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Phantoms In The Brain Essay

1069 words - 4 pages

The brain is known as the “final frontier” of science; the nut that is toughest to crack but contains a vast wealth of information, a veritable treasure trove of knowledge that can enrich our understanding of human nature. One of the ways that neuroscientists study the brain is through case studies of what happens when the brain malfunctions – what happens to make the brain operate incorrectly, can we pinpoint the anomalies, and can we correlate neural anomalies to physiological problems. In his book “Phantoms in the Brain”, V.S. Ramachandran takes aim at a particular section of neural problems – phantom limbs – but explores them through the broader scope of neurobiology. In doing so, he provides a comprehensive assessment of reality – its factors, reasons, and inconsistencies, providing the reader with not only an interesting case study in neurobiology but also an altered perception and strengthened understanding of the nature of the self.
Ramachandran begins by directing the reader to the source of phantom limb sensations – the brain, rather than the previous explanation for these sensations, the nerve endings. Within the brain, he isolates and explains the homunculus in great detail, as this is his foundation for the rest of the book. The correlation between phantom limbs and the homunculus is the idea that neural remapping can occur. Ramachandran tests this theory with a neuroimaging technique known as magnetoencephalography (MEG), and uses it to image the brains of arm amputees -- finding that there is significant remapping (31). The key idea put forth in the beginning of the book is that neurons can shift roles – based on injuries and the actions of adjacent neurons -- and he approaches the study of phantom limb sensations with this axiomatic belief.
After establishing that there is a preset physical system by which the brain controls the body, Ramachandran argues for a preset ‘body image’ system. Your body has preset ideas about the effects of certain commands. For instance, when you clench your fist and dig your fingernails into your palm, Ramachandran believes that your body has memories about the sensation caused by this action stored inside your brain. Normally, your brain depends on sensory feedback loops in order to tell you to stop hurting yourself. However, if the feedback loops are eliminated, (nothing is left to tell your brain that you are not in pain) then your brain draws on the closest thing it has to a sensory feedback loop – the memory of a sensory feedback loop, which tells your brain that you are in pain and to stop clenching your fist. Due to the loss of a limb, your fist cannot be unclenched, and your brain continues believing that you are in pain, since there is no sensory input to tell you otherwise. Ramachandran’s revolutionary argument in this section is that pain is largely an illusion – and this illusion can be messed with through tricking the mind. One mechanism of tricking the mind’s innate...

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