The Tell-Tale Brain

A Neuroscientist's Quest for What Makes Us Human by V.S. Ramachandran

Dismissing those who dismiss humans as “just apes,” this book examines all that makes the human brain — and thus human beings — different from their primate cousins. Language (and the brain parts that evolved to deal with it) is one such distinction. This guided tour of the mind and its quirks describes the roots of especially human abilities, from aesthetics to introspection, in the physical brain.

Ramachandran, a neurologist and scientist, skillfully walks the line between intriguing storytelling and detailed science in these readable tales of unusual patients. How he and others make sense of what’s going on in these people’s brains is a starting point for understanding normal brain function and its evolution. To him, drama lurks in the anatomy of each part of the brain, so that a description of the essential, if primitive, brain stem is punctuated with: “A hemorrhage from even a tiny artery supplying this region can spell instant death.”

Never averse to speculation, Ramachandran argues that mirror neurons — brain cells that enable imitation of others and a glimpse of another’s point of view — were crucial to the emergence of culture and language. Problems with the mirror-neuron system might even lie at the core of autism, he proposes. In synesthesia (“a surreal blending of sensation, perception and emotion” in which people may see sounds or hear shapes), he looks for the roots of creativity. Elsewhere, he puzzles through issues in vision, the appreciation of beauty and art, and the origins of self-awareness. 

W.W. Norton, 2011, 384 p., $26.95.

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