Book review: Self Comes to Mind by Antonio Damasio and The Tell-Tale Brain by VS Ramachandran
Can the brain be explained? Louise Foxcroft reads two of the world's leading neuroscientists to find out
The Tell-Tale Brain: Unlocking The Mystery of Human Nature by VS Ramachandran (William Heinemann)
Self Comes To Mind: Constructing The Conscious Brain by Antonio Damasio (Pantheon)
The perennially fascinating question of who and what we human creatures are is the subject of these two books by eminent neuroscientists in their search for the self. This is a nascent area of investigation for neuroscience and both authors look to history, philosophy and psychology, and expand upon them with evolutionary biology.
Vilayanur Ramachandran, Director of the Centre for the Brain at the University of California, San Diego, and a great populariser of neuroscience, adopts a quasi-religious starting point. He wants to discover what it is that “elevates the human being above the brute”. Our special, unique self-awareness means, he says, that we are not just another ape and he is surprised by how much he is required to defend this position, not just against the “ravings of anti-evolutionists” but against some of his colleagues who, he suggests, “revel in our lowliness” and regard it as a secular humanist’s version of Original Sin. He has no truck with Intelligent Design but does believe that a question of ultimate origins will always prevail, no matter how deeply we understand the workings of the brain, and that the question of self “comes perilously close to theology”.
Ironically, neuroscience is also being used to find the “not-self”, for example in the neuropsychology of the Buddhist notion of anatta, which uses that same distribution of self throughout the brain to show that we are not in the least special and are merely a transient “collection of real representations of an unreal being”.
In “unlocking the mysteries of human nature” Ramachandran looks at medical case-histories which reveal a great diversity of “unusual and curious” neurological disorders, including synaesthesia, prosopagnosia, echopraxia and phantom limbs. Even though these patients are “afflicted”, he says, some of them feel they are “blessed”. He approaches his cases in an investigative manner, using Sherlock Holmes-style reasoning with the odd dash of wild intuition and, as each clinical mystery is, he says, solved, the process reveals new insights into how the “normal, healthy” brain works, not least its neuroplasticity.
A specific class of brain cells called mirror neurons have played a central role in our evolution and, according to Ramachandran, account for art, language, metaphor, creativity, self-awareness and religious sensibilities. But can the subjective quality of conscious experience, the “qualia”, be satisfactorily mapped? Can there be, for example, a scientific theory of artistic experience? Ramachandran repeatedly argues that scientific explanation doesn’t diminish subjective experience, but he seems to argue for neuro-realism, that the subjective experience is only real if it can be seen, or proven, to be so.
Some of his ideas, he is happy to say, are on the speculative side and he obviously enjoys the science-in-action nature of discovery, quoting the biologist Peter Medawar that “all good science emerges from an imaginative conception of what might be true”. The interesting thing about this is whose imagination it is that is at work and which avenues that imagination might wander up. In the middle of his entertaining chapter on a systematic study of synaesthesia comes what I will call “the problem of Mirabelle’s jeans”. This is it (Mirabelle, by the way, is an “ebullient, dark-haired young lady”):
“I waved her toward a chair in my office but she was reluctant to sit … She was like the proverbial kid in a candy store as she crawled all around the floor looking at a collection of fossil fishes from Brazil. Her jeans were almost sliding down below her waist and I tried not to gaze directly at the tattoo near her coccyx. Mirabelle’s eyes lit up when she saw a long polished fossilised bone which looked a bit like a humerus. I asked her to guess what it was. She tried rib, shin bone, and thigh bone. In fact it was the bacculum (penis bone) of an extinct walrus … But we were running out of time. We needed to get back to her synesthesia.”
In science, Ramachandran writes, “fancy is often the mother of fact.” So, we are in no doubt about what he fancies, but what does this say about his speculative scientific interpretations where they overlap with the self-awareness and culture he attaches to them? What does it tell us about who he thinks is reading his work? Despite the sometimes riveting material I would have been quite happy to have stopped reading when I got to Mirabelle’s jeans, and even happier to do so when he got on to Halle Berry in a latex suit or, indeed, the occasional “young hottie”.
Antonio Damasio, Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Southern California, where he runs the Brain and Creativity Institute, has written an altogether more sophisticated and lyrical book. There are three traditional perspectives used to study the mind: the introspective, the behavioural and the neurological. Here, Damasio introduces a fourth, an evolutionary perspective. The foundation of the conscious mind is located, he argues, in the “old part of the brain”, the upper brain stem rather than the cerebral cortex. On this first manifestation of sentience the three stages of self are built in distinct steps. From the protoself, the most elementary product of which is primordial feeling, we step on to the core self, which is all about action, and after this the autobiographical self with knowledge of past, present and future. The first two are material, and the last is social and spiritual. Perception of the material self generates subjective emotions and feelings, feelings of knowing, elusive and subtle. With memory, reasoning and language we have homeostasis (life regulation) and an extension into socio-cultural space. To illustrate how the conscious mind results from the smoothly articulated operation of several, often many, brain sites, Damasio uses the sweet analogy of an orchestra and its conductor, but it is the orchestra and its performance (the brain sites and their interaction) that produces the conductor (our sense of self).
The mind-self-body-brain problem – the idea that the mercurial, fleeting business of the mind has no physicality – is false but, for the time being, Damasio argues, all we have to go on is theoretical approximation rather than complete explanations. The great paradox that our self is our entry into knowledge, and yet here we are questioning it, is tempered by the good news, he says, that the self has made reason and scientific observation possible so it can test and verify itself.
Popular science books are so valuable and yet so tricky to get right. Ramachandran Boy’s Own Book of Neuroscience is spoiled by the clumsy asides and tasteless innuendos. Damasio’s elegant survey does fuller justice to the eventful and fascinating life of the mind.