'The grass is greener on the other side'. And ‘empty vessels make the most noise’. Common proverbs that need no explanation. And yet, these fox some who might otherwise have a good command over English and a sound level of intelligence. This phenomenon had long flummoxed scientists as well— until Dr Vilayanur S Ramachandran burst onto the scene.
Ramachandran, a brain researcher who is the director of the Center for Brain and Cognition as well as professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California, San Diego, has traced the problem to the defective or damaged left angular gyrus of the brain. People with a damaged angular gyrus tend to offer literal meanings or make interpretations that are completely off the mark when posed with even simple proverbs and metaphors, he has found.
The professor, who has over 150 scientific papers to his credit, says: “While it would be premature to conclude that the angular gyrus is the ‘metaphor centre’ of the human brain, we suggest that the evolution of the dominant angular gyrus contributed enormously to the evolution of many quintessentially human abilities, including metaphorical and other abstract thinking.”
His findings, presented at the American Psychological Society’s annual meeting in Los Angles last year, could help shed light on one of the many grey areas of the human brain. “Brain research today is in the same stage that physics was in the 19th century — a field still in its infancy,” Ramachandran says from San Diego. “That is when a field is most exciting,” he adds.
The mysteries unfold
The brain is certainly exciting. And the secrets it has revealed, after persistent probing, are even more so. There is one which Ramachandran mentions in his book, the critically-acclaimed Phantoms in the Brain, which he co-authoured with the New York Times’ science writer, Sandra Blakeslee. It is in this book, which has been translated in eight languages, that Ramachandran explains why amputees feel pain in limbs they no longer have.
His work with patients with bizarre neurological disorders also sheds light on the complicated architecture of the brain. It finds answers to questions such as ‘why do we laugh or become depressed?’ and ‘how do we make decisions, deceive ourselves or dream?’.
The collection of his talks — the 2003 Reith Lectures — on BBC radio became the raw material for another book, The Emerging Mind, and the subsequent paperback edition, A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness.
Now, Ramachandran is focusing on reducing the phantom limb pain. He is also working on synesthesia, a condition in which the senses get muddled up, and what this curious disorder can tell us about the ‘normal’ brain. Simultaneously, he is busy with a new book, The Cultured Ape — What makes humans unique. Then, there is the Encyclopaedia of Human Behaviour, of which he is the editor-in-chief.
Ramachandran and his wife, Diane Rogers-Ramachandran, also write for the Scientific American Mind.
A passionate Indologist
Ramachandran received a doctorate degree from Trinity College, Cambridge, after an MD from Chennai’s Stanley Medical College in 1974. He then moved to the US for post-doctoral research at CalTech and in 1983 joined the University of California, San Diego.
Ramachandran’s early research was on visual perception, but he later turned to cognitive neurology, particularly little researched syndromes. This passion for science — and in fact, learning — comes from his mother, V S Meenakshi, he says.
Proud of his Indian roots, and his family tree, he says: “My grandfather, Sir Alladi Krishnaswami Iyer, wrote the Constitution of India with Dr BR Ambedkar.”
The brain researcher is confident that India’s brain drain will eventually come to an end. India’s growing prominence and economic boom could prompt many Indians abroad to return, he asserts.
“Let us not forget that India was the cradle of much of what we call civilisation, including mathematics, Sanskrit and chess,” says the professor who has an abiding interest in Indology — Indian scripts, archaeology, art and Carnatic music.
He takes time out for all these interests as he goes on his pursuit of the brain. It is not for nothing that Oxford don Richard Dawkins calls Ramachandran the ‘Marco Polo of brain research’ and another dubs him the ‘Sherlock Holmes of neuroscience’. The Newsweek magazine has already named him a member of its ‘Century Club’ — a hundred people to watch in the 21st century.