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V.S. Ramachandran, UCSD scientist who can be read by a general audience

Impostor poodles and phantom limbs

V.S. Ramachandran. Maybe more of his colleagues would like to write in a popular style and get the big advance he got. “But they aren’t able to do it."
  • V.S. Ramachandran. Maybe more of his colleagues would like to write in a popular style and get the big advance he got. “But they aren’t able to do it."
  • Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.

The photographer snaps open a small black umbrella, setting up his first shot. His subject is V.S. Ramachandran, M.D., Ph.D., the neuroscientist with an international reputation, who is in his UCSD office, at his desk on which sits a plastic model of a human brain.

Before we met, I had seen him in another photograph, posed by someone who had him holding in his hand this obvious prop, as Hamlet so often holds a skull. Today’s photographer, from the North County Times, who is on a freelance assignment for a German newspaper, has been instructed to do something different by an editor who has seen this office tucked away in a corner of the university’s Center for Brain and Cognition. He needs to get other interesting props into the frame — for example, the big brass antique telescope that’s pointed toward the beautiful February noon beyond the window, the antique microscope on the glass shelf, or the antique graphoscope that’s on a table by Ramachandran’s easy chair. There’s a skull of sorts too — a saber-toothed tiger’s — with its lengthy upper canines hanging down like macabre yellow icicles. It’s on another table, along with the British edition of Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind, a book meant for a popular audience, written by Ramachandran with New York Times science reporter Sandra Blakeslee. A collection of large flat oval fossils is on that table. Ramachandran collects them while hiking — a hobby that began in his childhood in India — although, he says, most of these he “just bought.” Of the tiger skull, he concedes that, like the brain on his desk, “It’s simulated,” adding, “I have a real tiger skull at home.” And the climbing white orchids blooming in the pot in a corner?

Are they real? “Unfortunately, no. I used to have real ones, but there’s not enough moisture in the air. They die in a week.”

“Bring your elbows up on the desk, if that’s comfortable for you,” says the photographer, a lanky blonde in jeans and a T-shirt.

“Watch what’s behind you,” Ramachandran says to him, worried about his antiques.

When I mention that at home I myself have a graphoscope (a 19th-century binocular magnifier) he hands me a stereoview that he bought in Venice. “It’s naughty,” he warns.

I look through the eyeholes and see three Victorian women smiling at me in their underwear, their legs sportingly splayed.

While the photographer is setting up his second shot, Ramachandran takes the moment to return a phone call from a Boston Globe reporter, who is writing a story about art and how the brain perceives it. He chats congenially and promises to provide illustrations.

Hanging up with him, he raises a finger to the waiting photographer and makes one more phone call, this time to someone who has invited him to give a lecture. “It’s going to be crowded,” Ramachandran predicts confidently. “Leave me an hour free beforehand.” He wants to use it to meet with all the friends and colleagues that he expects to be there. “I can go out to lunch afterwards with anyone else who wants to meet me." When, however, he hears that the bookstore in the area has not yet been contacted by his publisher, his mood turns sour. He mutters, “Christ.”

The word reminds me that, earlier, Ramachandran hadn’t wanted to talk much about God, even though he has studied a part of the brain that he himself nicknamed “the God Module.” In fact, that study had brought him to my attention. My sister-in-law, Laura Frishman, a vision scientist at the University of Houston College of Optometry, had told me about it and about him. She had sent me not only an article that had been published by Ramachandran and others in the Society for Neuroscience Abstracts but also an item about him in the Los Angeles Times, which was syndicated and reprinted widely in other newspapers, including the Houston Chronicle. “No one knows why humanity felt its first religious stirrings,” the news story began, “but researchers at the University of California at San Diego reported Tuesday that the human brain may be hard-wired to hear the voice of heaven, in what researchers said was the first effort to directly address the neural basis of religious expression.”

Laura had suggested "searching on ‘God Module’ ” in scientific research sites on the Web for more information, but I hadn’t found anything. And I’ll admit that when I read Ramachandran’s Phantoms, I had noted disappointedly that he had devoted only half a chapter to it, even after using it in the book’s opening sentence. (“A man wearing an enormous bejeweled cross dangling on a gold chain sits in my office, telling me about his conversations with God...”) Still, I found it tantalizing to think that the propensity for belief in the supernatural might have a biological basis, in a particular area of the brain; and I had prepared a list of questions about it, in addition to ones about his other research areas. So I was naturally frustrated when he backed away from the idea, trying to disassociate himself.

“It’s a joke, really,” he said. “It’s a study based on two people. If I were you. I’d downplay it. Your article’s going to be what? Two pages? I’d give it one paragraph, no more.”

I told him that the article would be much longer than that.

“Give it any more room and people will think that there’s this crazy guy in California making these crazy pronouncements. ”

I told him that I understood that he was not out to prove whether God does or doesn’t exist, only to discover how and why religious sentiments originate in the brain.

“That’s correct,” he had said, relaxing somewhat. “And I also understand that if your work were to be viewed as a continuum of scientific mysteries ranging from solved to unsolved, then your work on phantom limbs is at one end of the spectrum and the God Module is at the other.”

“Yes, that’s right.” And, perhaps reassured, he explained, “There are two possible reasons” why patients who have temporal lobe epilepsy sometimes experience religious ecstasy during seizures (St. Paul and Dostoyevsky are two famous examples of the well-known phenomenon). “One is that seizures generate funny emotions. And given the left brain’s propensity for making up stories, the conclusion they draw is that God is visiting them. The other reason is that one part of the limbic system really is hardwired for religion — chanting, ritual, that sort of thing — and that it’s evolved because it is a stabilizing factor in society. What’s probably the case is that it’s a combination of the two.” “What about your own religious training?” I dared to persist. “What does it mean to have been ‘raised in the Hindu tradition,’ as you say in your book? Are you a practicing Hindu today, and what does it mean to be so? A practicing Catholic, for example, attends Mass and receives the sacraments."

