What Neurology Can Tell Us about Human Nature
October 15, 2009. Louis Clark Vanuxem Lecture
Studies of neurological patients can provide insight into the workings of the brain and suggest new treatments. The first section of the lecture will focus on phantom limbs as a key to understanding brain functions. We show that far from having fixed connections, even the basic “wiring ” of the brain is constantly being modified in response to changing sensory inputs. This has theoretical implications as well as practical implications for recovery of function from stroke, phantom pain, and RSD and has ushered in a new era for treating neurological diseases. The second part of the talk will be about synesthesia, an inherited condition in which sounds and printed numbers are seen as colored. We show its neural basis and suggest it might provide clues to understanding high-level brain functions, such as metaphor and abstraction, that make human brains unique.
V.S. Ramachandran is director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California, San Diego, and adjunct professor of biology at the Salk Institute. Initially trained as a physician, Dr. Ramachandran switched to research very early in his career, obtaining a a Ph.D. from Trinity College at the University of Cambridge. He has pursued two parallel careers, one in human vision and the other in behavioral neurology. He is best known for his experiments, some of which, despite their simplicity, have had far-reaching impact on the field. Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins has called him the Marco Polo of neuroscience, and Nobel laureate Eric Kandel refers to him as “The modern Paul Broca.” His work is featured frequently in the major news media. Newsweek magazine recently included him among the “hundred most prominent people to watch in the next century.”