VS Ramachandran: The Sherlock Holmes of Neuroscience  

VS Ramachandran: The Sherlock Holmes of Neuroscience  

by Aravindan Neelakandan - Wednesday, April 12, 2017 10:42 PM IST
VS Ramachandran: The Sherlock Holmes of Neuroscience    Dr V S Ramachandran (Photo credit: Beatrice Ring/Rossini Productions)

There is nothing strange in a 12-year-old south Indian boy collecting sea shells as his hobby. But, consider a 12-year-old boy collecting sea shells and classifying them taxonomically. And when he encounters a problem in identifying them, he writes to a conchologist of American Museum of Natural History, who finds himself equally at sea over the discovery of a ‘very rare’ species, which was not been found in the geographical zone where this bright young child lives. Hence, the conchologist considers the new find as ‘very interesting’. All this happened decades ago when snail mail was the order of the day, and photographs needed to be processed in the dark rooms of studios.

The 12-year-old boy is now Dr Vilayanur Subramanian Ramachandran, well known as Dr V S Ramachandran, and to his colleagues, simply as Rama. English ethologist and author Richard Dawkins famously called him ‘a latter-day Marco Polo’ of neuroscience. Nobel laureate Eric Kandel sees in him ‘the continuation of a tradition in neurology to giants like Broca and Wernicke, who gave us, from studying clinical material, enormous insights into the functioning of the human mind’.

Late Dr Oliver Sacks, himself a great neuroscientist, called Dr Ramachandran, “One of our most gifted physicians… he illuminates everything he touches.”

Photo credit: Beatrice Ring/Rossini Productions
Photo credit: Beatrice Ring/Rossini Productions

Dr Ramachandran embodies a romanticist spirit of an enlightenment era scientist, who practised science to seek truth. With the spirit of an adventurous pilgrim, he ventures into the realm of the unknown for enriching the understanding of our own place in the cosmos.

I first heard him live in Chennai during the Tamil Heritage Forum, thanks to Badri Sheshadri, a leading Tamil publisher. Then, almost a decade later, I heard his Neurokrish lecture, again in Chennai this year. He is fondly referred to by locals as 'our Chennai boy'. Teachers belonging to the older generation of Madras medical fraternity and doctors of the following generation fondly remember him as their college mate. One doctor reminisced how even as a teenager Ramachandran was meticulous and rigorous in his scientific methodology, which frustrated many of his college fellows. But when Ramachandran, still not in his 20s, sent a paper about how the brain harmonises two slightly different images seen by each eye, the prestigious science journal Nature published it without revising. Now, the new generation of doctors and medical researchers look at him with awe finding in him guidance and inspiration.

Dr V S Ramchandran is the grandson of Sir Alladi Krishnaswamy Iyer, one of the two architects of the Indian Constitution, the other being Dr B R Ambedkar. His father was a high-ranking United Nations official and his mother a post-graduate in mathematics. Today, he is the director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California, San Diego and adjunct professor of biology at the Salk Institute.

In 2003, he delivered a series of BBC Reith lectures in UK – arguably the most prestigious lectures in the world. The ever young and curious boy in him would most certainly have relished the moment as some of the previous speakers like Bertrand Russell, Arnold Toynbee, Oppenheimer and Peter Medawar were his heroes. Nobel Laureate David Hubel described Dr Ramachandran’s Reith lectures as “full of ideas that are bold, irreverent, original and ingenious”. He pointed out that both ‘non-specialists’ as well as those like him who ‘have spent a lifetime studying the brain got impressed by those lectures'. Dr Ramachandran’s lectures have now been published as a best-seller The Emerging Mind.

In 2012, he gave the Gifford lectures in Scotland. These lectures originated as part of a philosophical movement of natural theology, and were considered equivalent to the Nobel in the realm of science-philosophy interaction. But Dr Ramachandran, who naturally has a Darwinian approach to neuroscience and sees some core human phenomenon like aesthetics as rooted in our evolutionary legacy, has little sympathy for this movement. The lectures he gave dealt with neurology as providing a framework to bridge the gap between the compartmentalised fields of ‘soft’ social and ‘harder’ material sciences.

Dr Ramachandran is an art lover. He is passionate about Chola bronzes. He loves Carnatic music and enjoys sculptures and paintings. His interest in the aesthetic experience of visual art is again related to his science. His arriving at aesthetic universals makes him perhaps the most important aesthetician in Indian tradition after Abinava Gupta, an eighth century aesthetician.

Dr Ramachandran has proposed a neurological theory of aesthetic experience (along with Willian Hirstein) as early as in 1999. (Neuroaesthetics as a discipline received its formal definition only in 2002). Again, his work on the neural correlating to a religious experience evoked a lot of interest among the scientific community so much so that he was almost credited with discovering a G-module in the brain.

Dr Ramachandran explains carefully that there is no G-spot related to god in the brain. He asserts that religion is a multi-dimensional experience involving many far-flung brain regions and that he would not get into cause-effect reductionist arguments as it would lead him away to realms of speculation and philosophy. “Hang up philosophy,” he says, quoting William Shakespeare with a chuckle, “if philosophy cannot produce a Juliet”.

