Riku Sayuj's Reviews > Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind

Phantoms in the Brain by V.S. Ramachandran
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Apr 25, 14

bookshelves: brain-bheja-fry, r-r-rs
Read from March 02 to 03, 2012, read count: 2


I think this was a good book to read after reading Susan Sontag. While Sontag says that the more we attribute a disease to our mind and to our attitudes the more it betrays our ignorance, Ramachandran tries to answer questions like "Can your mental attitude really help cure asthma and cancer?" - For example, VSR is courageous enough to venture into esoteric areas such as mind-body connection and divine visions and sound them out with the backing of science and a curious imagination.

The Victorian attitude that VSR brings to these explorations make the book a pleasure to read and you too can play Sherlock with the neuroscientist as he goes about snooping in the recesses of the mind in each of the cases.

The most basic questions about the human mind are still mysteries to us - How do we recognize faces? Why do we cry? Why do we laugh? Why do we dream? Why do we enjoy music and art? and the really big question: What is consciousness?

And more generally, how does the activity of tiny wisps of protoplasm in the brain lead to conscious experience? - These are the questions that VSR tries to address as he stitches together an elaborate network of clinical case studies into a coherent tapestry. He does not claim to have all the answers but shows the daring to face up to these toughest of questions without the grabs of a philosopher or a mystic but with the probing flashlight of a scientist. And that is why both his books are so captivating.

He opens the book with an overview about how our brain works. After a few pages of diagrams and explanations about those weird Latin names, he gets to one of the important points that he wants to address through all these wandering with patients and obscure questions - Modularity Vs Holism - What is the nature of our brain's workings? Is it modular with separate areas for separate functions or is fundamentally holistic with all the functions arising from an intricate interaction of all regions?

Consider the following examples:

Many stroke victims are paralyzed on the right or left side of their bodies, depending on where the brain injury occurs. Voluntary movements on the opposite side are permanently gone. And yet when such a patient yawns, he stretches out both arms spontaneously. Much to his amazement, his paralyzed arm suddenly springs to life! It does so because a different brain pathway controls the arm movement during the yawn— a pathway closely linked to the respiratory centers in the brain stem.

Or consider the unfortunate story of a patient known as H.M., who might as well have risen straight out of Memento: H.M. suffered from a form of epilepsy and his doctors decided to remove his 'hippocampus', a structure that controls the laying down of new memories. We only know this because after the surgery, H.M. could no longer form new memories, yet he could recall everything that happened before the operation.

After this lengthy introduction, the book finally takes us to the deep end - the clinical cases and their implications:

The Phantom Limb

To understand Ramachandran's approach to this strange malady, you have to get your mind around something called the Penfield homunculus - A map of the entire body surface exists in the brain like a miniature body drawn on the brain surface. Some parts like lips and hands are overrepresented and the locations of the different body parts is not as it is in actual anatomy. Literally a miniature map of your body in your brain. Perform a google search for more.

Ramachandran while experimenting on patients with phantom limbs soon found that the penfield map for their missing arm seems to be on their face now. So now if he touches the patient's face, the patient feels the touch on his non-existing arm! Apparently, the part of the map corresponding to face in the brain is very close to the part corresponding to the arm and following the surgical removal, the 'face map neurons' has invaded the part reserved for the arm and is now making the brain believe that sensations are coming from that arm when the face is touched. Stimulated by all these spurious signals, Tom's brain literally hallucinates his arm.

He gives a number of examples involving phantom feet and arms and breasts and even sexual organs.

One patient, in his description, stood up, letting her stumps drop straight down on both sides. "But when I talk," she said, "my phantoms gesticulate. In fact, they're moving now as I speak." - This reminded me so powerfully of Munnabhai and his chemical 'lochas' talking of Gandhi.

One of the main problems with patients is paralyzed phantom limbs that are in weird positions that cause pain. To address this, VSR postulates that the phantom limb experience might derive from this explanation: Imagine that your brain area that gives motor commands do not know that the arm is no longer there. So it sends a command, "move". Each time the motor command center sends signals to the missing arm, information about the commands is also sent to the parietal lobe which houses the penfield map containing our body image. In the case of an actual arm there is another source of information - the impulses from the joints, ligaments and muscle spindles of that arm. These impulses let the brain know that it is actually moving. The phantom arm of course lacks these tissues and their signals

Now imagine that the actual limb was paralyzed before amputation. Every time the brain sends a signal to move, all the responses from the arm and the visual response gives feedback that "nope, the arm is not moving." This process repeats till, eventually the brain learns that the arm does not move and a kind of "learned paralysis" is stamped onto the brain's circuitry and when the arm is later amputated, the person is stuck with that revised body image: a paralyzed phantom.

