10 April 2011

The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist's Quest for What Makes Us Human

The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist's Quest for What Makes Us Human21. The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist's Quest for What Makes Us Human by V.S. Ramachandran

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ramachandran shares his experiments, studies, and theories on bizarre, disturbing, and amazing neurological conditions to figure out what makes a person human. By studying people with damage to their brains, it reveals a lot about how healthy brains function.

And there are a lot of strange neurological disorders out there. A person with Capgras syndrome is convinced close relatives are imposters. Cotard syndrome: the patient believes they are dead. Blindsight: the patient can't see but can accurately point things out though they feel they are guessing (Visual information travels on 2 pathways in the brain and it seems only one pathway is damaged in these patients.).

I preferred the less theoretical chapters in which he describes experiments he (and others) performed to learn more about various conditions and how to resolve them. The mirror box is an elegant, simple solution for helping patients with certain kinds of paralysis or phantom limb pain.

Signals in the brain getting mixed up or cut off is a recurring probable cause of many perceptual and sensory changes. The discussions on autism and synesthesia are fascinating.

Synesthetes may see numbers or sound as colored, or taste shapes, or feel certain emotions when they touch certain textures. There's quite a variety of ways synesthesia can manifest.

When he gets into more theoretical musings about what makes humans unique in the animal kingdom, I don't always agree with his views. Nonetheless they did make me think.

The glossary was quite good (it's what peaked my interest to read the book in the first place). Also, do check out the notes section. It is not the typical series of bibliographic references but rather actual notes that explain things in further detail: for the most part, well worth the time.

I would have preferred less acronyms since often several would crop up at once making them harder to keep track of. Aside from that though, the book was quite enjoyable. He's good at explaining concepts without getting overly technical, and he has a sense of humor.

Well worth a read if you're interested in learning more about how the brain works, what constitutes our sense of self, creativity, and humanity.

4 years ago on TTaT: A Life I could've had


  1. If you thought Capgras Syndrome was interesting, you should check out Richard Powers' novel The Echo Maker. He's a great writer, and manages to tie the story of a guy with Capgras to a story about depleted marshlands and make it all really human and interesting.

  2. Thanks for the suggestion. :)