His interests are not limited to brain science. He is also an avid fossil hunter. His casual observation of a dinosaur skull on a table during the annual Tucson Gem and Mineral Show in 2004 led him to wonder if it could be a new species of ankylosaur, a herbivorous dinosaur. This observation led to his friend Cliff Miles, a paleontologist, studying the skull more closely, and subsequently the ankylosaur was discovered to be a new species. It was named 'Minotaurasaurus Ramachandrani'. The shell-collecting child from Madras wouldn’t have in his wildest dreams thought that in future a dinosaur would be named after him.

Photo credit: Beatrice Ring/Rossini Productions
Photo credit: Beatrice Ring/Rossini Productions

Photo credit: Beatrice Ring/Rossini Productions
Photo credit: Beatrice Ring/Rossini Productions

Dr Ramachandran says he would have become an archeologist, if he had not become a brain scientist, though he is still interested in archeology. He is extremely thrilled about the discoveries made in Indian archeology. But, there is a tinge of sadness in his voice when he says that nothing much has been done to popularise the discoveries of Indian archeologists, and that the field is embroiled in the politics of the Left and Right.

He himself would like to be the one to crack the Harappan code. He fondly remembers his old medical college professor Dr K V Thiruvengadam, who taught students to observe very subtle clues to diagnose diseases. The uncanny ability to extract clues to unsolved mysteries of nature from seemingly simple phenomena and techniques is something that characterises the methodology of Dr Ramachandran throughout his journey in science, and it is no wonder his favourite fictional sleuth is Sherlock Holmes.

His links with philosophy is characterised by love and at the same time, a sense of aloofness. He never allows philosophical biases to interfere with his science. Nevertheless, when he talks about individual life and free will in the context of the immensity of space, time and cosmos, he believes that humans are part of the dance of Shiva. This, of course, to him is comparable to Albert Einstein’s God of Spinoza, a metaphor for the all permeating processes of evolving life forms and expanding universe. When psychologist Susan Blackmore asked him how he feels about realising through his science that his apparently private life was an inseparable part of the dance of Shiva he said that the realisation was ennobling rather than diminishing.

While dealing with the mind-body divide, the so-called error of French philosopher Rene Descartes, the idea of ephemeral soul of Aristotle or the concept of maya from his own Hindu philosophical system, Dr Ramachandran faces the intersecting magisteria in his scientific work and philosophy. So when he speaks of our body image as "an entirely transitory internal construct… a shell that you’ve created for successfully passing on your genes to your offspring’, one wonders if that is good old maya with a Darwinian twist. But Dr Ramachandran is cautious. “I rarely allow mysticism to creep into my science – though I also believe that "there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy”, he says with a twinkle in his eyes. Then the Indophile in him comes out, “Indian philosophy is said to have anticipated and perhaps inspired big chunks of Greek philosophy; there is some evidence that Pythagoras visited India”, he adds.

Fellowships and memberships at many prestigious international institutions like All Souls College Oxford (whose fellows included Lawrence of Arabia and Dr S Radhakrishnan) have been conferred on him. Most recently, he was elected honorary fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, and the Royal Institution of London awarded him the Henry Dale medal. He was conferred the Padma Bhushan and named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by the TIME magazine.

Photo credit: Beatrice Ring/Rossini Productions
Photo credit: Beatrice Ring/Rossini Productions

A scientist who studies the mysteries of brain and consciousness, a physician who uses his knowledge for alleviating pain that has been so utterly mysterious and baffling, a unifier of varied manifestations of the human phenomenon by finding their roots in neurobiology, a science educator in the line of Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould and Lewis Thomas, a keen observer of nature, a connoisseur of art, a passionate Indophile, Dr Ramachandran is also a very compassionate human being with a mind that often glides effortlessly into the realm of knowledge where few before him have dared to tread.

In your childhood you were attracted by many disciplines in a romantic sort of way from archeology to conchology to chemistry. What made you choose neuroscience?

You can hardly see neurological patients without coming face-to-face with some of the most fundamental questions you can ask yourself about what it means to be a human. How does a three pound mass of jelly in your skull contemplate the immensity of space or indeed the meaning of its own existence? What is this ‘self’ within me that claims to have free will and can introspect on itself? So your question should be, “How can anyone not be interested in the brain like you are?"

Francis Crick, one of the greatest biologists of the twentieth century, described your many vision experiments as “ingenious and elegant”’ long before you began working in neurology. Using simple stereoscopes in 1971 to simple illusions on your laptop in 2008, a hallmark Dr V S Ramachandran signature, you have studied the phenomenon of vision with such an abiding interest. What is the reason behind such an interest in vision? Was it sparked by your uncle’s own interest?

My two uncles – Dr Parameswara Hariharan, a world-renowned optics expert, and Dr Alladi Ramakrishnan, founder of the Institute of Mathematical Sciences in Chennai – encouraged my early fascination with human vision. My brother V S Ravi, who is an unparalleled Shakespearean scholar would often recite from the bard and from ‘The Rubaiyat’ – which planted the seeds of a life-long passion. I strongly believe that exposure to poetry by a master, who is passionate about it, can create in you a certain romantic outlook to life in general and scholarship in particular.

The cover of Dr V
S Ramachandran’s Phantoms of the Brain
The cover of Dr V S Ramachandran’s Phantoms of the Brain

Your phantom limb work is considered a milestone in the field and ‘the first amputation of the phantom limb’ is the most popularly known scientific achievement. Can you please tell us more about it?