So in a burst of intuitive insight or creative genius, VSR wonders if he can give feedback to the brain visually that the arm IS moving, then maybe it will "unlearn" this paralysis - visual feedback telling him that his arm is moving again while his muscles are telling him the arm is not there? The only way his beleaguered brain could deal with this bizarre sensory conflict was to say, "To hell with it, there is no arm!"

He does it with his famous mirror box contraption that does exactly that thus performing what he calls the first successful "amputation" of a phantom limb!

BlindSight

VSR gives a few clinical examples of patients who are blind in all conventional sense but can still navigate rooms an around objects and can even put envelopes through slits even when they can't see the slits or its orientation. to explain this strange almost extra-sensory perception, we need to understand more about how we see and how we process what we see:

What happens when you look at any object?

The light from the object reflects back to your eye, activating corresponding optic impulses in the receptors in your retina. These impulses then travel through the optic nerve and then they take tow pathways - one called 'old' and a second, called 'new'.

The "older" pathway goes eventually to higher areas in your brain. The "newer" pathway, on the other hand, travels from through a sort of 'relay station' en route to the primary visual cortex. From there, visual information is transmitted to the thirty or so other visual areas for further processing. The "new" pathway after going to the visual cortex diverges again into two more pathways —a "how" pathway in the parietal lobes that is concerned with grasping, navigation and other spatial functions, and the second, "what" pathway in the temporal lobes concerned with recognizing objects.

Why do we have an old pathway and a new pathway?

VSR postulates that maybe the older pathway has been preserved as a sort of early warning system or a quick response system. When time is too short to not have the luxury of processing information etc, this pathway allows you to quickly get out of the way of anything that looks vaguely threatening - hard-coded threats and symbols etc. For example, if a large looming object comes at me from the left, this older pathway tells me where the object is, enabling me to swivel my eyeballs and turn my head and body to look at it. This pathway only gives you a sense that 'something' is there.

At this stage you have to deploy the 'newer' system to determine what the object is, for only then can you decide how to respond to it. Damage to this second pathway, particularly in the primary visual cortex, leads to blindness in the conventional sense.

So, coming back to patients with BlindSight, the paradox is resolved when you consider the division of labor between the two visual pathways that we considered earlier. In particular, even though these patient might have lost his primary visual cortex, rendering him blind, their primitive "orienting" pathway was sometimes still intact, mediating BlindSight, allowing them to react to objects that they cannot see and with no conscious acknowledgement that they are aware of these objects. It becomes an unconscious reflex reaction for them.

They have BlindSight and can see without seeing.

Imagination and Reality

Ramachandran explores the difference between imagining an object and seeing one. Are the same parts of your brain active when you imagine an object, say, a cat, as when you look at it actually sitting in front of you?

He first takes us through a variety of intriguing experiments that we can perform on ourselves to play with our visual 'blind spot' I am reproducing one here but for more off these fun games, go here.

[image error]

Blind spot demonstration: Shut your right eye and look at the black dot on the right with your left eye. From about one and a half feet away, move the screen slowly toward you. At a critical distance the circular hatched disk on the left will fall entirely on your blind spot and disappear completely. Notice that when the disk disappears you don't see a dark void or hole in its place. The region is seen as being covered with the same light gray color as the background. This phenomenon is loosely referred to as "filling in."

If you did go to the link and perform the tests, you have now experienced what VSR calls "Perceptual Filling In" which is very different from just imagining the continuities in those lines etc. When you fill in your blind spot with a carpet design, it is carried out by visual neurons. Their decisions, once made, are irreversible.

If you got this much, let's return to the distinction between seeing a cat and imagining a cat. When we see a cat, its shape, color, texture and other visible attributes will impinge upon our retina and travel through to the primary visual cortex, all the information combining to tell us that this is a cat.

