Amol Rajan: We are only now discovering the secrets of the soul

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The Independent Online

I have just finished a book whose implications may be profounder than that of any book I have ever read by someone still alive.

We are living, as this column has laboured to make clear, through an Age of Research. More research of an exceptionally high quality is being carried out today than ever before. This is true in most intellectual disciplines – but none more so than science. And within the sciences, the field where the most thrilling, paradigm-altering work is going on is neuroscience. And within neuroscience, a giant is bestriding the globe. His name is V S Ramachandran.

In The Tell-Tale Brain, Ramachandran explains how rather than being a form of madness, many types of eccentric behaviour tell us remarkable things about the working of the brain. The most celebrated example is that of phantom limbs.

Ninety per cent of amputees experience "pain" in limbs that no longer exist. For centuries, doctors didn't know what to make of this, but suspected nerve endings to be at fault. Ramachandran devised a very simple experiment in which, with the aid of mirror, he convinced a patient that he was able to move the non-existent limb. The patient felt a sudden loss of pain. In a celebrated phrase, Ramachandran declared "the first example in medical history of the amputation of a phantom limb".

Many of his experiments are marked by this low-tech, holistic approach. Over the course of nearly 40 years, he has irreversibly altered our understanding of conditions as varied as schizophrenia and synesthesia. That may be why Richard Dawkins calls him "a latterday Marco Polo, journeying the Silk Road of science to strange and exotic Cathays of the mind".

But why should the work of this particularly brilliant Tamil scholar be of such importance? Because of the status of neuroscience.

It is true that many of the biggest questions in cosmology – such as what happened before the moment of singularity that preceded the Big Bang – are unanswered. But in few areas of science is our understanding more neophyte than with the brain. We have made only small steps on a very long journey. At the same time, the implications of recent discoveries profoundly challenge our basic understanding of such things as consciousness, the relationship between mind and body, the sources of human motivation, and the biology of virtue. Ramachandran in fact has a better answer than any man living to the question: what is the soul?

For that, and for the clarity of its prose, I can't think of any book I could recommend as highly as this masterpiece.