Vilayanur S. Ramachandran

Body and Mind: Insights from Neuroscience

May 2012

V.S. Ramachandran is a Professor at the University of California, San Diego and Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition.

In his 2012 Gifford Lectures, “Body and Mind: Insights from Neuroscience,” he argues that neurology provides the tools to bridge the often hermetically sealed fields of study in the humanities and those in the material sciences. In the two lectures he provided a stimulating account of how the brain gives rise to aspects of human nature or, more evocatively, how a three pound mass of wisps of protoplasm produces the human condition. Ramachandran and his research group studied patients who have sustained damage to an isolated domain of the brain due to stroke, tumor, or injury which produce highly selective loss of function or change in body image. He discussed various experiments or treatments in support of his theses in each lecture. Ramachandran’s overall argument for the series was that empirical data from the right experiments and the right patients can provide a way forward through the philosophical impasse surrounding the issues of the human “self.”

In the first lecture, “Illusions, Delusions, and the Brain,” Ramachandran sought to explore the nature of human self awareness particularly with regard to body image. Generally, the close association of the self with the body is considered axiomatic: one perceives her existence within her own body. However, the thrust of Ramachandran’s lecture demonstrates how tenuous one’s body image really is and how sense of embodiment can be changed in a relatively short period of time. In his second lecture, “Molecules, Neurons, and Morality,” Ramachandran demonstrated how neurology can plausibly bridge the material sciences with the arts, culture, and creative activity. In this lecture, he suggested neurological phenomena could plausibly explain a person’s proclivity towards metaphor and creativity. 

Ramachandran discussed a number of neurological studies in each lecture, but one can get a sense of his methodology by considering his discussion of mirror neurons. Mirror neurons fire in a person both when one does a particular act or when one observes another doing the same act; thus both selves mirror each other in this way. For example, mirror sense neurons will signal pain in a person who is watching another person receive an injection. According to Ramachandran, mirror neurons enable a person to adopt another’s point of view, to imitate, to read intentions, and even empathize with another. Thus, he calls these neurons the “Gandhi” neurons. In the first lecture on body image, Ramachandran appealed to mirror neurons in order to show that the boundary between two “selves” is not as strict as often supposed as both have similar response to the same stimuli. In the second lecture connecting material sciences and the humanities, Ramachandran suggested that because the evolutionary development of the mirror neurons enabled imitation and learning from others, this constitutes the dawn of culture and civilization.