Now think of what's going on in your brain when you imagine a cat. There's good evidence to suggest that we are actually running our visual machinery in reverse! Our memories of all cats and of this particular cat flow from top to bottom—from higher regions to the primary visual cortex—and the combined activities of all these areas lead to the perception of an imaginary cat by the mind's eye. Indeed, the activity in the primary visual cortex may be almost as strong as if you really did see a cat, but in fact the cat is not there.

Why don't you see a cat in the chair when you simply think of one?

The reason is similar to what we explored in the case of the Phantom Limbs - The actual signals from your retina informs your higher visual centers that there is no cat image hitting the retina - thereby vetoing the activity evoked by top−down imagery. But if these early visual pathways are damaged, this baseline signal is removed and so you hallucinate - vividly!

This then forms that elusive interface between vision and imagination.

He talks about the Charles Bonnet syndrome to illustrate this where the brain does not receive confirming visual stimuli and is free simply to make up its own reality.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat

In Ramachandran's own version of the story that Oliver Sachs made immortal, we meet Arthur who suffers from a condition called The Capgras' delusion: As Arthur said, "That man looks identical to my father but he really isn't my father. That woman who claims to be my mother? She's lying. She looks just like my mom but it isn't her."

Remember the 'what' pathway we talked of earlier? This pathway connects to the 'temporal lobes' which contains the regions that specialize in face and object recognition. In a normal brain, once the 'what' pathway conveys the visual signals to these areas, these face recognition areas (found on both sides of the brain) relay information to the 'limbic system', which then helps generate emotional responses to particular faces.

What if Arthur's case arise from a disconnect from these two functions of 'recognition' and 'emotional response'? He can recognize his parents' faces but feels no emotional response as the limbic system is damaged in some way? What if he copes with this lack of emotional response by telling himself that they can't really be his parents? Ramachandran then proceeds to test and confirm this outlandish theory using GSR which is used extensively in Blink by Gladwell too.

The God Delusion

Ramachandran in this scintillating chapter lays into the god hypothesis with all the innocent charm of an avenging angel. He argues that the limbic system, especially the left temporal lobe is somehow involved in religious experience. Every medical student, he says, is taught that patients with epileptic seizures originating in this part of the brain can have intense, spiritual experiences during the seizures. Patients may then have deeply moving spiritual experiences, including a feeling of divine presence and the sense that they are in direct communion with God. Everything around them is imbued with cosmic significance. They may say, "I finally understand what it's all about. This is the moment I've been waiting for all my life. Suddenly it all makes sense." Or, "Finally I have insight into the true nature of the cosmos."

Ramachandran finds it ironic that this sense of enlightenment, this absolute conviction that Truth is revealed at last, should derive from limbic structures concerned with emotions rather than from the thinking, rational parts of the brain that take so much pride in their ability to discern truth and falsehood.

The Origin of Smileys

This "false alarm theory" is the explanation that Ramachandran puts forth as the fundamental basis for humour. He gives the example of people who have uncontrollable fits of laughter when they have lesions in certain part s of the limbic system. Is it not strange, he asks, that the same system that controls our flight or fight response also governs our laughter mechanism? This is because laughter is a form of social signaling that lets us tell others that a potentially dangerous situation is really harmless or 'silly'. It is contagious as the more people convey this "all right" message, better it is for the society - they will waste less effort on these false alarms unnecessarily.

Mind-Body Connection

There was once a woman who was pregnant. She was very excited and happy. FInally after nine months, she started experiencing contractions and rushed to the doctor for delivery. The doctor examined her and got ready for the delivery procedure. He was an experienced doctor and he sensed something was wrong though. he examined her once more and some signs like a down tuned belly button told him that this might be a case of Phantom Pregnancy. He told her he will anesthetic her for delivery and once she woke up informed her that she had miscarried. She was dejected and went home. Several days later she came rushing back. She had a pregnant belly gain and all the other accompaniments of pregnancy. She plopped down on the examining chair and told the doctor - "You forgot to deliver the twin!"

Pseudocyesis or false pregnancy is a condition in which some women who desperately want to be pregnant develop all the signs and symptoms of true pregnancy. Their abdomens swell to enormous proportions, their nipples become pigmented, as happens in pregnant women. They stop menstruating, lactate, have morning sickness and sense fetal movements. Everything seems normal except for one thing: There is no baby.

