The Tell-Tale Brain

Author Ramachandran, V.S.
ISBN 978-0-393-34062-4
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Review

Having read and tremendously enjoyed Ramachandran’s Phantoms in the Brain, I expected something like more of the same: More weird brain injuries, and more light cast by these tragedies on how the brain works by studying how specific injuries cause it to malfunction. Well, there was some of that, and there was some recapitulation of such cases from earlier works (such as the one I had already read). However, much of the book was a great deal more speculative. Ramachandran is very up front about the speculative nature of some of his ideas, and further argues persuasively that such speculation—and scientists prone thereto, such as himself—are a vital part of scientific progress: Some people have to come up with the wild ideas while others stick to hard data. Still, while he is honest about it, that kind of speculation wasn’t really what I thought I was signing up for.

Ramachandran also goes on to discuss the evolution of the human brain and its function, the human mind, and discusses what makes us uniquely human as opposed to “mere” animals. Here is where Dr. Ramachandran and I must part ways, because he starts to make a lot of assertions that don’t appear to be supported by anything much at all. I’m sure he’s a very great expert on the human brain, its functioning, and its malfunctioning; but to explain what differentiates us from other animals he must of course compare us to other animals, en masse as it were. Unfortunately, most of the time he draws a comparison by explaining how the human brain accomplishes a task and then simply asserting that no other animal is capable thereof.

…The self is aware of itself; it can contemplate its own existence and (alas!) its mortality. No nonhuman creature can do this.

Indeed? How do you know; how can you possibly know this?

Despite the enormous number of distinct events punctuating your life, you feel a sense of continuity of identity through time—moment to moment, decade to decade. And as Endel Tulving has noted, you can engage in mental “time travel,” starting from early childhood and projecting yourself into the future, sliding to and fro effortlessly. This Proustian virtuosity is unique to humans.

Again, bald assertion: I have no idea how this could ever possibly be tested (short of communicating via full-fledged language, which we cannnot and may not ever be able to do with any other animal).

Vital to the human sense of self is a person’s feeling of inhabiting his own body and owning his body parts. Although a cat has an implicit body image of sorts (it doesn’t try to squeeze into a rat hole), it can’t go on a diet seeing that it is obese or contemplate its paw and wish it weren’t there.

And how on Earth can Ramachandran possibly know that this is true? Unless he has some evidence, obtained perhaps via some sophisticated cat scan, that he doesn’t bother to cite or provide, this again seems like a mere assertion. How can we ever know what’s going on in the mind of a cat?

This, to me, just won’t do. We’ve learned over the past few decades that non-human animals can do a vast array of things that we used to think our province alone: Tool use has been observed and documented in chiimpanzees, various birds, dolphins, and elephants; great apes can learn rudiments of sign language; parrots can learn a great variety of conceptual tasks as demonstrated by Dr. Irene Pepperberg (cf. The Alex Studies), and corvids can perform many tasks involving tool use, including some tool manufacture (figuring out how to bend a wire to make a hook) and combination (using a tool to obtain another tool to solve a problem).

Dr. Pepperberg in particular has pointed out (Alex and me) that classical animal cognitive studies, carried out in a behavioristic framework, are very limited. The classical Skinnerian pigeon in a box is starved to 80% of optimum body mass (to maximise the attraction of food rewards) and expected to solve particular tasks in highly isolated conditions—for experimental purity, no doubt, but it’s still absurd in a way. Place a human child in the same situation—isolated, starved, placed in an artificial puzzle—and I have no doubt but that you should end up with a profoundly retarded child. Humans, we know, require an appropriate social environment to develop properly. Other social animals, presumably, do likewise. Thus, I think it’s fairly safe to assume that Skinnerian methods profoundly limit the cognitive development of animal test subjects. Even in more human environments and modern training methods, such as the model/rival training adopted by Pepperberg in training Alex and her other parrots, how can we know whether it’s optimal? Moreover, I think it is always a bit perilous to judge a non-human animal’s cognitive abilities based on its ability to perform tasks specified by humans. We humans should have a great deal of difficulty learning to behave like intelligent whales, after all, or crows!

This is not to say that I believe that crows, parrots, whales, elephants, or any other non-human animal really is as smart as humans are (although with cetaceans I think it’s particularly hard to judge). Rather, I think it is perilous to simply assume that no animal can perform a certain task merely because we have yet to devise a training method and test to demonstrate it. I’m very sure that there are lots of mental task that no other species on Earth can master, but which ones, and to what degree?

Yet here Ramachandran seems quite happy to simply assert, apparently on the assumption that his claims don’t even need justification. (They do.) If these were mere asides, this would be very irritating but harmless. As it is, though, he also uses these assertions to speculate on the evolution of the human brain: We humans can perform task A; we use brain region B to do so; other great apes cannot do A and lack the specialised structure B, ergo some inference regarding hominin brain evolution. This is very problematic, because without actual evidence that the ability is unique to humans, the evolutionary scenario is unsupported. Keep in mind that the same function may be solved using different structures: Feathers and skin flaps do the same job (in birds and bats respectively); a talking bird uses a ‘whistling’ syrinx to approximate sounds that we humans produce using larynx and tongue and vocal cords; there’s even evidence (I think in The Alex Studies?) that birds may solve problems using quite different brain regions than mammals would for the same tasks.

In the areas of the book dealing strictly with the human brain, its functioning, its malfunctioning, and thus our comprehension of its structural functionality, Ramachandran is once again stellar, and I have learned some more fascinating things. However, his anthrocentric chauvinism reduces many of his speculations on evolution from fruitful hypothesising to mere speculation based on a combination of observed fact (with regards to the human brain) and mere authorial assertion. Had he either stuck to his area of expertise, or broadened it, the book could have been stellar. As it is, its flaws (peculiarly tailored to annoy me in particular as a reader) leave me feeling rather cold, especially compared with the brilliance of his earlier work.

Notes