Well, the first thing we showed in a 30-minute experiment was that if you touch an amputee's face, he feels sensations coming from, in this case, his phantom arm. When the arm is amputated the sensory signals from facial skin invade the adjacent territory corresponding to the missing hand, so when you touch a patient's face he feels it mis-localised to his phantom. It was radical because it showed in the experiment that new functional connections can emerge in an adult brain, spanning inches – something that was widely regarded as impossible.

Photo credit: Beatrice Ring/Rossini Productions
Photo credit: Beatrice Ring/Rossini Productions

So the image of the body is something that can be remapped, something more dynamic than we think…


You have presented slides in your Neurokrish lectures about the statistical evidence of efficacy of the treatment in reducing pain. Can you give us more details of the study on the way mirror box therapy has helped reduce/eliminate pain among patients?

We asked an amputee to put his normal hand on the right side of a mirror and look at its reflection superimposed optically on the location of the phantom left arm. If you now move the normal hand it creates the visual illusion that your phantom hand has been resurrected and is moving. This alleviates pain in about 60 per cent of patients.

Has the mirror feedback therapy been used for other ailments?

Yes. Even for pain in a real limb, not just phantoms. Following a hairline fracture in a finger bone you have pain, swelling, redness, warmth and a temporary pseudo-paralysis or reflex immobilisation to help heal the hand. After a week or two, the fracture heals and all the changes are reversed in a few days. But the bone heals just 2 per cent to 4 per cent but the swelling, inflammation, pain and paralysis persist.

In fact, the swelling spreads to the entire arm, which becomes excruciatingly painful, red and paralysed and the condition lasts for decades. There is no known cure although cutting nerve clusters close to the spinal cord sometimes helps partially. Astonishingly, you can use the mirror to tell the brain the paralysed hand is moving and as a result it actually starts moving on the table even as you watch. And the temperature and skin colour change and swelling subsides in minutes. This is the most striking example of mind-body interactions we know of. The experiment was conducted by Candy McCabe, Peter Halagen, Patrick Wall at Oxford.

Photo credit: Beatrice Ring/Rossini Productions
Photo credit: Beatrice Ring/Rossini Productions

Another example was inspired by the discovery of “mirror neurons". While most cells in the touch map in your brain respond only to your own skin being poked, about 10 per cent will respond to your friend's skin being poked – so long as you are watching. Your brain uses the visual input to create a virtual reality simulation of your friend’s mind. Though you don’t actually feel the poke, you empathise with him. But if your hand is removed you actually feel his pain (this doesn't happen if your hand is intact because signals from it veto the mirror neuron output). So the only thing separating my mind from my friend’s is my skin. Remove it and I start to feel his sensations; dissolving the barrier between me and others. If you have a phantom arm and watch your friend's hand being massaged – you will feel the massage in your phantom hand. And guess what? This phantom massage relieves phantom pain and is starting to be exploited clinically.

The broad implication of all our discoveries put together is that the brain works very differently from a computer; it is not a serial hierarchical bucket – it is a brigade like machine with multiple autonomous hard-wired modules. In my view, the brain is an extraordinarily malleable (plastic) organ with its connections – both within a module and across them being constantly altered in response to ever-changing environmental challenges. Not only are the modules in a state of dynamic equilibrium with the environment but also with each other (mirrors reducing pain) and with the skin and bones (as in reflex sympathetic dystrophy) and indeed with other brains – via mirror neurons. The brain resembles a termite mound or coral reef colony than a computer. Daniel Dennett has made the same termite mound analogy.

This type of "functional" paralysis and excruciating pain is also sometimes seen following stroke and the mirror procedure is especially effective.

Another very interesting mystery you study is synesthesia. You have stated that the overlapping region among halos of associations between two words, which is the basis of metaphor that exists in all of us, but is larger and stronger in synesthesia as a result of cross-activation gene. Is the ability of a poet to look at the world and discover metaphors then another form of synesthesia of a ‘higher’ kind? How has the study of synesthesia helped you in your approach to the neuro-biological dimensions of literary aesthetics?

About 2 per cent of people see ordinary numbers printed in black as being tinged strongly with colours – eg 3 might be red, 5 yellow, 7 indigo etc, which are different for different synesthetes but stable throughout life. The condition is inherited. We – and a few other groups – showed for the first time in a century that the effect is genuine and may involve 'leakage' or cross-activation between brain centres involved in colour and those involved in a number, which are right next to each other.

We suggested that in the foetus all brain modules are ‘hyper-connected’ with each other ‘pruning’ genes and inhibitory transmitters ordinarily evolve these excess connections – leaving behind the segregated modules that characterise the adult brain. But if the gene mutates the result is that modules that normally don’t talk to each other begin to do so. For example, number module is right next to colour module v4 – so numbers stimulate number detecting neurons which cross-activate colour detecting neurons – so numbers look coloured. If the same defective pruning or defective inhibition genes are expressed more widely throughout the brain – and if high level concepts are also represented in far-flung brain regions – the result would be a tendency to link seemingly unrelated concepts – what we call ‘metaphor'. And that explains why synesthesia is seven times more common in poets, artists and creative scientists than in the general population. The hidden agenda of the otherwise useless synesthesia gene is to make some people creative. This smacks of group selection – but that is not what I mean.

And that brings me to your famous eight laws of aesthetics. Can you please speak about it in a more detailed manner?

