The Heroes of Science playmate for November is V.S. Ramachandran.
He is not to be confused with a Ramachandran plot, which has a measly two dimensions.
Vilayanur Subramanian is a multi-dimensional Godfather of modern neuroscience and a riveting man with immense creative energy and a propensity for terrible bow ties that are suggestive of his science cred … as if the moustache were not sufficient.
His genius is an ability to address complicated problems with simple but effective scientific method. While the rest of the world build faster and more complicated computers and machines to make chaos of sense, V.S. Ramachandran uses his brain to understand all our brains. In doing so he has simplified our understanding of some very odd syndromes and disorders of the mind.
… let’s call him Rami for brevity …. and because it sounds cute … and because it is the plural of Ramus, which is the branch point in a nerve.
Rami is best known for donning Mafia style leather jackets but also for groundbreaking research on Capgras delusion, phantom limbs, autism and synesthesia, and what these disorders tell us about the way our brains traffic and filter sensory information. More on these later. Rami pinpoints specific regions of the brain, the most complex of organs that he refers to as a ‘lump of jelly’. His work elegantly links this lump of jelly with the cognition flavoured ice cream of the mind. That makes for refreshingly tasty science.
By linking functions of the mind with the actual structures of the brain the subjects of Rami’s studies are positioned within a spectrum of normality. If you know the bearded lady has a hormonal problem then she commands more empathy and less revulsion. In this way, Rami’s research removes his subjects from the carnival side show and obliterates the stigma that they are crazies, loonies, weirdos, freaks, psychos, or philosophy students.
As we shall see, many delusions or disorders people suffer are extreme versions of brain functions that all of us may have experienced to some degree at some point in our lives. It is for this reason that Rami is a Hero of Science. His work tells us how the brain functions even in ‘normal’ people. That means you and I … well … at least one of us.
Thanks in part to Rami synesthesia is now a ‘celebrity’ neurological condition. Anything Rami mentions becomes fodder for Hollywood and bad novels. Hold on to your hats for a blockbuster about a man who cannot recognise himself in the mirror … or a woman who is convinced that her arm is not her own, enough to amputate it.
Synesthetes are those higher evolved individuals who involuntarily corrupt their senses with their other senses. In the best studied example sounds or numbers are perceived in colour. Rami recognised that synesthesia is hereditary and more common among creative people. Along with his coworker Hubbard he was the first to claim that the separation of neuronal connections is defective in synesthetes. He suggested that during development in a ‘normal’ person there is genetically controlled severing of unnecessary connections between different areas of the brain.
As it turns out the colour recognition and number and letter processing regions of the brain are very closely linked in structural terms. It is because of this neighbourhood relationship that number/colour synesthesia is relatively common. Rami went further to believe that because creative people display this condition more readily, there must be something vital about the nature of creativity itself that can be learned from synesthetic people. The ability to think in parallel ways, to link seemingly unrelated things, to create and understand metaphor, these abilities are the very foundation of creativity and are all a consequence of synesthetic-like linkage between different functional areas of the brain.
Even if you are not creative enough for synesthetic potential you might nevertheless have experienced mild ‘symptoms’ at some point in your life. Mind altering substances are the easy path. But our senses also act out of character when we are very tired or sick and feverish. If you are not partial to illicit substances or fevers it is still possible to induce an episode simply by punching yourself very hard in the face. I would suggest you aim for the temple region and avoid the eyes as any contact there might induce non-synesthetic visual distortion. Disclaimer: Before attempting this at home I would suggest that you first assume a seated position. Also explain to family members the purpose of this experiment prior to any attempt at inducing their own synesthetic potential. Under no circumstances attempt to induce synesthesia in your pet dog. It is a definitive human condition. Your dog will not experience synesthesia, although you may when it bites you and you see red.
Rami’s papers are fascinating not only because they describe odd conditions we are even more oddly familiar with, but also because they are descriptions of straightforward experiments written in comprehensible language, an enviable rarity these days, and a point of which he frequently reminds us. He is a self proclaimed champion of old-skool simple science done for the love of science and not the now normal 50-author industrialised commercialised patentised encrypted research that nobody would read even if they could understand it.
