned paralysis—that is, every time the guy tries to move his arm, he gets visual feedback that it’s not moving. So this creates a form of immobilization of the arm, and these contradictory signals—one saying that it’s moving and another from vision saying that it’s not moving—is experienced as pain. By putting the mirror you are essentially reclosing the feedback, giving a false feedback saying that the arm is obeying the command. So you are removing the discrepancy to make the pain subside. Chronic pain is often a response to discrepancies.

We think of brain research as a highly specialized field involving advanced technology, but you are notable for using low-tech methods like mirrors and Q-tips. Can you explain the attraction?

There’s an aesthetic appeal and elegance to something simple. There’s a punch to it— anybody can see it. If you take Shakespeare, he’ll convey something in one line that a lesser artist will take a whole book to explain…I’m not comparing myself to Shakespeare, by the way. The aesthetic aspect of science is not emphasized these days; people get seduced by methodology and technology. But science should be problem-driven. Another reason is that you need a pragmatic view. In India, especially, we used primitive equipment in the old days…we were forced to use our ingenuity to arrive at a diagnosis. So using that low-tech method stays with you and spills into your research. A third reason is that if you have a lot of machines and a lot of statistical requirements, you can massage the data, fudge it—I don’t mean consciously, but there is plenty of scope for making errors.

Despite your early obsession with science, you said that your father wisely steered you towards medicine. Would that be the right approach even today?

No, I don’t think it’d be the right approach today. First of all, medicine gives you an intensely pragmatic view of experiments. You can’t let the patient die, right? So that pragmatism spills over into research and academic work. But a lot of academic work is sophistry; in medicine, you actually can’t do that. In India, the emphasis on clinical work in medicine is good, but the research is very primitive, except at Tata and some other private institutions. Though it is increasingly possible to get a very good education at these institutions, in schools it’s pretty bad.

In this country, the problem is that youngsters are not drawn so much to pure science, perhaps because it’s not seen as cool.

I think it’s more so now than it was before. When you go to a place like Berkeley, where my son is now, it’s mostly Indians and Chinese who are drawn to engineering. Pure science is not lucrative. Twenty, thirty years ago that wasn’t true—a lot of students loved pure science. It’s still true to some extent: they don’t shy away from pure science as much as in India. Here, they go into pure science because they love it, not because they are dropouts from engineering and medicine.

If mirror neurons are Gandhi neurons, as you call them, because they help to erase the boundary between the self and others, why is it that we are unable to live in this world with more compassion and less conflict?

More than having mirror neurons, we need to exercise them. Human beings evolved in small groups, so the mirror neuron system is adapted to interactions between individuals. It didn’t evolve because of political systems. So, the short answer to your question is that mirror neurons cannot do anything to neutralize the dynamics of political forces; it can only determine the behavior of individuals at the individual level. There’s the danger of saying that mirror neurons are doing everything. They are involved in compassion. I mean, it is human to be compassionate; it is not all warfare and strife. But then we have the political system and socio-economic circumstances—the brain did not evolve under these circumstances.

Speaking of compassion, the Dalai Lama came to Atlanta last year for a summit at Emory University. At the conference on compassionate meditation, which he attended, neuroscientists and psychologists spoke about how meditation improves our overall well-being. Have you followed this research showing a link between meditation and well-being, not to mention creativity?

I haven’t followed it—I can well believe it. Unlike some of my colleagues, I’m not skeptical. It needs to be researched more. We’ll have the answer in the next decade or the next few years. I’m inclined to think it’s not mumbo-jumbo. There is something there, but it’s not something I work on directly. So I can’t comment on that.

Some critics like Gregory Hickok of UC Irvine have argued that there is little evidence to support the mirror neuron theory of action understanding. How do you respond to that?

There are two issues. In my book, I do address various criticisms—I’m not familiar with that particular one. It seems plausible there is no direct evidence, but we often go by circumstantial evidence. I’d argue with him that there is no definitive proof of action understanding, but given their properties it seems reasonable to argue that it exists. I mean, you can always say about any neuron system that it’s just a correlation, that it’s not really doing the job. I’ll give you an analogy. They found cone cells in the eye which are responsible for seeing color. Now you can say it’s just a correlation, that they are sitting there and not doing anything. I know it’s an extreme example, but it’s the same logic. It’s very easy to debunk a hypothesis. You don’t have to go to the sun to show that it’s really hot, right? Take the mirror neuron theory for autism. If you make a list of all the properties for the symptoms and signs of autism, you’ll see that nine out of ten properties match for mirror neurons. Well, you could say that it’s not mirror neurons, but the cerebellum which is damaged. But nothing like that happens when the cerebellum is damaged. There is some distortion of time sense, but you don’t see any of the symptoms of autism in a cerebellum patient. Or vice versa. So how can you plausibly argue that the cerebellum is involved in autism? Now you could say that nobody has proved it, but that’s not how science works. Science works step by step.

Will our knowledge of the mirror neuron system enable us to find a cure for autism in the next decade?