“Hinduism is like Judaism,” he said. “It’s just part of the culture. There’s no getting away from it. Religion and culture are entangled. I take part in the rituals and festivals because they’re fun. They provide a richness to life. Some scientists really are anti-theists; that doesn’t describe me. But in Hinduism the concept of God is abstract. Hindus do not see God as an old man who helps you with your problems.” I glanced at the next question on my typewritten sheet: Speak about the soul. To you, what is it? What does it look like to you? How would you explain it to a child? Have you explained it to your own children? But I lacked the nerve to ask it.

The next one said, Have you yourself ever had a mystical experience?

Beyond that I had written: There are no atheists in foxholes, goes the saying. Are there any believers in the lab?

And his own coinage, copied out of Phantoms: Godectomy. Was it really possible to perform one?

No, none of this would do. He’d protest. I would need to change the subject.

Luckily for me, the photographer arrived at that moment, laden with cameras and equipment.

He’s off the phone now, preparing to pose again. I point to a goldframed vintage photograph on the wall, of a man with a long fluffy white beard. “Is it — ?”

“Charles Darwin.”

I tell him that I have just finished Darwin’s autobiography and that I found it readable, very enjoyable. I decide not to bring up the fact that the originator of modern evolutionary theory had described himself as an agnostic, a new word at the time, having been coined in 1870 by another 19th-century British scientist, Thomas H. Huxley, who believed that only material phenomena were objects of exact knowledge; nor do I mention that Darwin wrote that he had boarded the HMS Beagle orthodox but gradually had come to see “that the Old Testament was no more to be trusted than the sacred boob of the Hindoos.”

“You should read his Expressions of the Emotions in Man and Animals,” Ramachandran suggests. “That’s very readable too.”

Earlier, when I had asked his reasons for writing a popular book about his research, he had mentioned Darwin. Certainly not all neuroscientists choose to popularize their work; many actively shun the idea.

“They’re worried about what their colleagues will think of it.” But wouldn’t the world of neuroscience be better off if he spent all his time on researching and publishing in the scholarly journals that other scientists read?

“I don’t want to talk exclusively with my colleagues. You learn from interacting with the world. The whole point is to think differently.”

(Actually, he pronounced it “diffrrrrrrently." I’ve noticed that he often rolls his rs when he wants to emphasize something or simply be dramatic.)

Besides, he said, only recently have scientists stopped writing for a general audience. “Victorian scientists wrote readable, popular books all the time. Nineteenth-and early-20th-century scientists were people who went into it because they were passionate about it. Ninety percent of them were rich — Darwin didn’t have to work a day in his life—and they wanted to communicate their passion. Huxley lectured to coal miners. Now 90 percent of scientists are technicians and there’s very little passion. They go into it because it’s a nine-to-five job.”

Maybe more of his colleagues would like to write in a popular style, he speculated, and get the big advance he got “But they aren’t able to do it,” he smiled, knowing he had said something puckish. “Or they’re afraid their grant givers will read it and not give them any more money, because they’ll figure that they’ve gotten enough from rrrrrrroyalties.”

The photo shoot continues. He is posing now with the fossils in view. In an article in Discover magazine that detailed his groundbreaking research on the nature and treatment of phantom limbs, which many amputees experience often with excruciating pain, he was described as wearing “a cream-colored suit." Today his outfit is wintry — all black. Black slacks, Black long-sleeved, V-necked jersey. And a black leather jacket is slung across a chair. His briefcase is black leather too, with a shoulder strap. On his finger he wears a large ring, perhaps a piece of amber, entwined with gold wire. His belt buckle is silver. Medium tall and lean, with smooth brown skin, and only the slightest hint of gray hair at his temples—his black hair and black mustache heighten the effect of his outfit — he is 47 but looks years younger. Married to vision scientist Diane Rogers-Ramachandran, who has an appointment as an associate project scientist in UCSD’s psychology department, he has two sons, nine and four and a half. When he himself was a child, after displaying a “spark” of interest in science, he was given a microscope by his father, and his mother helped him set up a small chemistry lab. But he “wasn’t pushed into it.” Now he looks for signs in his own children. “The other day,” he told me, “the younger one was showing some interest. He was mixing together toothpaste and water with his finger, stirring it around in a cup, and then he was drinking it! And my mother-in-law, who was visiting us, asked why he was doing such a thing, and he said that he thought that if he did this he might not have to brush his teeth anymore.” He laughed, then grinned widely, rather boyishly. “I thought that was wonderful. Rrrrrrreally very funny!”

Certainly, though, his boys are growing up far differently than he did.

Vilayanur S. Ramachandran was born a few miles from Madras, a colonial city founded by the British in 1639 on the Bay of Bengal. His father was a diplomat for the United Nations, whose work took him to Bangkok, Thailand, Singapore, and Malaysia. Sometimes the family went with him. More often, he went alone, leaving his wife and two boys behind, “wherever base camp was,” says Ramachandran, who is called “Rama” by his friends and who says that his brother, Ravi, once had poetic aspirations but now does police work. (“There’s no money in poetry. He couldn’t make a living. But he’s very senior (in the police department] and has won a lot of medals.”)