Well the question is whether in spite of the staggering diversity of artistic styles in the world – are there some universal principles or 'laws' of aesthetics? Sitting in a temple precinct I came up with eight or nine. A simple example is our aesthetic preference for symmetry – whether you are a child playing with a kaleidoscope or a great mogul emperor building a mausoleum to immortalise his wife. This evolved because in the natural world symmetrical things are usually living – prey, predator or mate – and symmetry serves as an ‘early alert system’ that makes you orient and pay attention to something biologically relevant. Obviously paying attention is the bare minimum requirement for art, though hardly sufficient.

A less obvious example is ‘peak shift'. Assume you teach a bird to choose a rectangle, but not a square, to get food reward. Then oddly, if you give the bird a choice between the rectangle it was taught and a longer skinnier one – it picks the latter! This isn't stupid – the bird's brain has learned to go not for a particular rectangle but to ‘rectangularity’ – as a rule. It is a long story, but a Chola artist uses this principle; he mathematically subtracts the average male shape from the average female and amplifies the difference to create a ‘super woman' – the epitome of feminine perfection. There is of course more to perfection than figure – however alluring. Through subtle exaggerations of posture (tribhanga) and mudras or gestures, the artist conveys such ineffable qualities as poise, grace and charm – all that makes a woman special. Or if you want a caricature of Modi you take the average of a hundred male faces, subtract that from Modi and amplify the difference.

For abstract art, I invoke the related "gull chick principle". A baby seagull chick finds and pecks at his mother’s beak to make her regurgitate half – digested food into its gaping mouth. “Beak is mom”. The beak is a long yellow shape with a red spot near the end. Ethologist Nikolaas Tinbergen found that an oblong stick with a red spot at one end will fool the chick’s brain – it is just as effective – because the requirements of neurons are not perfect – a rusty key will open a lock. But the remarkable discovery made was that a long thin stick with three red stripes excites the chicks even more than a real beak. Because of the way neurons are wired up – this odd object hyper activates the neurons though it doesn't resemble a beak. So if gulls had an art gallery they would hang up the long stick, worship it and bid millions at auctions but not understand why because it doesn't resemble anything. And that is exactly what happens when a human art collector or curator encounters a great work of art – a Picasso or Chola bronze – that more optimally titillates your brain than real objects.

The last year was the 1,000th anniversary of Indian aesthetician Abinava Gupta. Indian literary tradition does not have the concept of ‘critic’ but it calls the cultivated reader Sahrdaya meaning 'one of the same heart'. Abhinava Gupta defines the term Sahrdaya as “one whose mirror of heart (manamukura) is cleansed of impurities and has developed the ability to become one with the poet." Does this resonate with the modern theories of neuroaesthetics? With your eight principles, have you opened a new window for us to carry forward the tradition of Abinav Gupta into forging what C P Snow may call third culture?

Yes, he started it all. There is, of course, Sage Bharata’s Natya Shastra from 3rd century BCE. But let me add another key insight. It concerns the difference between what is called high art versus kitsch. (For example, the art that hangs in hotel lobbies and shopping plazas). I’d argue the distinction is not cultural nor based on democratic vote; in fact more people like kitsch until they have been exposed often enough to the real deal. But if it is not vote, what is it that makes non-kitsch “superior“? My criterion is the fact that you can graduate from kitsch and move forward to high art but can't slide backward from high art back to kitsch once you have tasted it. To me this provides clues to unravel the mysteries of art. I shall argue that no matter how many laws of aesthetics you discover and however far our understanding of art continues, unless you can objectively specify the difference between kitsch and non-kitsch – you haven't really understood art.

Are the neural correlates of art experience and religious experience interrelated? Is our religious experiences rooted in our evolutionary biology?

This hasn't been studied, but is probably true. Subtle nuances of emotion can be evoked by visual art as well as by music. Darbari Kanada scale probably evolved from "peak shifts" and gull chick principle applied to separation cries of infants pleading. The angst of separation from parent got morphed – through gull chick effect into the existential angst of separation from God. (Oh, why have you brought me into this world – this vale of tears – and left me alone) and in the descent (But I know all will end well). Or Abheri (world sorrow) compared with Bhairavi (plaintive personal sadness) and Shubhapantuvarali (penance). There may have been a transitional, intonational, right hemisphere ‘language’ without syntax for communicating subtleties of emotions. A public-school educated Englishman can say “really?’ in 11 ways. Or the same sentence “John pushed past Susan to look at the plane through the window?" can convey at least five different nuances of meaning depending on which word you stress. Eg. John pushed Susan? versus “John pushed Susan?” Or "John pushed Susan to look at the plane through the window" etc.

How is it that what you do is not a form of neurobiological reductionism?

Explaining something in terms of interactions of constituent parts doesn't explain it away. If I put electrodes in your lover's brain while you make love and show that her nucleus accumbens and septum are active – that doesn't make her sensation any less "real"; on the contrary it is a proof she isn't faking it.

It has been said you prefer very simple techniques to fancy, expensive technology; Is there a reason?

Poverty forces you to be "ingenious" and resourceful early on in your career plus the history of science tells us the importance of simplicity. The minute you start using fancy technology, there are so many steps from the raw data to the conclusion that there is plenty of scope for unintended massaging of the data. Methodology is important but your research should be concept driven – not methodology driven. Lastly, using sophisticated techniques (especially if computers are involved) lulls you into a false sense of thinking you have done something “scientific". The use of hi-tech is – to quote Peter Medawar – seen, unfortunately, as a sign of intellectual manhood.

