What Makes us Human? The Story of a Curious Researcher and His Quest for Answers in Weirdest Places

May 23, 11 What Makes us Human? The Story of a Curious Researcher and His Quest for Answers in Weirdest Places

Posted by in Books, Neuroscience, Videos

Vilayanur Subramanian “Rama” Ramachandran is a remarkable man. A neuroscientist and professor at the University of California, San Diego, Ramachandran is also a very curious man. He is curious about what truly makes us human. He devoted his career to answering questions such as: What is consciousness? Where did language come from? What is introspection? Why do we all have a unitary perception of beauty? and the list could go on. In order to find answers to all these questions, Ramachandran turned to illness. And not to any illness. He studied some of the weirdest neurological syndromes in the world – people with Capgras syndrome (who believe their mother is some look-alike robot) or with Cotard syndrome (who believe they are dead); he studied people with “phantom limbs” (having pain in their non-existent amputated limbs) as well as people who had out of body experiences. He looked for answers in the depths of illness and wrote several books about his amazing journey. The latest one, definitely worth reading, is The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes US Human. The book is filled with countless fascinating case studies and Rama’s conclusions are, more often than not, surprising and counter-intuitive. If you don’t have time to read it all, you can at least read a great review of this book here. Ramachandran shows, once more, that our brain is like a treasure chest filled with the most amazing secrets. It’s hard to believe that one can ever grow tired exploring its mysteries. Here is his great speech at TED, where he gives us a glimpse into his fascinating research. I hope you’ll enjoy as much as I...

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Can the Brain Explain Your Mind? by Colin McGinn | The New York Review of Books

Mar 04, 11 Can the Brain Explain Your Mind? by Colin McGinn | The New York Review of Books

Posted by in Books, Neuroscience

Can the Brain Explain Your Mind? by Colin McGinn | The New York Review of Books. Colin McGinn makes an excellent review of V.S. Ramachandran’s book – The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human. Here is an excerpt of his review in The New York Review of Books. I hope it will convince you that neurology is truly fascinating and worthwhile for us, non-scientists too, since it opens a gate into the amazing workings of our own minds. “Is studying the brain a good way to understand the mind? Does psychology stand to brain anatomy as physiology stands to body anatomy? In the case of the body, physiological functions—walking, breathing, digesting, reproducing, and so on—are closely mapped onto discrete bodily organs, and it would be misguided to study such functions independently of the bodily anatomy that implements them. If you want to understand what walking is, you should take a look at the legs, since walking is what legs do. Is it likewise true that if you want to understand thinking you should look at the parts of the brain responsible for thinking? Is thinking what the brain does in the way that walking is what the body does? V.S. Ramachandran, director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California, San Diego, thinks the answer is definitely yes. He is a brain psychologist: he scrutinizes the underlying anatomy of the brain to understand the manifest process of the mind. He approvingly quotes Freud’s remark “Anatomy is destiny”—only he means brain anatomy, not the anatomy of the rest of the...

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Traditional Learning is Dead. Long Live Brain-Friendly Learning!

The idea for this post came to me after a recent discussion with a group of participants in one of my workshops. It all happened last week, when I facilitated a “Communication Skills” workshop for a group of professionals in the financial field. The course was a mixture of behavioral science, sales techniques and presentation skills, aimed at giving attendants the tools and techniques to successfully sell their ideas to a group of  clients. I quickly found that my participants were  particularly concerned  with the “presentation skills” part of the seminar, because speaking in public and getting their message across to a group of potentially reluctant customers was a major source of worry for them. They all had sat through too many mind-numbing presentations in their lifetime, and the last thing they wanted was to take the place of those nightmarish presenters that had wasted countless precious hours of their time and whose ideas they had forgotten 5 minutes after the presentation  finished. Together, we tried to answer a few thorny questions: How do you get people’s attention? Even more importantly, how do you keep that attention? And, to top it off, how do you get them to remember your message and differentiate yourself from a host of other presenters whose messages compete with yours to get a prime spot in your clients’ memories? These questions led us to a very interesting discussion about how our brains process information and how far most presenters, public speakers and teachers are from delivering brain-friendly presentations that we may enjoy, remember and act on afterward. The principles by which our brain processes information are wonderfully synthesized  by John Medina in his book, “Brain Rules“, where he talks about discoveries that have started to revolutionize the way we teach or present our ideas to others. To mention just a few: The brain likes to learn through stories and metaphors rather than abstract concepts Our brains like stories more than anything. It’s not by chance that, as children, we...

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If you can’t move the mountain, then climb it out of your way!

  A friend told me this today, and I didn’t get it at first. But then I understood and it dawned on me that he was right – when you’ve tried all the usual approaches to solve a problem and it seems without exit, then maybe it’s time for some lateral thinking. What is lateral thinking and how can we benefit from it? Well it’s about creativity, out-of-the box ideas and novel solutions. Something highly valued in today’s world, where increasing uncertainty calls for proportionately increased amounts of lateral thinking. However, this concept is as elusive as it is seductive. The more we try to apply it, the more it escapes us. Surely all of us have experienced in our lives the equivalent of a writer’s block . With the same frustration as the writer who chases that novel idea that seems never to come, we have moments when we feel trapped by our apparently unsolvable life problems. And since I’m no stranger to this state of mind, I’ve tried to get a glimpse into the science of it. Neuroscience comes with some interesting explanations for this phenomenon. In his book, Iconoclast, neuroscientist Gregory Berns explores the ways in which our brain sabotages us when we try to find our way out of a difficult situation by using lateral, instead of vertical thinking. The brain is an energy consuming machine, and a very efficient one too. Our neural networks are built in such a way as to minimize energy consumption for any cognitive task. This is why, after the initial period of learning some new skill, when the brain works hard to accumulate new information and neural activity is at its peak, we start finding it easier and easier to access the information – think of learning a new language and then practicing it extensively, or of learning how to drive. After enough repetition, we start going on auto-pilot – did you ever get home using a familiar route and not even know how...

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