Ramachandran treated phantom pregnancy as a potential example of the kind of mind-body connection he had been looking for. He meditates, If the human mind can conjure up something as complex as pregnancy, what else can the brain do to or for the body? What are the limits to mind−body interactions and what pathways mediate these strange phenomena? And assures us that, contrary to what many of my colleagues believe, the message preached by physicians like Deepak Chopra and Andrew Weil is not just New Age psychobabble. It contains important insights into the human organism— ones that deserve serious scientific scrutiny.

Phantoms in the Brain is a wonderful book. It explores some deep and strange ideas and tells us that it is only through exploring questions such as these that we can begin to approach the greatest scientific and philosophical riddle of all - the nature of the self.

Freudian Analysis on Ramachandran

Ramachandran spends a lot of time either supporting or critiquing Freud and I am having to struggle hard to resist the temptation of conducting a Freudian analysis on him. Even though I will not engage in it here, I will leave you with a clue why: It is about the number of times he refers to the two primary sexual organs in the book. One is referred to almost constantly (in addition to his numerous sexual innuendos) and the other is mentioned absolutely never.

Disclaimer

In many parts my explanations are simplistic versions of the ones presented in the book. I removed most of the scientific terms and omitted a lot of the examples and have concentrated on concepts that I found more interesting. If your interest was evoked by this short summary, I would urge you to pick up the book and read it. I would also add a qualifier that if you have read The Tell-Tale Brain, a lot of this book will seem very repetitive with almost word for word similarities between the two, and contains almost nothing which has not been covered in The Tell-Tale brain, which is the better work as it is more developed and coherent and just more fun to read for the general reader.
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message 1: by Jim (new)

Jim This is another wonderful review, Riku, and thank you very much for the recommendation! I am going to take a close look at this one and The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist's Quest for What Makes Us Human, since you mention the close similarities and the relative merits of the two.

I knew "Rama" slightly when we were both at Caltech many years ago - I as a graduate student of Mark Konishi, and he on a fellowship in John Allman's lab. I have followed some of his work, especially that on the phantom limb syndrome which interested my former MD/PhD student greatly. I have also seen him in TV interviews a number of times, and he is certainly an important figure in the field.

I was especially interested here in your comments about his treatment of 'The God Delusion', and the religious experiences of patients during seizures of the limbic structures in the left temporal lobe. That would include (presumably) the hippocampus, amygdala, and the overlying cortex of the medial temporal lobe. I have shown many medical students around those areas in specially dissected human brains that reveal the structures. You can get a better look at them in the 3D-Brain model, which is a free IPhone app and can also be found at this excellent site:

http://www.g2conline.org/

The website is a treasure trove of information about brain structures, neurological syndromes, and current research.

I mention these points for two reasons: 1) it does not surprise me that the emotional (limbic) circuitry would be the source of religious/spiritual 'sensation' or experience; and 2) I think that the relative importance of those circuits, and not the rational/logical frontal lobes, may be telling us something very important about our continuing attempts to rationally prove or disprove the God hypothesis.

The latter point is in relation to your discussion thread concerning Dawkins' The God Delusion. I want to make brief comments about that thread here, and not there, because 1) my views on that matter are not fully formed, and 2) my comments are mostly based on gut feelings, rather than logical or scientific positions.

First, I agree with the vast majority of your thoughts on Dawkins' book, and on the theistic questions themselves. I find the attempts to settle on precise logical definitions of the 'truth' very frustrating, and it seems that you agree in part. I have long suspected that there is a position somewhere in the middle, for which there is currently no good term or definition. I will attempt to lay out a few thoughts about that position.

First, it seems clear to me that the process of 'Creation' is continuous in every sense that we can get any grip on - so much so that 'Emergence' is a much better word, and a much more powerful concept. Big Bang notwithstanding, the notion of a single (or brief) moment of Creation of all that is, or will be, is just silly. Similarly, the notion of only one true Beginning, and only one true End, is as fragile as the latest twist in the cosmological trail of evidence, as you indicated. But emergence is demonstrable, and very likely continuous.

Second, I think the concepts of emergence and self-organization are probably two sides of the same coin, with one describing the effects of the other.

Third (and most important in my view), these twin processes create absolutely overwhelming effects over time, and those effects can be observed with (yes, I will say it) a spiritual intensity in any field of scientific endeavor. I know this sense of awe and wonder from my own research experience. I have read about it in the experience of Einstein, Newton, and many others including Dawkins.

I think it is extremely likely that when scientists feel that sense of awe and wonder, their limbic systems are very strongly activated, not to the level of a seizure but with similar emotional/spiritual effects.