The word meme was first introduced by Dr Richard Dawkins in 1976. Soon it even created a related controversial field ‘memetics’, which since then has been abandoned by serious social scientists. However, now with Internet we see memes having become a household word.

The meme is no more than a pun – it rhymes with gene. But it is fundamentally different. As Mendel showed genes are inherited in a quantised manner (independent assortment) and they don't undergo change as they spread. Memes are passed down in a Lamarckian way – through imitation and pedagogy – both horizontally (to peers) and vertically down generations. The spread of genes is lawful and takes several generations; the spread of memes isn’t. The polar bear took a thousand generations to evolve a fur coat by natural selection of genes; a human can watch his mother slay and skin a polar bear and imitate this behaviour to create a meme whose avalanche like propagation takes just a single generation. But its spread is unlawful, chaotic and unpredictable – there are no precise laws of sociology like the laws of Mendelian genetics.

From that insightful diversion into technology, let us return to your research now. You talked about your new area of research interest Calendar agnosia. Can you tell our readers what it is?

Francis Galton in the nineteenth century asked hundreds of people to imagine or visualise the annual calendar in front of them. Most of us conjure up a vague fuzzy rectangular grid parallel to the face. But about one in 50 people has an inherited propensity to literally see (hallucinate) a crystal clear calendar that has a strange shape that is unique to him, like for example, a giant L shape or a hula-hoop going around the chest – with December on the left and July on the right.

The months are clearly marked clockwise in right handers and anti-clockwise in left-handers. No one believed such a syndrome existed or what caused it. My group – including my graduate students David Brang, Chaipat Chunharas, Zeve Marcus and Ed Hubbard – revived interest in it for the first time in over 100 years (as did Seanna Coulson, Stan Dehaene and Brian Butterworth). People were struggling for decades to find out whether the subject literally sees the calendar visually or does he merely see it metaphorically in his mind’s eye – as when you visualise a vague image of your butler while reading this. Various brain imaging studies were done with no clear result. We simply asked the subject to visualise the calendar and rattle off alternate month names backward like for example, October, August, June etc. Whereas normal people take 40 seconds these people visualise the calendar and simply read off the months backward – taking just 15 seconds.

What had remained unsolved for decades was shown in 30 minutes. But we need to see additional subjects before we can be sure. There is a small chance that the result was a statistical fluke – there is variability across subjects in their ability to recite backwards and our two calendar synesthete may have been very good at it (compared to eight normals) simply by chance.

We take our mental calendar for granted but unconsciously use it to navigate through life planning for the future, while being anchored in the present. The left angular gyrus is a tiny structure involved in a disproportionate number of uniquely human skills – arithmetic, naming fingers, knowing right from left, reading, writing etc, and it occurred to me that the idea of a sequence – even if it is in time – is mapped on to the brain spatially because the brain never had time to evolve a look-up table for numbers and sequences and finds it convenient to represent time as space. I was struck by the fact that a band of fibres called the ILF (inferior longitudinal fasciculus) connects the angular gyrus with another brain structure called the hippocampus – which is the brain's GPS system and contains place neurons and grid neurons with signal location in time and space etc. So we proposed that the angular gyrus – ILF –Hippocampus system is the brain's own calendar. We predicted that damage to the angular gyrus or ILF should lead to a new syndrome or sign which we call "Calendar agnosia" – difficulty with sequencing in general but especially calendars. Recently, we found that dyslexic children with minor dysfunction in the angular gyrus did indeed show calendar agnosia!

We here view time as a cycle or spiral and the Western perception of time is linear. Are there cultural elements in the brain construction of the calendar?

Of course; it is crisp and well-defined in Germans and vague in Italians. Another point. When one of our subjects turned her head rightward the hula-hoop calendar remained where it was in front of her chest. But the left side of the calendar became fuzzy and indistinct and memories from those few months became equally fuzzy; the access to memories was being blocked by the direction of gaze. As though she was looking at a real physical calendar dangling in front of her – a striking example of what is called ‘embodied cognition’.

If you had not become a neuroscientist what would you have become?

An archeologist – though I undoubtedly have an over-romanticised version in mind.

So have you ever felt like an archeologist or paleontologist when you delve deep into the mysteries of the brain?

Yes absolutely! The brain is a palimpsest of its evolutionary history – it is full of fossil treasures we can excavate just as an archeologist excavates physical evidence – pottery and weapons – stratified in archeological digs.

So talking about your interest in archeology, despite the rich archeological sites, we find in India an utter disregard for taking care of its cultural legacy in a scientific way. What you think should be the remedy?

Schools should teach our children the romance and excitement of Indian archeology; I bet many more of them have heard of Troy – or worse yet – the eight wives of Henry the Eighth (thanks to the British colonial rule and Macaulay’s agenda) than have heard that S R Rao has actually found the ancient supposedly mythical city of Dwaraka over which Krishna ruled. Unfortunately, because of lack of funding and its potential for misuse by the religious right – few people in India know about it or the tremendous potential for new excavations. But I hesitate to say this; I might be accused of going saffron. But we must not confuse taking pride in the antiquity of our civilisation with religious fundamentalism. After all, here in the West – biblical archeology is a flourishing field – it is neither allied to nor negates Christian fundamentalism.

There is no mystery city buried off the shore from Mahabalipuram, although the tsunami exposed two new temples – glimpses of which in ancient times might have given rise to speculations about ‘seven pagodas’. But even though there is probably no underwater temples, some serious marine archeology needs to be done.

