Our Bodies, Our Selves

In addition to the Question Of The Year we mentioned in a recent post, the latest from Edge.org also incudes an interesting essay by the prominent neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran on the physiological underpinnings of the self.

Dr. Ramachandran, whom everyone refers to simply as Rama, is an enormously appealing fellow. He is a researcher of the first rank, but has a playful, lighthearted personality — rather surprisingly so, given that his work brings him into daily contact with tragically injured patients. (On the other hand, Oliver Sacks, who is in the same line of business, also seems to be a delightful chap in much the same way, so perhaps I am jumping to the wrong conclusion.)

In this essay he mentions what he considers to be the two principal puzzles left to be solved in neuroscience: first, the problem of consciousness and qualia, and second, understanding the coherence and persistence of the self. The first, he says, is still so deeply mysterious that we really don’t know where to begin, but the second is beginning to yield.

For scientists like Rama the Rosetta Stone is the injured brain; it is by studying the deficiencies caused by specific lesions that we make headway (so to speak) in understanding the holistic operation of the undamaged mind. There are a great many ways our normal experience of our selves, and of others, can go haywire. There is the Capgras delusion, in which the patient thinks friends and family are impostors; there is apotemnophilia, in which the patient regards a limb as foreign, and wants it amputated. As a result of other traumas a patient can have out-of-body experiences, sense a phantom “twin” hovering nearby, or insist that a paralyzed limb is fully functional. In the bizarre affliction known as Cotard’s syndrome, the patient may even insist that he or she is dead.

I read a fascinating book by Dr. Ramachandran a few years ago: it was called Phantoms In The Brain, and I recommend it highly. We also linked, a while back, to a video of a presentation he gave at the first Beyond Belief conference — well worth watching now, if you missed it back then.

You can read the Edge essay here (scroll down a bit once you get there; the Edge webpages are always a little disorganized).


  1. Fabulous essay! Thanks for pointing it out. For more about ‘theory of mind,’ Simon Baron-Cohen is amazing, too.

    Brain science is one of my favorite pursuits, and brain disorders…love them, like salted peanuts!

    Posted January 8, 2009 at 12:09 am | Permalink
  2. Kevin Kim says

    I think human brains generally taste better than salted peanuts.

    Just a little food for thought.


    Posted January 8, 2009 at 12:19 am | Permalink
  3. JK says

    Fried in canola oil. Brains, human. Safflower for peanuts.

    Posted January 8, 2009 at 1:47 am | Permalink
  4. You forgot the salt. The salt is key.

    Posted January 8, 2009 at 4:34 am | Permalink
  5. Jacob says

    I don’t know. They always leave me feeling like I’ve got straw in my mouth.

    Posted January 8, 2009 at 10:32 pm | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    Sometimes I don’t know why I work my fingers to the bone around here…

    Posted January 8, 2009 at 11:40 pm | Permalink
  7. Kevin Kim says

    Zen Buddhism has many different images for “uselessness,” i.e., useless striving, or things that are unnecessary for true practice because they’re either irrelevant or can’t be accomplished. One such image is “legs on a snake” (irrelevancy: snakes get along fine without legs); another is “the tongue tasting itself” (impossibility: a tongue can’t taste itself, no matter how it tries).

    I think I’ve solved the “tongue tasting itself” thing: make a clone of yourself, then eat its tongue. Or perhaps the more PETA-friendly thing to do would be to clone just the tongue.

    Sorry. I’m still on a cannibalism kick. We half-Koreans are, after all, “the other white meat.”

    cook me bone-in; don’t remove the fat

    Posted January 8, 2009 at 11:50 pm | Permalink

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