So let me close this ramble with a question and a book suggestion. Question: When I feel that sense of awe and wonder – basically a sense of discovering (again) the overwhelming power of what IS – am I a theist, an atheist, an agnostic, or something else? My contention is that belief is not a player in this experience.

Book suggestion: I think a lot of these ideas are discussed much more thoroughly, with a lot of documentation and examples, in Stuart Kauffman’s At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity. (I own it and have thumbed through, but haven’t read it yet). If you are interested, maybe we can both give it a close look at some point, and discuss what we find.


message 2: by Riku (last edited Mar 03, 2012 11:02AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Riku Sayuj Jim wrote: "This is another wonderful review, Riku, and thank you very much for the recommendation! I am going to take a close look at this one and [book:The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist's Quest for What ..."

I am speechless after reading through your comment, Jim! Thanks for elaborating in such detail your thoughts, which are not at all less formed as you claim!

I agree with most of your arguments about emergence except that our minds tend to seek for a cause behind every cause and in that endless regression we end up with the unexplainable singularity that we want to solve - and hence the questions.

Maybe by the time we start thinking of it, we have crossed the threshold to the limbic system? Maybe we are incapable of thinking about origins and deep meanings without activating our limbic systems and thus feeling awe and all the associated feelings? This is a new thought process to explore and I thank you so much for igniting this for me!

Thanks for the book recc, let me know when you would like to explore it. i am always game to jump into any deep well that I can't see the bottom of.


message 3: by Jim (new)

Jim Thank you so much for the kind words, Riku! I will come back to limbic system and the book rec in a moment. But let me first illustrate the point I wanted to make, about the sense of wonder and awe, with two quotes from Einstein:

“the scientist's religious feeling takes the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is utterly insignificant reflection. This feeling is the guiding principle of his life and work, in so far as he succeeds in keeping himself from the shackles of selfish desire. It is beyond question closely akin to that which has possessed the religious geniuses of all ages.”


“I'm not an atheist and I don't think I can call myself a pantheist. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many different languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn't know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see a universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws, but only dimly understand these laws. Our limited minds cannot grasp the mysterious force that moves the constellations.”


His term in the first quote is 'rapturous amazement', and that is precisely what I am talking about. In the moment of discovery, you are looking through a newly opened door at something incredible that (typically) no other human has ever witnessed or understood. It is a feeling like no other, and every scientist who writes about his/her passion for science will speak of the 'rapturous amazement' of those moments.

Now, bear with me for a moment. Go back to the first quote, take out the phrase 'intelligence of such superiority', and substitute 'emergence of such beauty and complexity', or some equivalent but more elegant phrase. Now you have a formulation that is very close to my sense of how these big questions play out. You can make similar changes to the second quote - for 'someone must have written', say 'some process must have written', and substitute 'this process' for 'God'. And again the quote matches what my intuitions are telling me.

So, you can tell me whether those sentiments fit neatly into any of the theist/atheist/agnostic categories. My sense is that they don't, and that another concept and term are needed. Or maybe we should just not worry about terminology, and move on to learning and discovery!

Now, on the limbic system. I think that a great way to understand what the limbic system is doing is to watch it in action, for example in the decision-making process which (to me) reveals so much of how we think. For that, I strongly recommend
How We Decide, in which you are taken through a number of specific cases of different types of decisions, and a discussion of which brain systems are crucial (and which can screw things up). I haven't reviewed it yet, but I can discuss it with you anytime you like, and I think it will give you a good feel for what role emotions (and reward systems, e.g. dopamine) play in normal brain function. Two quick quotes from the book:

"We need to cultivate the art of self-overhearing to learn how to eavesdrop on the local conversations we have with ourselves. While reason and feeling are both essential tools, each is best suited for specific tasks.

Simple problems require reason. There isn't a clear line separating easy questions from hard ones, or math problems from mysteries. But in general, the prefrontal cortex is a sharply constrained piece of machinery. If the emotional brain is a fancy laptop, stuffed full of microprocessors operating in parallel, the rational brain is an old-fashioned calculator."