He attended college in India, and medical school there too. His alma mater is Stanley Medical College, in Madras — “founded by the British four centuries ago,” he says by way of placing it in the hierarchy for me. “It's where the cause of malaria was discovered" — by British physician Ronald Ross, who won a Nobel Prize in 1902 for proving that mosquitoes are malaria’s transmitters. After being awarded gold medals in pathology and clinical medicine at Stanley, Ramachandran went on in neurophysiology at Trinity College, Cambridge University. Postgraduate work was completed at Oxford and Caltech. Twelve years ago, he came to La Jolla, where he is now not Only UCSD professor of neurosciences and psychology, not only director of the Center for Brain and Cognition, not only director of the Brain and Perception Laboratory, but also an adjunct professor at La Jolla’s Salk Institute for Biological Studies. In Phantoms, Ramachandran refers to La Jolla as “a mecca for neuroscientists from all over the world.” In fact, a survey of a few years ago, conducted by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences, in Washington, D.C., ranked the UCSD research doctorate program in neuroscience as number one in the country, and part of the reason is the quality of the faculty, which includes Francis Crick, the British biologist who with James D. Watson proposed a spiral model, the double helix, for the molecular structure of DNA and shared a Nobel Prize for it in 1962. In addition, Gerald M. Edelman, the American biochemist and neuroscientist, is in La Jolla. The director of the Neurosciences Institute and chairman of the Department of Neurobiology at Scripps Research Institute, Edelman shared the Nobel Prize with British biochemist Rodney R. Porter in 1972 for their work on the chemical structure and nature of antibodies. When I wondered aloud why La Jolla had become the gathering place for these minds, Ramachandran said, “Once it starts, it reaches critical mass. People want to be where the action is.” Then again, he told me in another moment, that each year he returns to India for the month of December, taking the whole family with him, because “I need to expose the children to civilization, not this —” He gestured out the window.

Indian culture and history are a recurring theme in conversations with the man who has been called one of the most original brain scientists of his generation. When asked what besides collecting fossils he considered his hobbies to be, he responded instantly; “Listening to Indian classical music and collecting Indian art.” When Newsweek asked him (as a memBer of its Century Club — “100 people to watch as America prepares to pass through the gate to the next millennium”) to name the most important invention in the last two millennia, he said our number system, devised by Aryabhata, the astronomer and mathematician who was born in India in the Fifth Century. “I’m not being jingoistic,” he said. “Until his time, if you wanted to multiply two numbers, using the Roman system, it took an hour and an entire wall.” He frequently uses quotes from Indian literature as epigraphs in Phantoms (“Man is made by his belief. As he believes, so he is.”— Bhagavad Gita, 500 B.G “You never identify yourself with the shadow cast by your body, or with its reflection, or with the body you see in a dream in your imagination. Therefore, you should not identify yourself with this living body either.”—Shankara, AD. 788-820), as well as quotes from Darwin, Shakespeare, Ovid, Nietzsche, and...V.S. Ramachandran. (“All of modern philosophy consists of unlocking, exhuming, and recanting what has been said before.”)

Early on, the young Ramachandran realized that he preferred biology over physics or chemistry, because the latter two were “too rational” for him. “I also like biology because anybody can understand it,” he told me, “and yet there are two big questions that have yet to be answered.” One is about human development. “Evolution. How did complex human beings evolve from one-celled animals? J.B.S. Haldane [the early-20th-century Scottish geneticist) was once cornered by a society matron who asked him, 'Sir, do you really mean to tell me that mankind developed from amoebae, tiny one-celled creatures, starting hundreds of millions of years ago?’ ‘Yes, I do, Madame,’ he said, 'and what is more, you did, too. And it only took nine months.’ ” Ramachandran laughed his baritone laugh heartily.

The other question is about “the brain and human consciousness.” Far from being a “metaphysical riddle,” our self-consciousness, says Ramachandran, is “now ripe for scientific inquiry.” As an Indian and a Hindu, he writes in Phantoms, “I was taught that the concept of the self — the I within me that is aloof from the universe and engages in a lofty inspection of the world around me — is an illusion, a veil called maya. The search for enlightenment, I was told, consists of lifting this veil and realizing that you are really ‘One with the cosmos.’ Ironically, after extensive training in Western medicine and more than 15 years of research on neurological patients and visual illusions, I have come to realize that there is much truth to this view — that the notion of a single unified self ‘inhabiting’ the brain may indeed be an illusion. Everything I have learned from the intensive study of both normal people and patients who have sustained damage to various parts of their brains points to an unsettling notion: that you create your own ‘reality’ from mere fragments of information, that what you ‘see’ is a reliable — but not always accurate — representation of what exists in the world, that you are completely unaware of the vast majonty of events going on in your brain. Indeed, most of your actions are carried out by a host of unconscious zombies who exist in peaceful harmony along with you (the ‘person’) inside your body!”

These “zombies" are the “phantoms” of his book’s title.

Ramachandran first attracted the attention of the scientific world while attending college in India. At age 19, he published a paper in the prestigious British journal Nature, a feat akin to a precocious writer publishing a poem or story in the New Yorker at that age. The subject of the paper harks back to the antique graphoscope: stereoscopic vision — “the two tiny upside-down two-dimensional images inside (our] eyeballs" that we use to perceive “a single panoramic, rightside-up, three-dimensional world.” The experiment demonstrated “what happens when each eye is shown a different thing," which revealed “that one part of the brain perceives color and another part perceives form."

Of the accomplishment he says it was more important personally than scientifically: it gave him “a boost."

“It raised my level of confidence. It gave me a certain cockiness, which I think is essential in science, as long as it doesn’t turn into arrogance. There’s a fine line between the two,” he admits. “I think one should be cocky towards one’s work, but not arrogant towards one’s fellow human beings.” He thinks for a moment “Maybe ‘confidence’ is the wrong word. Or maybe I should say ‘aggressive confidence.’ Or 'confidence with humility.’ Even if the humility is only a facade."

The brain has been called “the highest product of evolution" by A.R. Luria, the professor of psychology at the University of Moscow who wrote the first general-interest books on brain disorders that I came across more than a dozen years ago while working on an essay on memory. The Mind of a Mnemomst and The Man with a Shattered World: The History of a Brain Wound are classics now — each a small, compassionate volume about a single neurological oddity. Luria’s mnemonist remembered everything—I mean, everything — being strikingly reminiscent of Jorge Luis Borges’s fictional character in the short story “Funes the Memorious.” Paralyzed by a throw from a half-tamed horse, Ireneo Funes lay in bed for the rest of his life remembering. “In fact," writes Borges, “Funes remembered not only every leaf of every tree of every wood, but also every one of the times he had perceived or imagined it” Hypermnesia, it’s called. And it can be paralyzing. The man whose brain had been injured in war at age 23 had the opposite problem. If he took a walk, he couldn’t remember how to get home; if he read a sentence, he had forgotten what the first words said by the time he got to the last ones. His damaged brain was able to retain no new memories after March 2,1943. That led to a kind of paralysis too.

