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).