The Kauffman book will (I think) provide abundant examples of emergent, self-organizing processes in nature. It will probably be some time before I get to it - maybe 6-8 weeks, because of upcoming family and other commitments. But please don't let that hold you back! I am very motivated to continue this discussion, and I really love the way you run with the intellectual ball. It is a real pleasure...


message 4: by Riku (last edited Mar 03, 2012 11:22AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Riku Sayuj I have been reading Civilizations : Culture, Ambition, and the Transformation of Nature where Armesto is trying to reach a definition for the word 'civilization' from evening and when I put that in conjunction with your thoughts, my first reaction is that none of the conventionally accepted definitions of words can ever fit neatly into all the meanings we ascribe to them on deep reflection.

That is a fundamental problem of being 'lost in translation'. We think and experience in one language which is probably a million years old and then we express them in another that is only a few thousands.

But I would still contend that as long as you are willing to entertain the possibility that the defining principles and nature of the universe that creates awe in you as approaching a consciousness or something similar to it, you are still tending away from atheism. And as long as you feel skepticism towards accepting such a theory fully, you are tending away from theism too. Obviously I am implying that you end up in agnosticism, where I believe every thinking person should squarely be situated, at least for the time being.

Besides, the sense of awe is probably only at the moment of discovery. What if we discover the cause of the universe, experience tremendous awe and then after 50 years it is a just a matter of course information that every school boy knows? Is it not a religious experience anymore? And if it so, how can we really compare it to the continuing and time-unbound experiences that are supposed to be what mystics experience? The same concepts that evoked such worship in Einstein might not do the same for us anymore...


message 5: by Jim (new)

Jim Yes, I think you are putting all of the ideas into a solid framework. If I had to pick among the three terms, I would probably pick agnosticism as you have, and for very similar reasons.

But let me put a slight twist on your second paragraph, even while agreeing with the substance of all that you are saying. The term I would use for your points is habituation, or that blase sense of the familiar, and that is a biological phenomenon at every level of sensation. So the fully realized sense of awe is ephemeral, as you say.

But Einstein certainly knew, and I have seen for myself, that there is more 'rapturous amazement' just around the corner with the next important discovery, and on and on in a way that seems to defy logic but makes perfect sense to those who follow that passion. Another way of saying this is that every answer leads immediately to at least two new questions. And that statement, for me, is an article of faith (yes, I will say it). The faith is that there is always a deeper level of understanding that is possible, and that becomes accessible only after you peel away the top layer.

I don't see this as religious faith in the usual sense of that term. But it is something that every scientist believes at a very fundamental level, though no one can prove it. In other words, one could argue that someday we can know everything that is worth knowing, but I am quite certain that we will always feel like Einstein's child in the library.

I look forward to your thoughts on the Armesto book and on these issues. I will be away for some time, but please feel free to put up more of your thoughts! I love the discussion.


message 6: by Riku (last edited Mar 03, 2012 08:35PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Riku Sayuj Jim wrote: "Yes, I think you are putting all of the ideas into a solid framework. If I had to pick among the three terms, I would probably pick agnosticism as you have, and for very similar reasons.

But let m..."


So the possibility of an unknown always existing is what gives you the religious experience? I am just trying to make sense of the experience itself here. Even though you want to discover everything there is to know, the sheer possibility of never being able to do it is what creates the sense of awe and wonder that is comparable to heavenly glory for scientists? Can I take your statements to mean that?

If that is the case, does it not mean that a concept of God or the mysterious unknown is required just to make sure that we get closer to disproving it? Don't you find that enjoyably ironic? :)


message 7: by Jim (new)

Jim I love the way you put the ideas together, but I think I am just confusing you by talking in religious-sounding terms about the experience. Let me take a different tack.

I don't think of the experience as a religious one, at least not in the usual sense (it does not inspire worship, for example). It is more like a jaw-dropping realization that two dots have just connected, in your mind, that were always connected in the real, natural world. That 'aha' moment creates a sense of wonder at the beauty of it all, and at the joy of getting just one more glimpse into the depths that were hidden before.

For me (and I think Einstein would have said something similar), the goal is not to discover everything there is to know, because I understand (and take on faith) that I can only peel away a few layers in a lifetime, and even those in only a very small area of inquiry.

Honestly, I have no real concept of heavenly glory. But in this life and in a scientific career, it is what we see when we peel back that next layer that is the sheer bliss of doing science. I should stress that those pure moments of discovery are rare, so they are really rather rapturous when they happen.