The first thing in science usually, though not always, is to identify the cause—meaning, what neurosystem got messed up. And there are two ways. One is, what’s causing the neurosystem to get messed up? Is it a virus, is it seizures, is it heavy metal poisoning, is it vaccines, etc? The second question is: how do these agents work? What are the changes, the circuitries in the brain that explain the symptoms that are unique to autism? Is there a system of neurons with properties that are identical to what you’d expect in the damaged neuron system of an autistic person? The only candidate is the mirror neuron system. Now you could say that the evidence is not definitive, so show me a better theory, give me one structure of the brain which better matches what you see in an autistic person. If there is no other hypothesis, this is the best working hypothesis. But, of course, it hasn’t been proved yet; it is still being tested. So I like to say that the evidence is compelling, but not conclusive.

I understand that a dinosaur fossil was named after you. Did you want to become a paleontologist?

I have a funny background. I grew up in Thailand, in Bangkok actually. I had some very good teachers. In India, it was unheard of somebody wanting to be a paleontologist, because there were no jobs. There wasn’t a single paleontologist in the whole of India—maybe one or two. It’s like wanting to be an astronaut. I can’t tell you exactly how [I was drawn to it]—obviously it wasn’t innate. A lot of kids in my generation—not just me—were interested in paleontology, evolution, archeology, zoology, astronomy, cosmology. We were fascinated….

You note that language evolved through exaptation rather than some general evolutionary mechanism that facilitated thinking or a specialized mechanism that facilitated communication. Can you elaborate on how your theory differs?

I’m arguing that what happened is more like your jaw bones: there are different adaptations which evolved for different purposes. For example, bones of the ear that evolved for amplifying sound were exapted from reptilian jaw bones used for chewing. There is a fortuitous emergence of different sets of neurosystems that evolved for completely unrelated reasons—and the equally fortuitous interactions between them resulted in early language, which then became an elaborate system. So, it’s not wrong to say that there was natural selection. But there were multiple exaptations with fortuitous interactions which resulted in language.

You use neurobiological tools to examine our appreciation of art. But some people, especially in the humanities, may find such methods reductive and may feel what you describe as neuron envy. Do the tools you use actually enhance our appreciation?

There is about 10 percent of art that’s scientific—and that’s the part we are interested in and try to explain. Nobody has even attempted that. What we deal with are the laws of aesthetics, not the laws of art. Yes, it’s not universal and we do come across cultural boundaries. But even if 90 percent of art is cultural, and you say that African art and Dada have nothing in common, that’s fine. It doesn’t negate what I’m saying. If there are thousands of art historians studying art history, there are four people studying aesthetics.

Can we use the same neurobiological tools to examine other things—such as why do we form groups, why are we so drawn to religion, why are we so attached to clans?

We could, but as I point out in my chapter on art, there are three basic questions: What? Why? How? First, describe what you are talking about in very precise terms. That’s not often done. What is the internal logical structure you are looking at? Second, why do you have that rule? In other words, what is the biological function it evolved for? The third factor is the neural machinery: how is it implemented? So you need all three principles—internal logic, evolutionary function, and neural mechanics. Otherwise, there is an ad hoc quality…you can invent any evolutionary reason for the phenomenon you are looking at.


Dr. House of Neuroscience

Dr. Vilayanur S. Ramachandran is not cranky and contentious like Dr. Gregory House, the fictional physician played by Hugh Laurie on the hit television series House.

Nevertheless, the moniker ‘Dr. House of Neuroscience’ fits Ramachandran.

Both doctors are brilliant and have an unorthodox, often uncanny approach to tackling complex medical problems. In fact, Ramachandran was an inspiration for an episode called “The Tyrant,” in which House uses Ramachandran’s famed mirror visual feedback (MVF) method to help an alienated war veteran who lost an arm and is in pain. In real life, Ramachandran’s breakthrough has brought succor to numerous amputees. A study done by the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. found that most patients who experience ‘phantom limb’ distress can benefit from this therapy.

In his latest book, The Tell-Tale Brain (W.W. Norton), he recalls how his first patient responded to the success of the ‘phantom limb’ therapy. “He cried out, ‘It’s like it’s plugged back in!’” Ramachandran writes. “Now he not only had a vivid impression that the phantom was obeying his commands, but to his amazement, it began to relieve his painful phantom spasms for the first time in years.” As Ramachandran adds, MVF is now being used for accelerating recovery from paralysis following stroke. This amazing plasticity of the brain, where connections are often rewired in response to changing sensory demands, prompted him to coin a new term for human beings: Homo plasticus.

“No one is better than V.S. Ramachandran at combining minute, careful observation with ingenious experiments and bold, adventurous theorizing,” writes Oliver Sacks, the renowned neurologist and author of books like Awakenings and The Mind’s Eye. “The Tell-Tale Brain is Ramachandran at his best, a profoundly intriguing and compelling guide to the intricacies of the human brain.”

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