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Brainy Neurologist Performs Magic With Mirrors

June 2009
Brainy Neurologist Performs Magic With Mirrors

What in the world are ‘Gandhi neurons’?

Renowned behavioral neurologist V. S. Ramachandran coined this term to explain the phenomenon of mirror neurons, which help to create empathy for others. The brain, he found in his pioneering research, is a dynamic system that interacts with one’s skin receptors and also reacts to the people around us. Ramachandran and his colleagues argue that autism is “caused by a deficit in the mirror-neuron system.” This finding is just one of Ramachandran’s achievements in a distinguished career that’s still in its peak phase.

The scientist Richard Dawkins has dubbed him the Marco Polo of Neuroscience.

India-born Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, educated in Madras and Cambridge, England, is the director of the Center for Brain Cognition at the University of California, San Diego. His most famous breakthrough came when he alleviated phantom-limb pain, which is experienced by close to 90 percent of amputees. For his novel method, Ramachandran used an ordinary mirror to successfully ‘amputate’ a phantom limb and provide relief to the patient.

“People always ask, ‘How did you think of the mirror?’” Ramachandran told John Colapinto in The New Yorker. “And I say, ‘I don’t know!’ There was a mirror in the lab, so that must have been in my mind, and I said, ‘Let’s try it.’ It’s not any more mysterious than if you say something ‘popped into’ your mind.”

Ramachandran has also done important work on Capgras delusion and synesthesia, but his interests are by no means limited to neurology. A long-standing fascination with paleontology, for instance, led him to buy an expensive dinosaur skull, which was then displayed in a museum. When it turned out to be a new genus of East Asian origin, with more ornamentation than previously seen, Ramachandran received a rare honor: the species was named Minotaurasaurus ramachandrani.

Among other books, Ramachandran is the author of Phantoms in the Brain, which was made into a TV documentary, and A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness.

His honors include India’s Padma Bhushan. Can Sweden’s Nobel Prize be far behind?

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