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

FreeView from the editors at i

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SEN (SLD/PMLD) Teacher

£120 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you a quailed Teacher ...

General Cover Teacher

£120 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Luton: Currently looking for teachers ...

SEN Teaching Assistant Runcorn

£50 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: SEN Teaching Assistant EBD , Septemb...

QA/BA - Agile

£400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client are currently seekin...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Theresa May doesn’t get it - banning ideas we don’t like is to suggest that we are frightened of them

Mike Harris
David Cameron gives his keynote speech to the Conservative party conference in Birmingham  

Conservative Party Conference: Here's what David Cameron said in his speech…and what he meant

John Rentoul
Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Why do we like making lists?

Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

Paris Fashion Week

Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
10 best children's nightwear

10 best children's nightwear

Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

Manchester City vs Roma

Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

Trouble on the Tyne

Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?