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Phantoms in the Brain summary

V. S. Ramachandran and Sandra Blakeslee

Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind

4.5 (190 ratings)
24 mins

Brief summary

"Phantoms in the Brain" by V.S. Ramachandran and Sandra Blakeslee is a fascinating journey through the human brain, exploring the mysteries of perception, consciousness, and reality. It delves into the incredible stories of patients with bizarre neurological disorders, providing insights into the workings of the mind.

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    Phantoms in the Brain
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    Neurological disorders offer insight into the functions of each part of the brain.

    Let’s begin with a thought experiment. Imagine a sort of futuristic helmet with a bunch of wires sticking out of it. When you place it on your head, it fires a powerful magnetic field onto a very small cluster of neurons in your brain – allowing you to activate any part of your brain at will. Actually, this isn’t science fiction. It is a real device called a transcranial magnetic stimulator.

    So, let’s say you had access to one of these helmets. Which parts of the brain would you stimulate?

    You could, for example, stimulate parts of the motor cortex to make your muscles twitch and flex of their own accord. Or you could stimulate the septum to induce pleasure more intense than the most exquisite orgasm. If you’re blind, you could even stimulate the visual cortex to experience what the sighted describe as “color.”

    The key message here is: Neurological disorders offer insight into the functions of each part of the brain.

    The point is, whatever part of the brain you chose to stimulate, you’d experience something different. And that’s because the various parts of the brain each have a different purpose.

    For example, despite their symmetry, we now know that the left and right hemispheres of the brain are radically specialized for distinct tasks.

    The left hemisphere is responsible for, among other things, most aspects of language formation – from the comprehension of meaning to the actual production of sounds. By contrast, the right hemisphere is relatively ineloquent, although it is involved in the more creative aspects of language like nuance and allegory.

    Unfortunately, many discoveries about the functions of parts of the brain were only made after something went terribly wrong. For example, the reason we know that the hippocampus plays an essential role in the formation of new memories is that doctors, as a last resort, once decided to surgically remove the tiny, seahorse-shaped structure from an epileptic patient’s brain. After the operation, the patient was no longer capable of forming new memories, although he remembered everything that had happened prior to surgery.

    This tragedy resulted in an important discovery – and doctors treat the hippocampus with much more respect because of it. Obviously, experimental surgery that disables patients in the process is far from an ethical research methodology. 

    That’s why neuroscientists study neurological disorders; they afford an opportunity to examine unique brains without causing any damage.

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    What is Phantoms in the Brain about?

    Phantoms in the Brain (1998) is an enduring classic of popular science that has transformed how we think about the brain and its relationship to the human experience. Drawing on the author’s clinical practice, it presents a series of patients with rare and astonishing neurological conditions. These case studies illuminate the architecture of our brains and, in the process, cast fresh light on timeless philosophical questions regarding the nature of consciousness, identity, and reality itself.

    Phantoms in the Brain Review

    Phantoms in the Brain (1998) explores the mysteries of the human brain and the fascinating world of neuroscience. Here's why this book is definitely worth a read:

    • With compelling case studies and mind-blowing examples, it provides a unique glimpse into the complexities of the brain, leaving readers awe-inspired.
    • This book delves into the intriguing phenomenon of phantom limbs and other neurological disorders, shedding light on the wonders and intricacies of our own minds.
    • Through the lens of V.S. Ramachandran's groundbreaking research, it offers profound insights into the nature of perception and consciousness, challenging our understanding of reality itself.

    Who should read Phantoms in the Brain?

    • Aficionados of strange and extraordinary tales
    • Perennial learners looking for an accessible introduction to neurology
    • Anyone who wants insight into how the mind works

    About the Author

    S. Ramachandran is an internationally renowned neuroscientist and brain researcher. A professor at the University of California, San Diego, he’s notable for being the inventor of mirror therapy, developed to help treat amputees who suffer from phantom limb pain. Ramachandran is also the author of three other popular science books including The Tell-Tale Brain.

    Sandra Blakeslee is an award-winning science writer for the New York Times who specializes in neuroscience. She’s the coauthor of two other books, The Good Marriage and the national best seller Second Chances.

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    Phantoms in the Brain FAQs 

    What is the main message of Phantoms in the Brain?

    Phantoms in the Brain uncovers the mysteries of the human brain, showcasing its incredible adaptability and resilience.

    How long does it take to read Phantoms in the Brain?

    The reading time for Phantoms in the Brain varies, but the Blinkist summary can be read in just 15 minutes.

    Is Phantoms in the Brain a good book? Is it worth reading?

    Phantoms in the Brain is a fascinating exploration of the mind, providing unique insights into the brain's complexity.

    Who is the author of Phantoms in the Brain?

    The authors of Phantoms in the Brain are V. S. Ramachandran and Sandra Blakeslee.

    What to read after Phantoms in the Brain?

    If you're wondering what to read next after Phantoms in the Brain, here are some recommendations we suggest:
    • The Brain by David Eagleman
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    • Activate Your Brain by Scott G. Halford
    • Deviate by Beau Lotto
    • The Brain’s Way of Healing by Norman Doidge
    • Descartes’ Error by Antonio Damasio
    • Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari
    • The Conscious Mind by David J. Chalmers
    • On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin
    • The Little Book of Stoicism by Jonas Salzgeber