In thinking about an upcoming post, I came back to a really eye-opening book I read many years ago called Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind, by V.S. Ramachandran and Sandra Blakeslee (I also see that it is the book's tenth anniversary, so this is a well-timed remembering). I thoroughly enjoyed the book for it's wit as well as wisdom (well, it is a tour of some research findings, so perhaps wisdom is the wrong word). I found a list of quotes from the book (particularly like the last one), so without the time to write a nice synopsis or review, I'll just bang them straight out with a recommendation to read the whole thing.
"In any field, find the strangest thing and then explore it."
- John Archibald Wheeler.
I'd also like to say a word about speculation, a term that has acquired a pejorative connotation among some scientists. Describing someone's idea as "mere speculation" is often considered insulting. This is unfortunate. As the English biologist Peter Medawar has noted, "An imaginative conception of what might be true is the starting point of all great discoveries in science." Ironically, this is sometimes true even when the speculation turns out to be wrong. Listen to Charles Darwin: "False facts are highly injurious to the progress of science for they often endure long; but false hypotheses do little harm, as everyone takes a salutory pleasure in proving their falseness; and when this is done, one path toward error is closed and the road to truth is often at the same time opened." Every scientist knows that the best research emerges from a dialectic between speculation and healthy skepticism.
For in and out, above, about, below,
'Tis nothing but a Magic Shadow-show
Play'd in a Box whose Candle is the Sun
Round which we Phantom Figures come and go
- The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám
The completely static picture of [cortical maps] that you get from looking at textbook diagrams is highly misleading and we need to rethink the meaning of brain maps completely.
You never identify yourself with the shadows cast by your body, or with its reflection, or with the body you see in a dream or in your imagination. Therefore you should not identify yourself with this living body either.
- Shankara (A.D. 788-820) Viveka Chudamani (Vedic scriptures)
For your entire life you've been walking around assuming that your "self" is anchored to a single body that remains stable and permanent at least until death. Indeed, the "loyalty" of your self to your own body is so axiomatic that you never even pause to think about it, let alone to question it. Yet these experiments suggest the exact opposite - that your body image, despite all its appearance of durability, is an entirely transitory internal construct that can be profoundly modified with just a few simple tricks.
in science one is often forced to choose between providing precise answers to piffling questions (how many cones are there in a human eye) or vague answers to big questions (what is the self), but every now and then you come up with a precise answer to a big question (such as the link between deoxyribonucleic acid [DNA] and heredity) and you hit the jackpot. It appears that vision is one of the areas in neuroscience where sooner or later we will have precise answers to big questions.
People often assume that science is serious business, that it is always "theory driven", that you generate lofty conjectures based on what you already know and then proceed to design experiments specifically to test these conjectures. Actually real science is more like a fishing expedition than most of my colleagues would care to admit. (Of course I would never say this in a National Institutes of Health [NIH] grant proposal, for most funding agencies still cling to the naive belief that science is all about hypothesis testing and then carefully dotting the "i's" and crossing the "t's". God forbid that you should just try to do something entirely new that's just based on a hunch!)
the primary visual cortex, far from being a mere sorting office for information coming in from the retina, is more like a war room where information is constantly being sent back from scouts, enacting all sorts of scenarios, and then information is sent back up again to those same higher areas where the scouts are working. There's a dynamic interplay between the brain's so-called early visual areas and the higher visual centers, culminating in a sort of virtual reality simulation.
"What we call rational grounds for our beliefs are often extremely irrational attempts to justify our instincts."
- Thomas Henry Huxley
[Sigmund Freud] had discerned the single common denominator of all great scientific revolutions: Rather surprisingly, all of them humiliate or dethrone "man" as the central figure in the cosmos.
If you think you're something special in this world, engaging in lofty inspection of the cosmos from a unique vantage point, your annihilation becomes unacceptable. But if you're really part of the great cosmic dance of Shiva, rather than a mere spectator, then your inevitable death should be seen as a joyous reunion with nature rather than as a tragedy.
Some of these [temporal lobe personality] patients are sticky in conversation, argumentative, pedantic and egocentric (although less so than many of my scientific colleagues)...
Women are monogamous
Men are polygamous
Just because religiosity has a neurological basis, does not in itself deny the existence of God, just as the neurophysiological basis of color vision does not deny the existence of color.
jokes have much in common with scientific creativity, with what Thomas Kuhn calls a "paradigm shift" in response to a single "anomaly" ... the joke is "funny" only if the listener gets the punch line by seeing in a flash of insight how a completely new interpretation of the same set of facts can incorporate the anomalous ending.
Freud's explanation [of humor as the relief of tension] belongs to a class of explanations that Peter Medawar has called "analgesics" that "dull the ache of incomprehension without removing the cause"
There's much truth to Sir Arthur Eddington's famously paradoxical remark "Don't believe the result of experiments until they're confirmed by theory."
[According to Hindu tradition] the self - the "I" within me that is aloof from the universe and engages in a lofty inspection of the world around me - is an illusion, a veil called maya
Everything I have learned [from neurology] points to an unsettling notion: that you create your own "reality" from mere fragments of information, that what you "see" is a reliable - but not always accurate - representation of what exists out in the world, that you are completely unaware of the vast majority of events going on in your brain. Indeed, most of your actions are carried out by a host of unconscious zombies who exist in peaceful harmony along with you (the "person") inside your body!
"Consciousness is a fascinating but elusive phenomenon: it is impossible to specify what it is, what it does, or why it evolved. Nothing worth reading has been written on it."
- Stuart Sutherland
[The] need to reconcile the first-person and third-person accounts of the universe ... is the single most important unsolved problem in science. Dissolve this barrier, say the Indian mystics and sages, and you will see that the separation between self and nonself is an illusion - that you are really One with the cosmos.
[The zombie argument] is based on the fallacy that because yuo can imagine something to be logically possible, therefore it is actually possible. ... even though you can imagine an unconscious zombie doing everything you can do, there may be some deep natural cause that prevents the existence of such a being!
It seems somehow disconcerting to be told that your life, all your hopes, triumphs, and aspirations simply arise from the activity of neurons in your brain. But far from being humiliating, this idea is enobling, I think. ... Once you realize that far from being a spectator, you are in fact part of the eternal ebb and flow of events in the cosmos, this realization is very liberating.