Oliver Sacks, the neurologist who has written masterfully about case studies of his own in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, An Anthropologist on Mars, Seeing Voices, and other books, calls Luria “the founder of neuropsychology” —offspring of the marriage between clinical neurology and the more academic discipline, psychology — and acknowledges Luria’s influence on him. And Ramachandran, in turn, credits both Luria and Sacks. But none of their subjects — “sad caricatures of life," in Ramachandran’s words—are studied for their own sakes. The idea is to start with one of these bizarre conditions, propose a theory, test it in the lab, and — with diligence and a little luck, perhaps —learn more about how the healthy human brain works.

Sacks, who wrote the foreword to Phantoms, is particularly impressed with Ramachandran’s work on phantom limbs.

As all amputees and those who work with them know, a missing arm or leg often lingers in the amputee’s mind indefinitely, long after the limb has been lost in an accident or removed by a surgeon. Some patients, upon waking in their hospital beds, are incredulous when told the limb is gone: they still feel it. They must see the truth for themselves as the sheet is raised. Even then, the feeling doesn’t go away. In one respect, this is an asset. A phantom limb is essential if an artificial limb is to be used. By the same token, some amputees experience pain in their phantoms that is not only excruciating but unbeatable. After all, you cannot give an injection of local anesthesia to an arm or leg that doesn’t exist, and morphine, which works centrally in the nervous system, apparently does not stop the pain.

Civil War-era physician S. Weir Mitchell coined the term “phantom limb" in a pre-antibiotic era when gangrene was common and surgeons often sawed off parts to save the rest of the human being. Lord Nelson, the British naval hero who lost an arm in battle, was convinced that phantom limbs were evidence that the spirit lives on. Likewise, Sir David Brewster, the Scottish physicist who did important early work on stereoscopies (and who also invented the kaleidoscope in 1816), believed that phantom limbs signaled the existence of God. Psychiatrists may tell you that this phenomenon is the result of wishful thinking. Ramachandran, by contrast, who is touted as having brought many of his subjects out of the psychiatrist’s office and into the lab and who seems to enjoy Freud-bash-ing, dismisses such a notion as “utter nonsense.” Nor is he satisfied with the popular explanation for phantom limbs that is favored by most physicians, who believe that nerve endings, formerly supplying the arm or leg, have become inflamed or irritated, fooling the brain into thinking that the missing limb is still there. Instead, he began to think about the role of vision in sustaining the phantom-limb experience. That was the key—his original thought — that led to his seminal work on the problem.

In essence, he decided to try using a visual illusion to eliminate the pain. (Bear in mind, however, that the pain itself is an illusion. “All sensations are constructed in your mind,” Ramachandran has to remind his undergraduates time and again, although he readily agrees with me that the fact probably isn’t much comfort to his patients.)

What led him to his vision theory was a discovery made in the early 1990s by Tim Pons, of the National Institutes of Health, in Bethesda, Maryland. Pons knew about the Penfield map, which shows where exactly the brain receives sensations from various body parts. Named after the Canadian neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield, who did the experiments in the 1940s and 1950s that enabled him to draw it, the map reveals that, as far as the brain is concerned, the hip bone is not necessarily connected to the thigh bone, etc. Brain circuitry has its own logic, unrelated to our anatomy. “The face is not near the neck, where it should be,” Ramachandran writes in Phantoms, “but is behind the hand. The genitals, instead of being between the thighs, are located below the foot,” causing him to wonder if that is the reason for foot fetishes.

The leap beyond the Penfield map that Pons and his colleagues made was to show that the brain circuitry in monkeys, who have their own species-specific Penfield maps, can be modified. It was a discovery that startled Ramachandran. As a medical student more than 20 years ago, he had been taught that no new neural connections could be formed in the adult mammalian brain. “Once connections had been laid down in fetal life, or in early infancy, it was assumed that they hardly change later in life. It is this stability in the adult brain, in fact, that is often used to explain why there is usually very little functional recovery after damage to the nervous system and why neurological diseases are so notoriously difficult to treat." He now believes that we may need to revise this view radically, and he’s one of the neuroscientists at the forefront of that revision.

One clue that led him to his vision theory is this odd fact many people with phantom limbs — perhaps one third of them—experience them as paralyzed. “My arm is cast in cement,” a patient will say. Or: “It’s immobilized in a block of ice.” Significantly, many of these limbs actually were paralyzed before amputation.

The result: a paralyzed phantom.

This got Ramachandran thinking: “If you can learn paralysis, is it possible that you can unlearn it?" He wondered further if this might be accomplished with a visual aid—a visual illusion that might trick the brain in order to teach it

He thought about virtual reality. Maybe he could create the illusion that a patient’s lost arm was restored and was obeying commands sent by the brain; if that were to occur, the patient’s paralyzed phantom might be relieved of its pain, at least among those who reported that the pain seemed somehow related to the phantom’s immobility. Since pain is an illusion, constructing another illusion to negate it made sense to him. “But that technology, costing over half a million dollars, would exhaust my entire research budget with one purchase.” Instead, he devised an ingenious experiment using an ordinary cardboard box with a cheap mirror inside it.

When a patient inserts his or her good limb into a hole in the box, he or she sees through the use of the mirror an optical illusion: two limbs. And if the patient is asked to make a synchronous motion such as clapping, he or she, of course, sees “both” hands clapping, and the brain receives the visual feedback, as if the phantom were responding to the body’s command.

