Detective Rama: Sleuthing in the Human Mind and Brain

By Inga Kiderra

"You know my method, Watson. It is founded upon the observation of trifles." - Sherlock Holmes

V .S. Ramachandran has been hooked on science since he was 11, when as the lonely and socially awkward son of a United Nations engineer he sought solace in curious collections, anatomical speculations and experiments that ranged from bang-up mixes of chemicals to attempts at charming ants with saccharine.

Today, a world-renowned author and neurologist, Ramachandran keeps offices that are a visual echo of the schoolboy pursuits he calls "Victorian in inspiration": There's the statue of a curvy Indian goddess. A specimen of the world's largest nut. Brains in a jar. Slippers on a shelf. And a computer desktop that is so packed with files, it's a kind of virtual decoupage or digital honeycomb.

His scientific method springs from the same soil. Like a latter-day P.T. Barnum, Ramachandran -- director of the Center for Brain and Cognition and professor of psychology and neurosciences at UCSD -- is fascinated by the unusual. Amputees with phantom limbs. Paralytics in denial. Brain-damaged individuals who ignore the left side of the world or persist in the stubborn belief that they're dead or maintain their mothers are impostors.

Only for Ramachandran these are no sideshow freaks. Rather, they are the keys to unlocking the human brain, subjects he credits with teaching him far more about behavioral neurology than his esteemed colleagues ever could.

His basic premise is to investigate specific dysfunctions of the brain -- behavioral anomalies and curiosities arising from injury localized to specific portions of the brain, such as the fusiform gyrus, say, or the right parietal lobe -- to arrive at a portrait of the organ secreted away inside our skulls.

"This is," he says, "a recurring theme in my research -- the use of seemingly bizarre oddities of neurology and psychiatry to reveal the hidden workings of the normal brain."

If the human brain is a mystery, Rama (as he's familiarly known) is its enterprising detective, one who absolutely delights in "playing Sherlock," like the famous sleuth often finding clues from even the smallest and most remote possibilities.

After training as a physician at the Stanley Medical College in his native Madras, India, Ramachandan went on to earn a doctoral degree from Trinity College at the University of Cambridge. He spent the first 15 years of his career on the study of human vision, before turning to his "first love," behavioral neurology.

He can think of at least two reasons for making the switch: "First, in neurology it is still possible to do low-tech research starting from first principles and come up with surprising answers to important questions. Second, as human beings there is nothing more fascinating to us than ourselves, and neurology is a discipline that takes us right to the heart of the question of who we are."

That is, to Ramachandran, behavioral neurology is simply fun.

"Our knowledge of neuroscience is like Victorian physics or even more primitive than that," he says, and that's what makes it enjoyable.

"Science is most fun when it is still in its infancy, when its practitioners are still driven by curiosity and it hasn't become 'professionalized' into just another nine-to-five job," he says.

Playful detective and enthusiast, Ramachandran is a consummate showman too. He rolls his rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrs with improbable vim, gesticulates with infectious vigor and liberally spices his speech with humor -- whether to an audience of one over a favorite drink of hot cocoa or to a crowd.

In his most recent book, A Brief Tour Human of Consciousness: From Impostor Poodles to Purple Numbers -- based on the prestigious BBC Reith Lectures Ramachandran delivered in 2003 -- Ramachandran tells clinical tales, describing in entertaining detail unusual syndromes that have led him and his team to important insights.

As much as he enjoys playing detective, Ramachandran also relishes the role of Gadfly.

He gets under the skins of art historians with his "neuro-aesthetics" -- wherein he proposes brain-based, universal laws of art -- and he treads on a few philosophers' toes with discussions of "What is consciousness?"

Sure to provoke, Ramachandran is currently engaged in testing another age-old bugaboo: "Can we think without language?"

Yet for all his delight in the strange, Rama will not follow all subjects arcane and outlandish down a rabbit hole.

Asked at a UCSD book-signing about psychokinesis, he waved it away: "That's all rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrubbish."

Rama is notoriously good at picking out the productively bizarre from the wacko. And perhaps that is why Newsweek magazine named him a member of its Century Club, "one of the 100 most prominent people to watch" in the 21st century

Further reading about some of Ramachandran's recent research:

- on the brain's ability to process metaphors
- on mirror neurons and autism
- on synesthesia