Monday, August 27, 2007

The Emerging Mind: V. S. Ramachandran

Dr. V. S. Ramachandran, Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California, delivered The Emerging Mind as the Reith Lectures in 2003. The Reith Lectures is an annual affair hosted by the BBC, and has been in existence from 1948. The fact that it has featured such eminents as Bertrand Russell (in the inaugural year), Arnold Toynbee, Robert Oppenheimer, Peter Medawar, J. K. Galbraith, and Edward Said in the past is testimony to Dr. V. S. Ramachandran’s standing in the intellectual community. The book is a compilation of these lectures.

For those who have read Ramachandran’s Phantoms in the Brain, this book might evoke a sense of déjà vu. Which is not surprising, considering that Ramachandran deals with the same subject and issues in The Emerging Mind as he did in Phantoms, albeit in a more condensed manner.

One of the key themes that Ramachandran wrestles with is an explanation of all human behavior and responses in terms of the workings of the brain. Therefore, his questioning of the Freudian line of thinking is not surprising, almost expected. As far as Ramachandran is concerned, if the body feels something, it has something to with the brain; if an emotion is evoked in the senses, there ought to be a corresponding activity in the brain that explains the emotion. Believers in the occult and the fantastic (and in Freud) may not accept the Ramachandran line of thinking, and the feeling (thinking?) is bound to be totally mutual.

I read (and reviewed) Phantoms in the Brain a few months ago, and one of the characteristics of that book was the focus on individual case studies. The Emerging Mind has a little less of it, may be a function of the need for brevity in the lecture format. Therefore, one needed to concentrate a bit more when reading Mind, even though it is quite a slim volume of essays.

While Ramachandran comes at it purely from the perspective of the brain, the aspects that he touches are quite all-encompassing, ranging across personal characteristics, family interaction, social behavior, free will, philosophy, and art. Quite an interesting list, and quite interesting connections. Of course, the author himself states that some of his conclusions are still preliminary and need further research and substantiation. It is this experimental nature (with simple ingenious tests, another staple of this scientist-thinker) of Dr. Ramachandran’s analyses and conclusions that make them even more interesting to contemplate (and attempt to refute.)

The other aspects of Ramachandran’s writing – the simple language and the earthy humor (with digs at Texas, George W. Bush, and the Jews even, among others) – are present in good measure in Mind, which make the book delightful reading.

The transcripts of the actual Reith lectures can be found here, but the print version has been enhanced with extensive notes and a useful glossary, which helped a layperson like me better understand some of the technical concepts that are dealt with in the book.

1 comment:

Randolph said...

Dear De Scribe:
My name is Randolph and I am a sentient Labrador retriever. I am certainly interested in the investigations of V.S. Ramachandran since anything to do with the puzzle of consciousness fascinates me. I am writing to offer you a free copy of a recent mystery novel from Random House in which I figure as the narrator. It is called A Dog About Town by J.F. Englert and J.F. will be happy to send you a copy for your enjoyment. In it I tackle canine consciousness as well as human. My email address is