So for your questions in the second paragraph, I think a lot of that feeling is unrelated to a God concept, at least in the way that I think about it. I say that because it is the process that fascinates me, and I don't think of a Creator for that emergent process. The two ideas seem rather orthogonal to me.

This is definitely a tricky point, because one could argue that something (some intelligence?) had to create the emergent process. But, as I hope that Kauffman's book will show in detail, when two bits of matter come together by chance, an emergent process will simply happen, driven by the properties of the two bits of matter and their interactions when they come together. No creator involved, at least not in the way that I see it. And you can take that idea all the way up to how our brains work, and how we make decisions, with emergent processes (and natural selection) driving every stage of the progression. That is the key concept as I see it, and the logical structure stands or falls on its validity.

As for the joys of discovery, 'mysterious unknown' captures a part of it, but 'new knowledge' is probably closer. It is a bit like finding an item of treasure in a hunt that you 'know' will never end. I am struggling to express it in concrete terms, but let's see if that makes more sense.

Getting late for me, but this is a fascinating discussion and I really enjoy putting ideas together with you! I will pick up the thread in 8-10 hours. Highest regards, Jim


Riku Sayuj Jim wrote: "I love the way you put the ideas together, but I think I am just confusing you by talking in religious-sounding terms about the experience. Let me take a different tack.

I don't think of the exper..."


I think I'll sit on this for a day before replying :)


message 9: by Jim (new)

Jim Sounds good; we have a lot of thought-threads going. No hurry from this end..


message 10: by Riku (new) - rated it 5 stars

Riku Sayuj Bird Brian wrote: "Very interesting- what I understood of it. Is this your area of professional study?"

Far from it. It is for Jim though, as you can see from his immediate grasp of the implications...


message 11: by Jim (new)

Jim Riku wrote: "Far from it. It is for Jim though, as you can see from his immediate grasp of the implications..."

In this case, my reach has probably far exceeded my grasp...

I do want to recommend the Science and Inquiry Group read for March, which has some interesting discussion of the way scientists of different specialties tend to view some of these issues: Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life. I am still in early stages of the book, but it is very well written and (I think) extremely interesting. Hopefully there will be a good discussion of it in the Group (probably in a week or two).


message 12: by Riku (new) - rated it 5 stars

Riku Sayuj Jim wrote: "Riku wrote: "Far from it. It is for Jim though, as you can see from his immediate grasp of the implications..."

In this case, my reach has probably far exceeded my grasp...

I do want to recommend..."


an extremely interesting book.. let me see if I can make time for it in time for the discussion.


message 13: by Jim (new)

Jim Riku wrote: "let me see if I can make time for it in time for the discussion."

I hope so.:)


message 14: by Riku (new) - rated it 5 stars

Riku Sayuj Jim wrote: "Riku wrote: "let me see if I can make time for it in time for the discussion."

I hope so.:)"


Is the whole month dedicated to the book?


message 15: by Riku (new) - rated it 5 stars

Riku Sayuj Jim wrote: I do want to recommend the Science and Inquiry Group read for March, "

I find the discussions there fascinating but about books which I haven't gotten to yet. :) I tried to follow a fews thread, got dizzy and gave up.


message 16: by Jim (new)

Jim Riku wrote: "Jim wrote: "Riku wrote: "let me see if I can make time for it in time for the discussion."

I hope so.:)"

Is the whole month dedicated to the book?"


Yes, the whole month of March will be for that book. The poll is up for the April selection, so you can have a look at those and pick one of interest. I haven't voted yet, but will soon.

My rule, when I get dizzy, is to give up too! No need to push it. You are contributing a great deal with your incredible reviews,including the one on the Third Reich(!) which I will get back to. You really are amazing...


message 17: by s.penkevich (new)

s.penkevich Your reviews are amazing, it's like a mini class. The part about the God Delusion reminded me of Dostoevsky's The Idiot, he describes his moments of seizure in it as a pure white holiness. Have I mentioned this is a Wonderful review!


message 18: by Riku (new) - rated it 5 stars

Riku Sayuj Jim wrote: "My rule, when I get dizzy, is to give up too! No need to push it. You are contributing a great deal with your incredible reviews,including the one on the Third Reich(!) which I will get back to. You really are amazing... "

Is the whole month dedicated to the book?"

Yes, the whole month of March wil..."


My reading is very unplanned really... Which is why I have neer really been able to be part of a book discussion. But will certainly make an attempt here.

