A short review of The Man Who Mistook His Wife’s Head for a Hat, a survey of mental issues covering a broad range of weird and wonderful maladies that provide key insights into the workings of the human mind and the composition of the psyche.
In recent years the media enjoyed regaling us with the search for the Higgs boson, but I’m sure many people wondered what was so special about Mr Higg’s boson that we should all be so interested in him finding it again, let alone curious about how he lost it in the first place. Postulate a new thesis or make a new discovery and you’re liable to have your name enter the vernacular. Found a company associated with a new invention, and the name may even become standard for the innovation. Yet at what point does it all stop being yours? We all learn about Newton’s laws of gravitation in the classroom, whilst some go on to read up on Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Archimedes’ buoyancy principle, Kepler’s laws of planetary motion – it all seems so predictable, until it comes unstuck with the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. Not the laws of physics, the laws of English.
In Phantoms in the Brain, V. S. Ramachandran has attempted to emulate the forebears he cites in the Preface, who inspired him to write science that is both informative and interesting to the general reading public. In this he has certainly succeeded, his style is highly approachable, and the content not only comprises interesting titbits, but wholly thought-provoking suggestions and analyses. I picked up Phantoms in the Brain on the basis of a recommendation from a friend more involved in the scientific fold than I am, yet found the book to be readily accessible to these with even only a meagre understanding of the way our brains function.
The book is for the most part concerned with the fundamental inner workings of the brain revealed to us through curiously specific medical conditions, often brought about by severe physical traumas such as strokes. Some of the findings are, perhaps, fairly well known by now, yet I’ve no doubt that many will still be quite shocking to most readers. However, Ramachandran keeps the presentation of both old and new findings fresh, in his natural inquisitive approach to each individual problem. His curiosity and novel attitude in dealing with many of these strange rarities of medical science at times remind one of the naïve questioning of a young child, who by approaching problems from altogether unexpected angles can come up with profound thoughts and solutions that would not normally strike an adult.