Would this help restore voluntary control over the victim’s paralyzed phantom? That was Ramachandran’s educated guess.

The first patient to try the box was a motorcyclist who crashed on a San Diego freeway in the 1980s. (Following tradition, Ramachandran often constructs composites for his case studies, incidentally.) As a result, his left arm was completely paralyzed and in a sling for a year until doctors decided to amputate it. Ten years later, “Philip Martinez,” as he is called in Phantoms, who had been suffering ever since with a pain-racked, paralyzed phantom, walked into Ramachandran’s office.

The visual trickery with the mirror in the box enabled Martinez to experience the good arm as being attached to his left stump. Ramachandran instructed him to make a synchronous motion with both arms, like one an orchestra conductor might make. Martinez could barely contain his glee, Ramachandran reports in Phantoms. (“Oh, my God! Oh, my God, doctor! This is unbelievable! This is mind-boggling!”) After a decade of paralysis, he felt as if his phantom were moving, and, at the same time, the pain was miraculously relieved. “It was as though [he) had some temporary inhibition or block of the neural circuits that would ordinarily move the phantom and the visual feedback had overcome this block. More amazing still, these bodily sensations of the arm’s movements were revived instantly, even though they had never been felt in the preceding ten years.”

When Martinez removed his arm from the box, the illusion was destroyed, and the pain returned. (It happened even if he merely closed his eyes while his arm was still in the box.) Ramachandran wondered next what would happen if Martinez were to take the box home and “practice” with it in order to receive continuous visual feedback.

Martinez did exactly that. Several weeks later, Ramachandran says, he got a phone call from Martinez, who informed him that his phantom arm was gone, but that he now felt phantom fingers and a palm dangling from his shoulder. Ramachandran says his immediate reaction was, “Oh, no! I have apparently permanently altered a person’s body image with a mirror.” But Martinez was thrilled. The pain, with or without the box, and with or without his eyes dosed, was gone. Vanished. And Ramachandran realized that “this was probably the first example in medical history of a successful ‘amputation’ of a phantom limb!”

That Martinez no longer experiences pain is cause for joy for -him and his family — the start of a happier chapter in his personal history, but Ramachandran’s“sign,” as some neuroscientists have started to call it, has implications for us all. What it means is that body image— like sensation itself, an internal construct of the brain — can he modified with a simple visual trick. It means that brain circuitry, far from being permanent, can be remapped. This is of significance for the treatment of disorders besides phantom limbs, including one as unrelated to it as anorexia nervosa. It also seems to alter basic ideas about the sum and quality of traits shared by all human beings, specifically those relating to the long-standing nature-versus-nurture debate.

Sufferers of Capgras’ syndrome, who are far less common than possessors of phantom limbs — in fact, they're quite rare—are another of Ramachandran’s research interests, one we discussed after the photo shoot, as he and I ate lunch in a university cafeteria. As a result of brain injury, these people, who are mentally lucid otherwise, come to regard people who are emotionally close to them — usually parents, children, spouse, or siblings — as impostors.

Prosopagnosia — or the inability to recognize faces — a brain disorder common to stroke victims, even though there is nothing wrong with their vision, is not the problem here. For Capgras’ syndrome victims, faces are recognizable enough, and the rest of their visual perception is unaffected; still, they refuse to believe that the people who say they are their loved ones, are. (“But why was this man pretending to be your father?” one patient was asked by Ramachandran’s experiment team. “That’s what’s so surprising, doctor," he replied. “Why should anyone want to be my father? Maybe my father employed him to take care of me — paid him some money so that he could pay my bills...”)

A Capgras’ syndrome sufferer typically does not extend the accusation to less intimate acquaintances. On the other hand, one of them did claim that his pet poodle had been switched, Ramachandran noted. And occasionally these people have the delusion with regard to photographs of themselves. (“Whose picture is this?” Ramachandran asks a pseudonymous “Arthur” in Phantoms. "That’s another Arthur” is his reply. “He just looks like me but isn’t me.”) The delusion does not apply to a victim’s face in the mirror, however.

Significantly, the victims have no trouble recognizing, and acknowledging, the voices of loved ones, those same alleged impostors, when they call on the phone.

Many of these people, needless to say, are treated by psychiatrists, who have their own, Freudian, theory about them. What psychiatrists believe, said Ramachandran, is that the brain injury has somehow unmasked latent Oedipal urges. “Suddenly and inexplicably, the patient finds himself sexually attracted to his mother, and he says, ‘My God, if this is my mother, how come I’m sexually attracted to her? This must be some other strange person.’ ”

It seems that Ramachandran would be more willing to accept that idea if it weren’t for the case of the poodle. “How does the Freudian argument apply to that?” What he proposes instead is that these brain-damaged patients have a “disconnection” between the part of the brain where they recognize faces and the part where they experience emotions.

As a result, they fully admit that the “impostors” look uncannily like their “real” counterparts. And they experience the whole range of emotions in general too. What they do not experience, however, is the level of emotion they have come to expect in the presence of loved ones. So instead of the Oedipally inspired monologue imagined by psychiatrists, Ramachandran imagines a patient having a very different one “ ‘Well, if this is my mother, why is it that I’m not experiencing any emotion? She must be some strange person.’ ”

This, he said, while it may seem bizarre “to you and me,” is the only interpretation that makes sense to someone with this peculiar disconnection.

Rather than being related to prosopagnosia, then, Ramachandran believes that Capgras’ syndrome is related to another extraordinary disorder called Cotard’s syndrome, in which a patient will assert that he is dead, going so far as to claim to smell his own flesh rotting. Even neurologists might conclude that these patients are insane, Ramachandran allowed. But he would argue instead that Cotard’s is simply an exaggerated form of Capgras’ syndrome and probably has a similar origin. As he explains in Phantoms: "In Capgras’, the face recognition area alone is disconnected.whereas in Cotard’s perhaps all sensory areas are disconnected.... leading to a complete lack of emotional contact with the world...and this leaves them stranded on an island of emotional desolation, as close as anyone can come to experiencing death.”