For example, Rami’s latest paper on bi-gender individuals, whose perceived sex annoyingly and randomly cycles between male and female without consent, is so laid back in style that it includes patient comments such as this from an anatomical female:
Respondent B: ‘‘I feel very strongly as though my body is trying to make a penis work and doesn’t understand why there isn’t one there.’’
Compare that to an extract from the last paper to which I contributed:
“interferon regulatory factor 4 (IRF4) and B-cell lymphoma 6 (Bcl6), 2 transcription factors crucial for the regulation of Blimp1 in B and T cells … blah blah blah.”
Which of the two extracts inspired coloured thoughts in you?
Rami’s mastery of simple English communication might be due to the fact that he was born in India where he began his research career, and it continued in Cambridge where English tends to be more complicated. Rami is now the director for the Center for Brain and Cognition, a revolutionary think tank that he built from within the University of California, where English is yet to proliferate in its intended form. His accolades, publications, awards and positions are too numerous to list. But perhaps mention of just one is sufficient …
… Last year Time magazine recognised that Rami has come a long way from the bad suit depicted right so they listed him as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. Influential? Would you buy a car from that suit?
Why is he so influential?
Rami lectures a lot. Visit my Pinterest site ScienceSatirist to view some of them. At presentations like his TED talk he displays the uncanny ability to make celebrities, sportsmen and politicians understand neuroscience. No mean feat. While his talks are a major influence, the reality is you don’t do all those talks until you have already won the respect of the people who actually understand neuroscience.
He has clearly done that. Over the past 40 years Rami has published more than 180 academic papers.
His first success came in the form of a 1972 Nature paper entitled “Stereopsis generated with Julesz patterns in spite of rivalry imposed by colour filters.”
This early work on visual perception and brain activation from visual stimuli was so primordial that in the same issue of Nature there was a regular section entitled ‘Soviet Science’ and an article entitled ‘Kennedy’s Prescription for Civil Science’. Rami and his simple science have far outlasted both the Soviets and Kennedy … having said that, there was also an article entitled ‘The deadly irony of terrorism’ and another ‘What will the UN do?’
He may have his work cut out if he wants to outlast terror and UN confusion … some things never change.
Although controversy remains, one of Rami’s fascinating contributions has been the mirror based treatment he developed for people with chronic phantom limb pain. When you think of losing a limb you automatically think of the way it would prevent you from participating in all of the things we love to do like petting monkeys or tarring and feathering varmints. But for some unlucky individuals monkeys and varmints are the least of their concerns as chronic severe pain is perceived where there was once an arm or a leg. Note that there appears to be no restriction on the phantom body part. Rami talks of patients with phantom internal organs and phantom sexual organs are particularly prevalent among bi-gender people.
You could be forgiven for thinking that like synesthesia phantom limbs might be quite cool to have … or not have … who wouldn’t want an arm that could pass through a wall? It would come in handy for swiping things from vending machines for one thing, but reportedly half of all phantom limbers are desperate to rid themselves of these ghostly appendages.
Rami discovered that there are two kinds of phantom limb, those that are paralysed and painful, and those that are the same as a normal limb in every way … except they are not really there. The disparity between these two groups is a direct consequence of whether or not the subject had suffered arm paralysis and pain prior to losing the arm. This made Rami think that it was learned paralysis. Therefore it should be possible to unlearn it.
Instead of employing a Proton pack and Neutrino wand, Rami would Ghostbuster this pain away by having his patient place a mirror such that the reflection of their right hand would appear where their left phantom hand was perceived. In other words he resurrected the phantom limb. By moving the real limb they would both move in sync. Patients reported the miracle of sensing their phantom limb move for the first time. Once moving they were then free to engage in reprogramming the brain to release the pain that had been associated with paralysis … of course following this jubilation the subject was still unable to pet monkeys … Presumably he would be free to pet a phantom monkey. But from personal experience I suggest you never pet a phantom monkey, at least not in public.
Another fascinating aspect to Rami’s work is his research of Capgras delusion. For more on this condition see HERE. Sufferers often believe that somebody close to them has been replaced by an identical double. The person ‘looks’ normal but there is a disconnect with the emotion that vision should induce so the person appears to be a stranger. I say we’ve all suffered temporary bouts of Capgras delusion upon returning late from the pub to a vitriolic partner. Once under the spell of drink and with my wife’s monster like stare I could be certain that I had entered the wrong apartment or that her body was taken over by an alien.