How about an example?

There have been preliminary underwater explorations off Poompuhar hinting at the existence of an ancient ‘city’ but again, it was debunked as myth – as was done with Troy.

Unfortunately, we have to put up with extremes. On the one hand we have Anglophile Indophobes, who don't see any possibility of elements of our epics being true. At the other extreme, many mystically-inclined people un-questioningly accept the mythology of India. They even speak of our ancestors flying luxury planes and using weapons like atom bombs. The more real debates, for example, whether Dwaraka and Poompuhar existed can only be resolved by more excavation – we need private entrepreneurs to step in with funding. The same holds for the bridge between our southern coast and Sri Lanka – the topic is so politically charged that serious scholars avoid it. But the fact that pumice exists in mines nearby suggested to me that the myth might be true – pumice floats on water and could in theory be used to create a floating bridge. So the jury is out. But let me add I know nothing about Indian geology and could be wrong.

Very respected scholars like B B Lal and Badrinarayanan (director generals of archeology and geology in India respectively) have endorsed the idea – cautiously. My worry though is the general lack of interest and curiosity about such matters in India. When I mention it to prominent people during visits to India, I usually elicit a bemused chuckle of embarrassed amusement rather than wonder, and a passion to know the truth. (This is in marked contrast to their curiosity about a former chief minister's private life.)

Perhaps, a better example is Kishkinda – the mythical birth place of Hanuman – which is near Hampi. Stories about Hanuman, Vali and Sugreeva are abound in Hampi, and perhaps could be matched systematically with accounts of different locations and distances etc as described in the legend. If they emerged as local myths and fairy tales from far-flung locations, there would be no incentive for the different accounts to be mutually consistent except in broad outline. Also, one could see if different versions of the stories as described in far-flung hamlets tally up. For example, does the distance between, say, Chirtrakoot and Kishkinda remain constant? Sri Lanka too has been inadequately explored despite the fact that there are so many references to it in Ramayana.

Returning to your career, most people associate you with neurology, but the first decade of your research was on human vision, was it not? Francis Crick of DNA fame once described your experiments as both simple and ingenious. And Nobel laureate, David Hubel, has praised your research, calling it “bold, irreverent, original and ingenious people who are not specialists will be impressed, but so will people who, like me, have spent a lifetime studying the brain”. So why did you switch fields?

Because vision research was becoming over-crowded – It's as simple as that.

Has any of your research been deemed controversial?

Does Einstein’s ‘debate’ with Bohr lead us to conclude that their work was controversial? Any scientist with a career spanning many decades is almost certain to have done some things that at least one or two colleagues regard as unproven. In my own arena, people like Noam Chomsky are sometimes regarded as controversial though no one doubts the solidity of their early work or their genius. Even the theories of Nobel laureates like Francis Crick are sometimes criticised (eg his theory of consciousness). And let us not forget critics of HIV causing AIDs or of global warming – the latter is deemed controversial by our new president.

The general rule is if you have made some solid contributions and established your stature and credibility, people are more ‘forgiving of occasional speculative forays'. My work on stereopsis, motion perception, shading, blind spots, synesthesia, phantom limbs etc, have stood the test of time and partially influenced the development of these fields. However, my speculations on the role of the mirror neuron system in human evolution and autism remain unproven. We also need to bear in mind that –sometimes an idea is useful for a while because it stimulates new inquiry even if it turns out to be wrong in detail. As Sherlock Holmes said to Watson, “I pay careful attention to your writings my dear Watson, because seeing the many flaws in your arguments helps me discover the true solution".

Such might be the case with some new work I have been doing with my former grad student Laura Case. We have been studying an extraordinary condition we call AGI or alternating gender identity. A person with this condition might be anatomically female but mentally switch her internal identity on a weekly basis to male and experience phantom body parts and a desire for cross-dressing. We have done studies showing that they are not merely ‘role playing’ and that the switch might involve a shift from one hemisphere of the brain to the other. Even in all of us, sexuality may fluctuate instead of being fixed; there is an Ardha Nareeswara in all of us. But additional work involving imaging and brain stimulation is needed – at present the evidence is suggestive but not compelling. We postulate that zapping one hemisphere with a paralysing jolt of TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulator) will cause a trans person to switch sex.

The cover of Dr V
S Ramachandran’s<i><b>The Tell-Tale Brain</b></i>
The cover of Dr V S Ramachandran’sThe Tell-Tale Brain

You famously predicted that mirror neurons will do for psychology what DNA did for biology – provide a unifying framework. You also had a chapter on mirror neurons in your The Tell-Tale Brain – the neurons that shaped civilisation. Can you elaborate?

Soon after they were discovered, I postulated that they must be involved in imitation learning – which is nearly immediate – instead of acquiring skills by trial and error (or worse, yet, through natural selection spanning thousands of years). So speaking naively they transform evolution from Darwinian to Lamarckian at least as far as the learning motor skills plus they are involved in empathy which requires taking another person’s visual vantage point. Importantly, they set the stage for ‘theory of mind’ –although this is still controversial.

Mirror neurons may also provide the basis for universal ethics like the golden rule…

Our brains are closely entwined with each other – indeed parasitic on each other.

Let us return to your interest in archeology. What else are your interests?