How to test his theory? In his basement laboratory on the UCSD campus, Ramachandran gave his Capgras’ patient Arthur a series of galvanic-skin- response tests, similar to the simple lie detector test. What he discovered was that Arthur’s response to photos both of strangers and of his parents was uniformly “flat,” while control-group undergraduates normally register a “big jolt” in response to photos of their parents.

Next, on a hunch, he showed Arthur photos of the same model taken at different angles. Given the links in brain circuitry between face familiarity, emotions, and a third variable — gaze direction — he had been wondering if Arthur might have trouble deciding if the model was looking at him or away from him. And, as he reports in Phantoms, he wasn’t at all surprised when Arthur was “hopeless” at the task. What was completely unexpected, however, was Arthur’s pronouncement that the photos were of different people.

Unexpected but enlightening answers about Capgras’, he now believes, “lie in the mechanics of how we form memories, in particular our ability to create enduring representations of faces.”

Think of how your own memories are formed. There is someone in my neighborhood who runs with his beagle every morning. People with a rare and specific form of amnesia (similar to that afflicting the poor soul in Luria’s book The Man with a Shattered World) would imagine that they were seeing a different man and beagle at each encounter, they would never conclude that this was the same person, day after day, who had a regular early-morning run and a beagle that needed to be exercised.

In a sense, as Ramachandran says, everyone’s idea of his or her own self is “a long sequence of highly personal episodic memories” —a narrative constructed in the same way that we construct narratives about our neighbors or anything else. And the failure to do so would mean the breakdown of something as basic to us all as personal identity.

Ramachandran believes that both these maladies — the rare amnesia and Capgras’ syndrome— are related and that these in turn may be linked to yet another strange memory disturbance, Fregoli syndrome, in which a patient keeps seeing the same person everywhere. In Phantoms, Ramachandran predicts “that instead of having severed connections from face recognition areas to (the areas in the brain that register emotions], the Fregoli patient may have an excess of such connections. Every face would be imbued with familiarity and ‘glow,’ causing him to see the same face over and over again.”

His work with Capgras’ is far from complete, however. Part of the trouble is finding the “right” patients to test, he told me.

I said I had been wondering about issues related to that problem. “For example,” I asked, “what would happen if there weren't warm feelings towards one’s parents, children, or spouse to begin with? What if, for example, a man had fallen out of love with his wife, and that was why there was no ‘glow’ when she walked into the room, with or without his having Capgras’ syndrome? And what would happen, in another scenario I can imagine, if you had the syndrome but after a while you built emotional ties with the ‘impostors’ if they cared for you and became, in a sense, your surrogate ‘real’ parents?” I said I could also imagine great difficulties if a genuine psychiatric patient — one prone to paranoia, say — developed Capgras’. “Maybe,” I said, “that’s one definition of ‘right’ patient — one who doesn’t have any other problems, physical, mental, or emotional?”

Ramachandran nodded. "The word that comes to mind is ‘clean,’ ” he said. “For the experiments to work, the subjects can’t have anything else wrong with them, so you can see the syndrome for what it is. If any of these other things gets in the way, it’s no good. It doesn’t work.”

That’s why he has put his faith not in big studies involving analyses of many people, but in taking that “clean” patient, “even a single patient,” and “doing the ‘right’ kind of experiments on him.”

And the “right” kind of experiments would be...?

He grimaced. “I don’t want to be seen as an old fuddy-duddy who doesn’t want to use anything more high-tech than Q-Tips.” But he also belittles colleagues who use a lot of expensive equipment with the dig that they are engaged in “neophrenology” — a reference to the early-19th-century pseudosdence, long discredited, whose practitioners claimed that by studying the shape and protuberances of a person’s skull, they could determine his or her character, intelligence, state of health, state of mind. “There are some who take great voyeuristic delight in pinpointing some particular piece of the brain and saying that’s where this or that happens.”

For him, then, what makes for the “right” kind of experiment is. ..?

“Its simplicity. And its inevitability. It evokes the response, ‘Why didn’t I think of that? It’s so obvious.’ But that’s true of everything. It’s certainly true of poetry. If you get to the end of a poem and have to say, ‘Could you go over that again slowly?’ it’s not a good poem. The aesthetic is lost. The same goes for an experiment."

His sensitivity to the aesthetics of science didn’t surprise me. In Phantoms he refers to a certain well-designed series of tests as “lovely” and another as “beautiful.” And when I asked him if he had any plans to write, say, a textbook, he said, “Textbook writing has to do with compiling. It’s bringing together what other people have thought or written, and I’m not interested in what other people have thought or written. The kind of writing I do is more like a poem."

So did he have plans to write another popular book, then?

“Oh, yes. What I’m writing next is to be called The Artful Brain. It’s speculations on the origins of art. A neurology of art.” And this time, he won’t use a collaborator. “I know how to do it now.”

Beyond that he said he will continue his scientific “tinkering,” as he calls it. “Science is like a fishing expedition,” he told me when I asked him how, as a medical student, he had imagined the trajectory of his career. “You really can’t plan.” So he will continue to “tinker” with, for example, anosog-nosia, which afflicts stroke victims whose left sides are paralyzed but who do not acknowledge their paralysis. In fact, they actively deny it, despite all evidence to the contrary. (“Can you touch my nose with your left hand?” Ramachandran asked an anosognosiac he tells about in Phantoms. “Yes, of course I’m touching your nose,” she said, as her hand lay paralyzed on her lap. “Can you actually see yourself touching my nose?" “Yes, I can see it,” she replied. “Mrs. Dodds, can you clap?” he asked her. “Of course I can clap.” “Will you clap for me?” Mrs. Dodds made a clapping motion with her right hand only. “Are you clapping?” Ramachandran asked. “Yes, I’m dapping,” she replied, reminding him of the Zen koan about the sound of one hand dapping.)

