Monday, February 26, 2007

Phantoms in the Brain: V.S. Ramachandran

Phantoms in the Brain took quite a while for me to read—and only half the reason is that I was out of action for a few days for personal reasons. The subject is not something I am completely au fait with. But fortunately, Dr. Ramachandran makes it easy, thanks to his storytelling style and his ability to explain the complex workings of the brain in simple terms.

The key to enjoying Phantoms in the Brain lies in accepting this premise that Dr. Ramachandran makes in the preface.

I think it’s fair to say that, in neurology, most of the major discoveries that have withstood the test of time were, in fact, based initially on single-case studies and demonstrations. More was gleaned about memory from a few days studying a patient called H.M. than was gleaned from previous decades of research averaging data on many subjects.

This emphasis on individual case studies, while potentially flying in the face of research-based data-backed analysis, is perhaps a tenet that differentiates biological research from most other. And it is this focus that also makes Phantoms eminently readable and understandable for a layman like me.

Another endearing feature of Dr. Ramachandran’s approach to his profession is the simplicity with which he approaches it—his preference for simple tools of everyday use, like mirrors, cotton swabs, gloves, and the like. Simple, interesting, relatable.

And a third reason I like the author—he believes that “being a medical scientist is not all that different from being a sleuth.” For a crime fiction fan like me, I don’t need much more than that to dig into a book like this.

However, remember this is non-fiction: so do be prepared for the odd literary flaw in the writing—the humor, while earthy, is self-conscious at times and tries a bit too hard at others; the language is a bit repetitive in terms of word usage; and the author is a bit too over-present in the writing. But you’ll gladly accept all these considering the subject matter and the manner in which Dr. Ramachandran has handled it.

5 comments:

Peter said...

I think the early Oliver Sacks championed single-case studies, both in his own popular books and in A.R. Luria's work. I can't judge what that means for sciece, but it makes interesting reading for the layman.
===================
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

De Scribe said...

You are correct, Peter. Oliver Sacks did do a lot of single-case studies. And absolutely, it makes interesting reading for the layperson - makes it almost like a story instead of a scientific piece. Very accessible indeed.

Peter said...

I wonder if the popular awareness of such an approach has influenced the practice of medicine -- or attracted students to the field who might not have been interested otherwise.
===================
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

nitin said...

Lovely book it was.. If any of u ppl have more time on reading then i suggest u read a book called "A man who mistook his hat for his wife" By oliver sacks.. its on the same lines.. anyways..nice blog

De Scribe said...

Thanks, Nitin. And I suppose you meant "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat", not the other way around. Though it would have been just as interesting either way.