Friday, May 30, 2014

Man's second favorite organ

Woody Allen described the brain as 'Man's second favorite organ'. Robert Krulwich wonders whether the brain or the universe is bigger and is undecided about the question. But whichever way you look at it, the human brain is a remarkable organ. (Although in one memory test a chimp will beat you.) When Steven Pinker appeared on the Colbert Report and was asked to describe the brain in 5 words, he said, '“Brain cells fire in patterns.” But when those patterns are disrupted by an injury or due to genetic reasons, some bizarre disorders result.

I first read about such disorders in Phantoms in the Brain by V.S. Ramachandran. It described problems that I had never heard about like anosognosia, hemineglect, blindsight, Capgras Sndrome, Cotard's syndrome, phantom pregnancy etc. I later learnt about  more strange disorders like reading blindness and  body integrity identity disorder (BIID). Oliver Sacks describes more strange neurological disorders. It is amazing what s/w glitches can plague a symbolic animal trapped in a body that once belonged to a fish. Bertrand Russell had it right when he said, “If I had omnipotence, and millions of years in which to experiment, I would not consider humanity much to boast off for my efforts."

I recently read a more recent book by Ramachandran, The Tell-tale Brain. (He talks about the book in this video.) This book is more speculative covering areas of more recent research in neuroscience and I didn't enjoy it as much as the earlier book. Ramachandran is a big champion of mirror neurons which has been called the most hyped concept in neuroscience. He says that it is responsible for our powers of empathy, language and the emergence of human culture, including the widespread use of tools and fire. He believes that when mirror neurons don’t work properly, the result is autism. Others are more skeptical.

In the book, he gives his suggested Ten Universal Laws of Art. He describes some of these principles in Lecture 3 of his interesting and entertaining series of talks in the BBC Reith Lectures.

PS: One of the most talked about topics in neuroscience is about the plasticity of the brain. In this transcript of a talk by Ramachandran, I came across this anecdote involving Francis Crick:
I remember after a fundraiser at UCSD he was approached by a lady during the cocktail reception. "All this stuff on the brain is interesting, Dr. Crick", she said, "but can you name any one single discovery in the last two decades that has really important implications?" "Well, my dear, "replied Crick, "one thing we have now learnt is that the brain is really plastic". The lady fainted.

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