Sometimes the victims of anosognosia make even more bizarre pronouncements than Mrs. Dodds’s. They claim that their paralyzed body parts are not their own. At a British rehabilitation center not long ago, Ramachandran says, he raised a woman’s lifeless left hand to her eyes and asked whose it was. She claimed it was her brother’s.

Sufferers of catalepsy also intrigue him. He says these are people who, instead of laughing when they hear a joke, become paralyzed and collapse to the ground.

Has he treated cataleptics?

“No, but I’ve received letters from them!”

And if the joke isn’t all that funny, do they get only a little paralyzed and only half collapse? I couldn’t help but ask.

He only smiled.

It’s clear, to judge from the subjects he chooses (including the seemingly disowned God Module), that Dr. V.S. Ramachandran likes to be provocative. It’s clear, to judge from his classroom style, too.

He teaches undergraduates for one quarter of the year, and we are in it. The following day, I sit in on a class of his called Psych 129, The Logic of Perception.

UCSD, Center Hall 119. Tuesday 2:20 p.m. He arrives exactly on time, neither one minute early nor one minute late, paper coffee cup in hand and carrying his briefcase with the shoulder strap. An audiovisual aide clips a microphone to his shirt, which is bright crimson, silk, perhaps, worn again with black pants.

About 40 of his 50 enrolled students are assembled in the stepped, theaterlike space with its huge chart of the periodic table prominently displayed.

He surveys the group, says, “Welcome to class,” and waits for them to quiet down.

He announces in a voice distinctly more articulated than his conversational tone that he’ll be doing something a little different for this class period. “The beauty of going to a great university like this is that you’re exposed to many things, and today you’re going to be exposed to a work in progress.”

It’s his new work, he says, and it’s going to answer the questions, “Are there artistic univer-sals?” and “How does the brain respond to art?”

The overhead projector is on, and the screen shows a page with the words: “The Science of Art: A Neurological Theory of Artistic Experience."

Last week, he says, he explained stereoscopic depth and showed them numerous experiments. Today he’ll share with them his recent ideas on art. “Why is something pretty? This is an ancient question going back to the Greeks. I used to have a somewhat colonial view of art and it’s ironic because I’m an Indian. I thought that renaissance art was the greatest artistic achievement of man — Van Gogh and all of that. But then about a year ago I went back to India and started to wander into museums and temples, and after looking hard for two or three months I became sensitive to the subtleties.” He realized that he had been guilty of what people who think the Chinese all look alike are guilty of. “Gradually the subtleties emerged, and I said to myself, This is all wonderful.’ But the question is, ‘Why is it wonderful?’ ”

He admits it’s contradictory to claim that there are universal in art. “It’s almost arrogant. Art is about being original. Idk)syncratic Yet, I will claim that underlying it all are artistic universal.”

He makes the analogy with languages. Superficially they are different, but below them all is “a deep structure, according to Chomsky,” he says referring to Noam Chomsky, who founded a theory of generative grammar, a system that revolutionized linguistics. “There are rrrrrrrules. There is a grammatical structure that is the same for all languages and that grrrrrows in the brrrrrain of a child just like its liver and kidneys do. This is contrary to the ‘cultural theory of languages.’ ”

On a previous day, he reminds them, he told them about the universal of humor and jokes. “Every culture has jokes and humor, except the Germans. But is there a basic deep structure? Yes. The same question can be asked of art. But then you ask, How can this be? There’s cave art, renaissance art, so many different kinds of art. What could all of these have in common? Is there a perceptual grammar? And if so, what is it?

“This is a little bit frrrrrrrrrivolous," he admits, but he’s compelled to play around with it anyway, he says. “It’s a big question, but we can begin to talk about it.

“Now," he says, “to refr-rrrresh your memorrrrrries, I will rrrrrrepeat for the hundrrrrrrreth time that there is no little screen in the back of your head and no little man inside it that is projecting pictures for you to see. Rather, the brain constructs symbolic descriptions, rapidly computing stimuli from the outside world.”

No little screen. I remember learning this when I read Phantoms and being sorely disappointed, since I have always experienced my memories as a kind of documentary film projected on the backs of my eyelids. Certain singular images, like Kodak transparencies, come to mind at will or otherwise, even with my eyes wide open. But that’s all a fiction. The reality is that there are 30-odd visual areas in my cortex, creating images — hallucinations — by means of complicated brain circuitry. And yes, I have long known about the circuitry but still clung to the idea of the screen; that is, I did until lately.

The professor takes a sip of his coffee, then moves across the “stage,” making broad gestures as he speaks. With widened eyes he addresses his audience, some of them attentive, apparently fascinated, others looking sleepy. {Earlier he had told me that UCSD had “the usual mix—there is the creme de la creme and then there are those for whom their academics are a hobby — something they fit in between their social lives and sports.”) “The brain evolved in a highly camouflaged environment to allocate attention appropriately,” he is saying; “it directs itself to what’s important—the jaguar moving in the brush, for example.” And yet it's also true that “the brain only sees frrrrragments of the whole” By “playing a 20-questions game with itself, it finds the partial best-fit answer.”

He tells them about Charles Bonnet syndrome, whose victims “hallucinate inside their blind spot” — the blind spot that we all have, as he says he amply demonstrated to them last week in a series of experiments. A patient of his had the disorder. “And I asked him,” he says, affecting a stand-up comedian’s bantering style, “ ‘Are you hallucinating right now?’

And he said, ‘Yes.’ And I said, ‘What are you seeing?’ And he said, T see a monkey sitting on your lap.’ And I said, ‘How do you know it’s not there?’ And he said, ‘Because you arc a big professor at UCSD.’ The people afflicted with this syndrome see animals, people, houses, everything under the sun. There was a woman from Texas with brain damage who saw cartoons in her blind spot. Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, that kind of thing. She was walking around with a portable TV set in her brain.” The class murmurs a laugh. “But don’t forget that all of us are walking around hallucinating all the time.”