I am also interested in Indus script. Neurosurgeon Eric Altschuler and I were struck by the similarity between Indus script and the script of Easter Island called Rongorongo. About 20 of the signs are almost identical – but brushed aside as mere coincidence by scholars. I published an essay in the Indian Express suggesting an approach to decipherment. One could use a computer to see if the probability of two signs occurring in tandem is similar across the scripts. The scripts must be related despite being on opposite sides of the planet and separated by four millennia. Unfortunately, there is some evidence that about six of the most convincing examples in De Hevesy were fabricated. Someone should investigate.

Now shall we come to your other interests? You are a man who is so rooted in visual arts as part of your scientific quest. Being the proverbial ‘Chennai boy’ do you also listen to music?

Yes, Carnatic music; depending on my mood – I like either Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer or MDR or Bhimsen Joshi. I once had a conversation with Semmangudi which was published in The Hindu.

I often listen to them before giving a lecture or engaging in some other creative activity. Their creative swaras continue to echo in one’s mind and makes you more creative as well – although these things have not been studied empirically. In Western music, I prefer classical and jazz. And I was recently introduced to karaoke.

You are often quoted as a fan of Sherlock Holmes. And some have even compared your style to him. Why?

His uncanny ability to draw far-reaching conclusions from what most colleagues would regard as trivial or irrelevant.

Now shall we get some characteristic Dr V S Ramachandran quotes?

All philosophy consists of exhuming, unlocking and recanting, what has been done before; and getting surly and riled up about it. (Readers can appreciate the pun: Hume, Locke, Kant, Searle and Ryle are famous philosophers)

Science tells us we are merely beasts but we don't feel like that. We feel like angels trapped inside the bodies of beasts – forever craving transcendence and wanting to spread our wings to fly off. That is the essential human predicament.

Any ape can reach for a banana, but only a human can reach for the stars or even know what that means.

Whether a country is to be called ‘civilised’ or not, depends not on how affluent the upper 10 per cent are, but how well they treat the lower 10 per cent.

Who are some of the real people who have influenced you?

My parents often took me to Sukhumvit road in Bangkok where our forays into Thai, Cambodian and Indian art and antiquities undoubtedly planted the seeds of my interest in archeology and neuro-aesthetics – the brain's response to art. It was my mother who gifted me Bhasham’s book on India, and I became interested in the origins of Indian mathematics.

Photo credit: Beatrice Ring/Rossini Productions
Photo credit: Beatrice Ring/Rossini Productions

It is widely known that India "invented zero" probably in the first millennium BC, but what is less well known is that we simultaneously introduced place value – eg 507 is 5 multiplied by 100 plus zero multiplied by 10 and 7 by 1. Add to this, the Indian invention of base 10 (unlike the cumbersome base 60 of Sumerians), the use of zero as a place holder and the use of nine distinct shapes and you have the birth of mathematics. Einstein has once called the Indian number system "the greatest invention of the human mind". Two eminent physicians Dr Rama Mani and Dr M K Mani urged me to pursue a medical career. In the UK, Richard Gregory, Horace Barlow, Ol Braddick and Colin Blakemore. At CALTECH – John Pettigrew. I might also add Chetan Shah and Seetaram Naidu, with both of whom I've enjoyed long philosophical discussions during my visits to Chennai.

Which of your many honours and awards are you most proud of?

Awards and honours are always welcome but they are the icing on the cake – not the cake itself; the cake is the discovery. If I invent a technique to alleviate pain or visual neglect in a patient after he had suffered from it for months, his smile of gratitude is worth 10 prizes. The same is true when you suddenly have a new insight that has a major impact and changes the whole style of discourse in a field.

I know many a great scientists still waiting for Vashishta to call him a Brahma Rishi. I’d say the invitation to deliver Reith lectures – many of which were given by my boyhood heroes – Russell (who ushered them in), Toynbee, Medawar; and the Henry Dale medal given by the Royal Institution, London. I was also elected an honorary life member by the Royal Institution and a regular member of the Athenaeum club in London.

If there is one book that inspired you into the mysteries of science which one would that be?

I’d have to give you a list – Darwin’s Expression of Emotions; Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles; the writings of Dawkins, Peter Medawar, Richard Gregory, Oliver Sacks and many others.

Already your Phantoms of the Brain and The Tell-Tale Brain have inspired thousands of students, researchers and lay persons. What would you say to popular science writers – particularly for developing post-colonised countries like India?

Emphasise the detective like (Sherlock Holmes) nature of science. Write passionately because passion is contagious. Explain the aesthetic dimensions of science and stick to the drama of science itself not the toys that can be manufactured using science. Indian colleges and schools produce excellent engineers (both hardware and software) and physicians, but for a country to claim that it’s civilised it needs "pure" science, poetry, art and pure mathematics as well not more and more engineers and doctors. Newspaper editors need to recognise this.

What advice would you give to young scientists?

Read widely; read history of science; hang around with people who are passionate; avoid nay-sayers and bores. Aldous Huxley said: “Bores are the greatest enemy of civilisation; and academic bores are the worst”. Listen to TED. Read EDGE website and world web of stories.

If you are asked reasons why we should learn history what shall be your answer?

It helps you put your research in proper historical context. You can see the thread of continuity from the little experiment you are currently doing to events dating back a hundred years allowing you to feel you are part of a grand majestic journey. Second, you can learn from the masters assimilating their style from watching them think and work as documented in written histories.

Do you enjoy working at UCSD?

