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Phantoms in the Brain – Sandra Blakeslee & V. S. Ramachandran ****

“What causes a wide range of strange mental behaviours?” asks the author at the start of the book. Traditionally many of these would have been put down as being “just madness”, but as we come to know more of how the brain works we can start to see physical reasons for the strange perceptions and behaviours.
I was a little uncertain about V. S. Ramachandran’s response to a question he says he often gets asked – “When are you brain scientists ever going to come up with a unified theory of how the mind works?” They are looking for a sort of brain version of general relativity and Newton’s laws, he suggests, and that won’t happen yet, as we are more at the descriptive Michael Faraday point in the history of brain science, rather than the Maxwell’s equations stage, where things get more quantified and tied down. Ramachandran has a point, but surely the real answer is because the brain isn’t a fundamental building block of nature – it’s a bit like asking when is there going to be a unified theory of the automobile engine, or the computer – it just doesn’t mean anything.
That aside, however, this is a totally fascinating exploration of the brain starting from different problems with the mind and linking them back to the technical problem in the brain. It’s fluently written and carries you forward all the time. I was a little concerned about a brief excursion into new ageism – finding that the mind can influence the body doesn’t mean that we have to abandon “Western thinking” or look for some new mystical union of science and Eastern philosophy – it just means that the mind can influence the body. But that apart it was great reading all the way.
I suspect Ramachandran was very wise in teaming up with science writer Sandra Blakeslee in producing this book. All too often scientists produce frustratingly impenetrable “popular” science books because they just don’t have the skill to get the message across well. The result here has been to make this book read extremely well – it’s just a pity, perhaps that Blakeslee has been so sidelined in the presentation of the book (you can hardly see her name on the cover). You expect this to happen when someone ghost authors a celebrity’s “autobiography”, but not in a science book.
Overall, then, a very successful exploration of the brain through its failings that might make those who find mental problems disturbing wince, but otherwise is packed with insight.
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Review by Jo Reed

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