Skip to main content

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.

Paperback:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Jo Reed

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

On the Fringe - Michael Gordin *****

This little book is a pleasant surprise. That word 'little', by the way, is not intended as an insult, but a compliment. Kudos to OUP for realising that a book doesn't have to be three inches thick to be interesting. It's just 101 pages before you get to the notes - and that's plenty. The topic is fringe science or pseudoscience: it could be heavy going in a condensed form, but in fact Michael Gordin keeps the tone light and readable. In some ways, the most interesting bit is when Gordin plunges into just what pseudoscience actually is. As he points out, there are elements of subjectivity to this. For example, some would say that string theory is pseudoscience, even though many real scientists have dedicated their careers to it. Gordin also points out that, outside of denial (more on this a moment), many supporters of what most of us label pseudoscience do use the scientific method and see themselves as doing actual science. Gordin breaks pseudoscience down into a n

A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth - Henry Gee *****

In writing this book, Henry Gee had a lot to live up to. His earlier title  The Accidental Species was a superbly readable and fascinating description of the evolutionary process leading to Homo sapiens . It seemed hard to beat - but he has succeeded with what is inevitably going to be described as a tour-de-force. As is promised on the cover, we are taken through nearly 4.6 billion years of life on Earth (actually rather more, as I'll cover below). It's a mark of Gee's skill that what could have ended up feeling like an interminable list of different organisms comes across instead as something of a pager turner. This is helped by the structuring - within those promised twelve chapters everything is divided up into handy bite-sized chunks. And although there certainly are very many species mentioned as we pass through the years, rather than feeling overwhelming, Gee's friendly prose and careful timing made the approach come across as natural and organic.  There was a w

Michael D. Gordin - Four Way Interview

Michael D. Gordin is a historian of modern science and a professor at Princeton University, with particular interests in the physical sciences and in science in Russia and the Soviet Union. He is the author of six books, ranging from the periodic table to early nuclear weapons to the history of scientific languages. His most recent book is On the Fringe: Where Science Meets Pseudoscience (Oxford University Press). Why history of science? The history of science grabbed me long before I knew that there were actual historians of science out there. I entered college committed to becoming a physicist, drawn in by the deep intellectual puzzles of entropy, quantum theory, and relativity. When I started taking courses, I came to understand that what really interested me about those puzzles were not so much their solutions — still replete with paradoxes — but rather the rich debates and even the dead-ends that scientists had taken to trying to resolve them. At first, I thought this fell under