A good question from one of the students — “Why cartoons? How is the hallucination determined? If the brain is always making these statistical guesses, why would it pick the monkey or something else outlandish?”—is brushed away with “You have to rrrrrrrread my book,” and Dr. R. continues with the lecture.

“Don’t forget the goal of perception. To find objects. Our primate relatives scurrying over the treetops were constantly asking themselves whether it was prey, a possible mate, or a tree. Were they supposed to fight with it? Breed with it? Or could they ignore it? Objects! Objects! Objects!” He snaps his fingers loudly three times.

A breath, a moment, and the lights are dimmed. “That was only a prrrrrrelude to the main topic," Ramachandran announces as the art slides begin.

The first is a ninth-century Indian bronze, a voluptuous female with prominent nipples and belly.

“When the English colonists first went to India,” he says, “they saw the erotic statuary in Indian temples. Women with huge breasts and hips but tiny waists. And they said to themselves, ‘It doesn’t look real. Therefore, it’s primitive, and besides that, it’s pornographic.’ But the point of it wasn’t reality. It’s the same with Indian paintings.” A small gasp emits from the undergrads as onto the screen Hashes a stylized Indian man lying down on top of an Indian woman, and yet, even so, since traditional perspective has not been employed by the artist, the man’s large erection is dearly visible — the focal point of the piece.

“It’s a little pornographic, but don’t worry about it.”

But even he loses nerve here. Perhaps he realizes that there is a fine line between being provocative and merely meretricious. It’s as fine as the one between cockiness and arrogance. He doesn’t keep the slide on the screen for very long, as he continues, “And the colonists said, ‘But it’s not beautiful; it’s not art. It’s primitive, it’s pornographic.’ Bullshit! Pardon my language. The point of art is not to copy something! The point is to distort what’s there. If you want a copy of something, get a camera.”

For him, the essence of the statuary—its rasa—is dual: “Sensuality and eroticism paired with dignity and grace.”

“The irony is that in the West, when Picasso threw out perspective and created these pictures of women” — a Cubist painting flashes on the screen — “they looked like flounders, with their eyes on the sides of their heads, but the Westerners said, ‘Oh my God, he has liberrrrrrrated us!’ ”

He shows another piece of erotic temple statuary, this one a man and a woman embracing. “In India, sex and religion are combined,” he says. "They think that sex is a beautiful thing. They don’t think that if you have it that you’re going to burn in hell. Look at these people! They are totally engrossed in each other. It’s the essence of amorous ecstasy. Rrrrrrrapture.” Next he shows what he calls an example of “maternal ecstasy— a mother playing with her child.” And after that, “conjugal bliss” — another temple couple. “Look. He’s trying to remove her jeans.” The class titters. “Look at her layers of fat and folds. That’s womanhood, necessary for bearing children. Yet, it’s incongruous in combination with her tiny waist But she’s not anorexic, so you say ‘Yuck.’ Look at their crazy postures. They are grotesquely twisted, yet beautiful.”

The point, he says, is survival of the species, the transmission of one’s genes. ‘Think of evolution.” Our brains are hardwired to find certain objects more aesthetically pleasing than others because there was an evolutionary purpose to it eons ago. “Why are the outlines of a caricature more pleasing than a highly detailed picture?” Because, he says, that is what our primate relatives saw through the trees, and needed to see. “Outlines! Shapes!”

He hammers away at this central idea, showing more slides, and reshowing them. “Review!” Gradually he works in more neurological terms — “more precise language that doesn’t sound like mumbo jumbo” — but the lecture continues to be composed of varying degrees of art history, science, sex education, and current events. (Of a Salvador Dali that depicts male genitals being used to depict female genitals, he comments, “I hope I won’t be impeached for showing this.”)

When it goes on past the end of class time, he suggests that anyone can leave if he or she wishes.

Only one person slinks up the aisle and out the door.

In summation, he asks rhetorically, “What is the logical structure of art? Why these laws and not some other laws? What is the function of these laws for the purpose of the organism?” He slaps his fist into his palm. “It harks back to the limited attention resources of the brrrrrrrrain."

Afterward, a man in a suit who has been taking notes — another reporter, perhaps? — goes forward to seek an audience of his own with the neuroscientist of the hour.

Later I thought about Ramachan-dran’s own rasa.

Walking across campus, he strolls leisurely, swinging his briefcase, even if he is keeping someone waiting: he hurries for no one. Send him a letter, and he’ll call you on the phone and tell you brusquely that e-mail is “a much better way to communicate” Send him an e-mail and he mayor may not respond. Asked if at any point in medical school he had ever wanted to be, say, a plain old pediatrician, he replies, “No! Too boring! Luckily, some people are willing to do it, for humanitarian purposes." Although he lauds jane Austen in Phantoms, he says he reads no fiction, except the occasional Sidney Sheldon airplane novel. “What I do is so fantastic, fiction can't compete."

And yet I wouldn’t wish away his ego, for I believe his “certain cockiness,” acquired at age 19, has allowed him to publish scientific papers whose conclusions, although quite speculative, command attention and inspire novel theories about brain function. And a new theoretical framework may be nowhere more appropriate than in the realm of brain research. Despite the enormous expansion of neuroscience, not to mention the immense popularity over the last 20 years of books like Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards, there is as yet no unified theory among neuroscientists for how the brain works. We are all still discovering the most basic laws of what, with its approximately 100 billion neurons and twice that many neuroglia, is acknowledged to be a composition of gray matter and white matter enclosed within the cranium, continuous with the spinal cord, and more complex than the universe itself. ■

Jeanne Schinto is the author of a novel, a short story collection, and, most recently, Huddle Fever (Knopf, 1995), nonfiction about the old textile-mill city Lawrence, Massachusetts. She lives in Andover, Massachusetts.

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