Our Brains, Ourselves

By Jill Suttie | May 27, 2011 | 1 comment

A review of The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human

In the last 20 years, neuroscience research has transformed humans’ understanding of ourselves. No longer do scientists believe that the brain is fixed in adulthood, for instance—we now know that it can grow new cells and neural pathways throughout our lifespan, suggesting that we have more power to shape how our brains develop than was previously thought.

The Tell-Tale Brain by V.S. Ramachandran is an attempt to help non-scientists make sense of some of these startling and provocative discoveries. Ramachandran, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego, has spent the last 25 years uncovering “the mysterious connections between brain, mind, and body,” primarily through his studies with patients who suffer from genetic quirks, unusual syndromes, or brain damage.

For example, Ramachandran has studied patients with synesthesia—a condition in which sensory experience is blended in odd ways, like seeing colors whenever one hears music. By listening carefully to his patients’ stories and conducting often ingenious experiments, Ramachandran has made some ground-breaking discoveries into how the human brain processes sensory stimuli and how that process can be disrupted in certain people.

Much of the book follows a pattern that will be familiar to fans of Oliver Sacks: Ramachandran introduces us to an unusual syndrome, like phantom limb pain in amputees, and lets us see how it reveals some deeper insight into the workings of the brain. Beyond walking us through some compelling detective stories, Ramachandran aims to evoke an appreciation from his readers of how far our brain has evolved from that of our ape cousins.

According to Ramachandran, our brain’s extraordinary ability to learn and integrate new information may be due in large part to mirror neurons—cells that fire both when we perform a particular action and when we witness someone else performing the same action. These brain cells were discovered in the 1990s and have since been implicated in our human capacity for empathy, language, and culture.

Although much of this connection is speculative, Ramachandran capably explains why mirror neurons might have played an important role in helping humans make leaps of evolutionary development. Though other primates can laugh, communicate, imitate, and display empathy, only humans are capable of humor, complex language, abstract thought, and, perhaps most important of all, self-awareness. In relaying these and other insights into how our brains function, Ramanchandran provides a convincing account of what sets humans apart from other species.

Tracker Pixel for Entry
 
 
 
About The Author

Jill Suttie, Psy.D., is Greater Good‘s book review editor and a frequent contributor to the magazine.

  

Like this article?

Here's what you can do:

Donate
 
  
 

Oh my! There’s just a little anthropocentrism on display here, isn’t there? I love it when humans compose paeans to themselves about how superior they are to all other living creatures. It feels so good to be the master race, doesn’t it? And it makes it so much easier to erase the guilt that might flow from exploiting other creatures when we can look down our noses at them while doing so.

“[O]nly humans are capable of humor, complex language, abstract thought, and, perhaps most important of all, self-awareness.” Self-awareness, or narcissism? If we were even half as aware as we like to think we are, we would have noticed the possible existence of these qualities in several other creatures besides ourselves, and - more importantly - acknowledged our inability to even begin to evaluate, let alone judge, the level of consciousness of other life forms.

Who on earth do we think we are to assert definitively that baleen whales or dolphins, to take but two, obvious examples, are not capable of using complex language, thinking abstract thoughts, or being self-aware? We have no bloody clue what they’re doing, but we don’t hesitate to replace our ignorance with arrogant self-aggrandizement, do we?

The myth of human superiority is no more grounded in reality than the myth of American exceptionalism, but it is even more dangerous. It will be exposed for what it is when we have finished destroying the ecosystem, and all the supposedly inferior creatures (if any are left) ask us what the hell we were thinking. Now there’s an abstract thought to wrap your self-aware mind around if ever there was one.

Higher Plane | 6:17 pm, December 2, 2011 | Link

 
blog comments powered by Disqus
 

Most...

  
  

Greater Good Events

The Greater Good Gratitude Summit
Craneway Conference Center, Richmond, CA OR Live Webcast
June 7, 2014


The Greater Good Gratitude Summit

A day of science, stories, and inspiration, featuring a keynote by Jack Kornfield and Brother David Steindl-Rast. CE credit hours available.


» ALL EVENTS
 
 

Take a Greater Good Quiz!

How compassionate are you? How generous, grateful, or forgiving? Find out!

» TAKE A QUIZ
 

Dr. Christine Carter's blog on the science of raising happy kids.

» READ MORE
 

Watch Greater Good Videos

Jon Kabat-Zinn

Talks by inspiring speakers like Jon Kabat-Zinn, Dacher Keltner, and Barbara Fredrickson.

Watch
 

Greater Good Resources

 
 
» MORE STUDIES
 
 
» MORE ORGS
 

Book of the Week

Making Grateful Kids By Jeffrey Froh and Giacomo Bono Two experts explain how to foster gratitude in children, drawing on new research and compelling real-life stories.

» READ MORE
 
Is she flirting with you? Take the quiz and find out.

Sponsors

The Quality of Life Foundation logo Special thanks to

The Quality of Life Foundation for its support of the Greater Good Science Center

 
"It is a great good and a great gift, this Greater Good. I bow to you for your efforts to bring these uplifting and illuminating expressions of humanity, grounded in good science, to the attention of us all."  
Jon Kabat-Zinn

Best-selling author and founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program

thnx advertisement