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Ramachandran’s Brain

...embodied in a glimpse behind the veil of Powerpoint.


V.S. Ramachandran made a frazzled head wiggle when I laughed at the sheer chaos of his desktop.


I really enjoyed his book, Phantoms in the Brain, and even though I have heard this UCSD Prof three times, I find it perpetually provocative of deep thoughts.


Some interesting tidbits on his ongoing work with:


1) Phantom Limb Pain - feeling persistent pain in the limb that has been amputated


The 1:1 topographic mapping of the missing hand to the face also maps to the shoulder (the two neighbors in the cortical net). So the remapping of the sensory cortex occurs fairly consistently with crosstalk to the neuronal neighbors. If you amputate one finger, the neighboring fingers feel the missing digit, and so does the face.


“If you amputate the penis, whether by cancer or a jealous spouse, the sensation maps to the foot, and some find that erotic.”


The mapping is “modality specific” whereby feelings of hot, cold, vibration, touch, dripping water all transfer with fidelity to the new region.


“The theory lends credibility to acupuncture, but I have not found a correlation with the specific organ map claims of acupuncture.”


Getting results with the mirror therapy with Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD). Acute pain triggers a reflex to pull away whereas chronic pain causes paralysis (evolved so as to not worsen certain injuries through movement). With RSD, you have to unlearn the learned distrophic pain to break the cycle of paralysis.


Some phantom limb pain is triggered when the patient sees someone else getting poked. The mirror neurons are like “monkey see monkey do” neurons, and are the source of sympathy and empathy. But we don’t actually feel someone else’s pain. With the phantom limbs, it’s as if they are “Gandhi neurons – the ultimate empathy neurons.” In each of us, our real sensory neurons veto the input from the mirror neurons and so we do not literally feel other’s pain. Not so with the phantom limbs. They need the visual input, but then they feel the pain. For one patient, he would watch his wife massage her own arm and that would relieve his phantom limb pain.


2) Synaesthesia Seeing numbers as colored or in a spatial line.


Not nearly as rare as we thought – 1 in 50 people have it. It's 8x as prevalent among artists, poets, novelists and creative people. Shakespeare was a master: “Juliet is the sun.”


“A word is just a penumbra of associations… a syntactic juggling in the head”


Dismissed as nuts at first. “If you say they are crazy, it means you are not smart enough to understand.”


Blamed on drugs: “The incidence does go up on LSD… and there are more cases in Berkeley than Stanford.”


Many cool tests to verify its physical "hardware glitch" basis: response time tests in spotting color patterns quickly, drops off with peripheral non-color vision, occurs in color blind people (really a wild effect to see numbers as colors they can’t see anywhere else), does not happen with Roman numerals (visual appearance of the number is key, not the concept).


Seeing days of week, or months of year as certain colors: the ordinality of sequences. “The Brain did not evolve to represent numbers, but it did evolve to represent space. Cardinality maps onto space.”


Suspected to be a cross wiring in the fusiform gyrus that has a genetic basis given its hereditary pattern in families. The necessary neuronal pruning is interrupted by some mutation.


Why doesn’t it disappear from genetic drift? Why would it persist? “They are the outliers in the population. They are more creative. They may be gaining, but evolution moves slowly. Now, you don’t want everyone to be that creative. For example, you don’t want your neurosurgeon to get creative.”


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Taken on October 24, 2008