It has become a Mecca for neuroscience. It has been ranked number one in the US in neuroscience as a whole by the US National Research Council. That is just UCSD and if you include Salk and Scripps you have a higher concentration of eminent neuroscientists than anywhere in the world. Science is unparalleled, but what we lack here in La Jolla and San Diego is the cultural sophistication and antiquity of India especially Mylapore.

What are the things we can learn from the US education system and what pitfalls we can avoid?

I straddle two worlds. I moved to Cambridge soon after medical school. Research isn’t encouraged in Indian universities except in elite institutions like the IITs, NCBIR, Pune TIFR, CCMB etc. Conversely, what is lacking in the West is a deep sense of sanctity and perpetual enchantment. I don’t mean anything supernatural I mean a poetic view of the world where simple things like gently touching your eyes with a book you have accidentally stepped on – is an act of apology and reverence for knowledge whereas a westerner watching this would call it superstition rather than an apology to Saraswati.

Edward Said coined the term orientalism to refer to the Victorian tendency to over-romanticise the East. Yet, India is an enchanted land of dreams. In fact, I’d go even further and say that we need India to re-enchant the world without resorting to religious dogma. Perhaps there are two kinds of orientalism – the ‘tourist’ kind (curry, holy cows, snake charmers), which is superficial but harmless if done playfully, and the more serious and lofty version (one might say the William Jones version of India rather than the Kipling version). The surrealism of Kalidasa’s Shakuntala or mysticism of Rabindranath Tagore's and Tyagaraja’s poems should echo through the minds of Indians, whether adults, or schoolchildren. What India needs now is a reincarnation of visionaries like William Jones and Tagore. Or Princep, who deciphered ancient Indian scripts, or Heinrich Zimmer (mythology) Max Mueller or Ananda Coomaraswami and Kapila Vatsyayana (art). A group of us including Professor S Swaminathan, R Gopu and Badri is in the process of reviving Jones’ Asiatic Society of India, perhaps with a slightly different name. We have already had some organisational meetings.

What we don’t need is chain-smoking anglophile café – intellectuals in our own country who bash Indian culture and tradition – or have a cultivated indifference to it – confusing it with certain political movements. We shouldn’t be “our own worst enemies” as the saying goes. It is still a sad and astonishing fact that the average Indian high school or undergraduate student cannot quote a line from Kalidasa or Tagore but quotes Churchill – a portly philistine politician – who sometimes made witty remarks and gave good speeches (I hope I don't have to endure “we shall fight them on the beaches etc” for the hundredth time) but has made no lasting contribution to human civilisation. As for cultural sophistication, one need only compare him with Jawaharlal Nehru or S Radhakrishnan.

There are two aspects of India that make it unique even among ancient civilisation; both of which need to be celebrated and preserved for posterity. First, it is the only country whose present customs, values and religious practices can claim a direct, uninterrupted lineage from what existed four millennia ago. The West has its mythology of course – especially Greek mythology and so did Egypt. But no one worships Zeus any more nor are there temples to Athena. (Nor do Egyptians worship Ra) Why is this so important? It is important because our traditions and culture are 90 per cent of what we call “human nature”; they are what make human beings the most successful creatures on the planet. Without them our behaviour is little different from Homo erectus. Here, I would like to emphasise the role of mirror neurons, which we have discussed earlier. Mirror neurons have been uniquely retooled in the human brain, becoming more sophisticated in computational power and been more widely connected in us than in other apes – so as to allow learning of new skills by imitation which was vital for the dissemination of new skills – critical for culture. I would add though that this is only one of many reasons for the accelerated pace of gene-culture co-evolution in humans.

Second, here in the West each of the separate strands of civilisation such as music, visual art, mythology, religion are supremely sophisticated but often pursued in isolation from others. Walk out of my home in Chennai and walk to the Kapaliswaran Shiva temple two miles away – whose foundations were laid 2,000 years ago. The taxi driver’s name is Ganapath and when you enter the temple precincts you see a group of teenagers reciting the Vedas in Sanskrit as they have been doing for 4,000 years.

Inside the inner sanctum are sculptures of Shiva – a deity depicted in Harappan seals (3000 BCE) – surrounded by worshippers chanting hymns in Sanskrit which are older and closer to the root language than Latin and Greek – its grammar set down by Panini three centuries before Christ. A hundred yards away a man is dancing to a song about Ganapathi’s brother – the warrior God Skanda. The dance form – Bharata Natya was invented by Sage Bharata in the 3rd century BC.

Unlike the West, all these different aspects of life and culture are in pleasing and harmonious resonance, and are integrated into one’s daily life routines.

Photo credit: Beatrice Ring/Rossini Productions
Photo credit: Beatrice Ring/Rossini Productions

As we walk out of the temple we pass through lanes full of vendors selling jasmine and rose garlands and vibhuti (sacred ash) as they have been doing so for a millennium. Dr Ramachandran betrays a boy like enthusiasm and I notice around his neck a chain with a Krishna pendant in it – the cowherd avatar, who is both a playful boy and a man of wisdom.

We then turn a corner and see a shop specialising in Gucci handbags and watches – confronting us with the stark contrast between ancient and modern India. People move past us. I want to tell them, particularly the children that the person who walks there admiring the ancient traditional temple tank and the street vendors, is both a visionary searching for truth and a superstar in his own might. I silently wish one day his name becomes a household name in India inspiring future generations to explore science and art, and usher humanity into the third culture – or even the fourth one – which in addition to bridging arts and sciences – is also spiritual in the true sense of the term.

Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.

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