You are so kind, Jim! :)


message 19: by Riku (new) - rated it 5 stars

Riku Sayuj s.penkevich wrote: "Your reviews are amazing, it's like a mini class. The part about the God Delusion reminded me of Dostoevsky's The Idiot, he describes his moments of seizure in it as a pure white holin..."

Thanks for that connection! I wish I had thought of that...

So glad you liked the review, thanks.


message 20: by s.penkevich (new)

s.penkevich Ha, feel free to claim it.


message 21: by Jim (new)

Jim s.penkevich wrote: "Ha, feel free to claim it."

An excellent connection indeed! Dostoevsky had a very deep insight into the workings of the brain. I have never read The Idiot, but Notes from Underground and Crime and Punishment contain vivid descriptions of the tortured mind at work.


message 22: by Riku (new) - rated it 5 stars

Riku Sayuj Jim wrote: "s.penkevich wrote: "Ha, feel free to claim it."

An excellent connection indeed! Dostoevsky had a very deep insight into the workings of the brain. I have never read The Idiot, but [book:Notes from..."


@Jim, About our discussions about God and temporal lobe seizures, why should we not use this connection as a way to help criminals etc.. maybe an experience of god or of this greater unity might help them transcend whatever selfishness drives their behaviors?

I know this sounds almost Orwellian but it is still a thought...


message 23: by Jim (new)

Jim Riku wrote: "About our discussions about God and temporal lobe seizures, why should we not use this connection as a way to help criminals etc.. maybe an experience of god or of this greater unity might help them transcend whatever selfishness drives their behaviors?

I know this sounds almost Orwellian but it is still a thought... "


I love the way you put ideas together, Riku! That is a fascinating notion, and I wonder if anything like it has been tried.. The neuropsychologists might well be able to do something with functional brain imaging and targeted, intensive behavioral therapy/intervention, and that is well worth looking into. It would require a very sophisticated paradigm to activate that area noninvasively, I think..

The more straightforward way, conceptually, would be to induce a seizure in that area by electrical or chemical means. I can search on Google Scholar later and see what is out there, but there are potentially at least two major issues.

The first is technical, and relates to the method and effects of inducing seizures in that specific area. The area is deep, and must be approached with some surgical technique (and likely damage to overlying structures). Moreover, induced seizures would be very difficult and perhaps impossible to control, and they can do a lot of damage as in epilepsy itself. Eventually, there may be a more targeted approach using drugs for receptors that are highly concentrated in that area, or something of the sort. I don't have a specific idea on that, but someone may be working on it.

The second issue relates to the mental status of the psychopath (and probably other categories of criminal minds). I am no expert on any of this, but my understanding is that psychopaths have no conscience in the normal sense, or indeed any sort of empathy for others. My educated guess would be that they lack a group of neuronal connections that one would need to stimulate in order to get the desired result. This would have to be investigated at length, and there are new tools for this sort of question but the study would be very challenging, I think.

On the Orwellian aspect, there is a sordid history of brain stimulation/intervention approaches, and Naomi Klein has written masterfully about it in The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Of course every new therapy offers potentially better results than the last one, but the ethical issues are very serious indeed, even with a highly ethical goal. A lot more attention is paid to such things these days, with institutional review boards and the like, and that is in general a very good thing.

I will be back on later. Always interested in your thoughts!


message 24: by Riku (new) - rated it 5 stars

Riku Sayuj Jim wrote: "Riku wrote: "About our discussions about God and temporal lobe seizures, why should we not use this connection as a way to help criminals etc.. maybe an experience of god or of this greater unity m..."

I have read recently that psychopaths may just plain have damaged amygdalas or emotion centers... Not much to be done then I guess. Or maybe we can inject dopamine or give them artificial dopamine pulses like for heart patients...?

If it is a brian damage, then they should be treated as patients and not as criminals, right?


message 25: by Caroline (last edited Apr 25, 2014 07:15AM) (new)

Caroline Not only a fascinating review, but the following thread has been fascinating too.

I think the titles (& content) of two of Dawkin's books An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist and The Magic of Reality: How We Know What's Really True suggest that he is familiar with that overwhelming sense of awe that Jim talks about, even if his approach is wholly that of atheist.

I also think there is much to be argued that psychopaths should be treated as patients,(eg humanely), but with a condition that (so far) has shown itself immune to treatment, and that is often dangerous to society.


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