A world renowned neuroscientist ponders the biological roots of human nature.
God, what isn’t here? Maybe it will be easier if I just give some of the chapter titles.
Phantom Limbs and Plastic Brains
Seeing and Knowing
The Power of Babble – The Evolution of Language
An Ape With a Soul – How Introspection Evolved
Loud Colors and Hot Babes – Synesthesia.
Yeah, that’s just a sampling. He goes into everything. EVERYTHING.
Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
The quotes below give a good sense of his prose style. V. S. Ramachandran has a strong sense of the poetic and the philosophical and he weaves them together with practical, empirical data to create some of the most beautiful musings on the nature of humanity.
He avoids one of the most common pitfalls of people writing about psychology and neuroscience; he admits that the information is actively evolving. Human behavior brings in a whole new host of variables that are hard to control for, as well as a whole new minefield of experimenter biases. I’ve read too many books and articles that say, “this particular hormone did this in that test and this in that other, therefore it definitely one hundred percent explains why teenage girls talk on the phone all the time.” Yeah, that’s a reference to an actual book I read. Ugh. Anyway, back to the positives. In this book, if he says something is well-established, it’s because it’s actually well established. Other times, he goes into further studies we should do, possible alternative explanations, and the questions we still have. Where others plop down and try to insist that where we are is where the answers are, he gets you excited about the vast unexplored horizon ahead.
The above is especially a relief when he starts talking about issues like autism, where so many are proud to announce their theories as if they should be crowned Ultimate Solver of All The Things before they retire to a castle on their own private island. V. S. Ramachandran has theories and presents evidence, but he has the guts to admit there’s a lot of research left to do.
He’s also got a wonderful gift for making the technical understandable. Even someone fairly new to the subject material can follow him easily.
Other Shiny Stuff
His theories on the roots and evolution of aesthetics are absolutely fascinating and have kept me thinking for years.
So much psychological and neuroscientific writing ignores the most scientifically fascinating part of humanity; the fact that we can vary in the strangest, most unpredictable, most counterintuitive ways. It creates a reductive look at human behavior and leaves people out. V. S. Ramachandran takes the opposite approach. He actively embraces humanities little varieties and quirks. He covers apotemnophilia, synaesthesia, theories on biological causes for being transgender (I really enjoyed this part) and more. Even where I disagree, or think he’s only got part of the picture, I love that he sees those things as not just part of humanity, but essential to fully understanding it.
There’s just too much in this book. It’s fun and fascinating and beautiful and if you like science you should read it.
“What do we mean by “knowledge” or “understanding”? And how do billions of neurons achieve them? These are complete mysteries. Admittedly, cognitive neuroscientists are still very vague about the exact meaning of words like “understand,” “think,” and indeed the word “meaning” itself.”
“Yet as human beings we have to accept-with humility-that the question of ultimate origins will always remain with us, no matter how deeply we understand the brain and the cosmos that it creates.”
“How can a three-pound mass of jelly that you can hold in your palm imagine angels, contemplate the meaning of infinity, and even question its own place in the cosmos? Especially awe inspiring is the fact that any single brain, including yours, is made up of atoms that were forged in the hearts of countless, far-flung stars billions of years ago. These particles drifted for eons and light-years until gravity and change brought them together here, now. These atoms now form a conglomerate- your brain- that can not only ponder the very stars that gave it birth but can also think about its own ability to think and wonder about its own ability to wonder. With the arrival of humans, it has been said, the universe has suddenly become conscious of itself. This, truly, it the greatest mystery of all.”