So it is little wonder there have been serious cases where Capgras delusional sufferers have attacked their own loved ones thinking them to be hostile dopplegängers. Indeed sometimes their symptoms are so severe that they can even believe their own reflection to be an impostor.
Rami contributed massively to the publicity of Capgras research through publication of his book Phantoms in the Brain. He explains this rare delusion as a disconnect between facial recognition, which occurs in the temporal cortex, and the limbic system where emotions are based. In other words the brain structure responsible for seeing the loved one was intact but the part further downstream that attached sweat-inducing excitement to that sensation was inhibited.
This explanation may not be sufficient in all cases of Capgras as there are probably sub types of the delusion, however it is a significant improvement over the Freudian explanation, which attributed the lack of recognition of a loved one with a need to repress sexual attraction to that person. Somebody was so ashamed at their mother inspired arousal that they suddenly believed her to be an impostor? Your mother is not the weird one Sigmund, you dirty little mother … well… thankfully we have Rami.
And it appears we will continue to have Rami for some time as he turns his mind to other disorders of the brain including autism and his latest research on brain-sex plasticity. Referenced earlier, Rami’s latest paper about bi-gender people is entitled ‘Alternating gender incongruity: A new neuropsychiatric syndrome providing insight into the dynamic plasticity of brain-sex.‘
In this work Rami redefines the nature of sexuality by degrading the duality of male/female down to perceptions created by brain signalling. He defines a sub-sub population of people who fluctuate between male and female … at least in their head they do.
Just as the general public becomes tolerant to homosexuality and trans-sexuality as ‘normal’ states, Rami raises the bar. These bi-gender people might identify themselves as male in one moment and then without warning or desire ‘flip’ to female. From all reports (Eastenders, Neighbours, Dawson’s Creek, Broke Back Mountain) it takes some homosexual people many years to come to terms with their sexual orientation, mainly due to society induced repression of their self perception. So for a moment imagine how difficult it must be for constantly flipping bi-gender individuals …
To confuse matters more, when some bi-genders flip they also change the orientation of their sexual attraction. Today you’re into bros, tomorrow it’s hoes. It must be very disturbing to flip sexuality and sex while in the middle of a raunchy date. Remember these people are not necessarily bisexual. Arousal could become disgust in a matter of moments. And just to add injury to insult, some of these people experience phantom genitals when in the wrong body e.g. the phantom penis of the anatomical female quoted earlier. I don’t even want to imagine what kind of mirror box treatment might alleviate a phantom penis!
Until Rami and his coworkers cast a structural neurological explanation for flipping bi-genderism it was just another in a long list of weird aberrant psychological disorders. This flips us back to the reason he is a Hero of Science.
Rami’s research gives physical identity to what were previously understood as psychological phenomena. This is the holy grail of neurology and a significant counterbalance to the predominant psycho-therapeutic method of the 20th century. And for patients it is a welcome relief from the usual burning at the stake or electrocutive vegetation to which they are accustomed.
But perhaps the greatest contribution Rami has made to our world is not what his research tells us about these synesthetes, autists, phantom limbers and Capgras delusionals. They only represent a tiny percentage of us. Rami is not just a Hero to the extremities of the human spectrum, he is to all of us because his work with these people tells us about the function of the brain in general.
Even if you disagree with some of Rami’s conclusions, or if you believe there are others who deserve more credit for his findings, whether you are bi-gender, trans-gender, normo-gender, synesthetic, boring, able limbed, ghost limbed, or sexually confused about your mother, V.S. Ramachandran should influence us all. I can’t wait to see what he unearths next.
His work has unleashed the secrets of the truly beautiful lump of jelly that makes you you.
If you have not heard him before, you have now, and you will again.
That is why he is November’s Hero of Science.
I highly recommend you watch one of Rami’s online lectures HERE, of which there are many. He does a vastly superior job describing his subjects and the wiring of their brains. Having said that, if you prefer phantom monkeys to phantom limbs then stick around here for next month’s Hero of Science.
Nominations are now open for the December playmate …
If you know of a contemporary Hero of Science deserving of satirical praise and analysis then please post your nomination HERE