28 June 2010, 4.30 PM
Professor Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, University of California, San Diego and the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences
How does the brain create mind?
What is the genesis of the way in which humans think?
How do we explain our propensity for metaphor, creativity and abstraction?
The traditional view is that perceptual processes are generally unstable in early childhood, and are rendered more useful by interacting with the environment. Prior to birth, the brain generates “test signals” which allow gross functional separation into separate sensory areas, but which still allow significant interactions between such areas. Postnatally, such interactions are reduced but not always to zero.
In the 19th Century, Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, identified that some people who are otherwise perfectly normal have a certain peculiarity in that every time they hear a specific tone they experience a specific colour. For example, C sharp might be red, and F sharp might be blue. They may also see black and white letters or numbers printed on a page in particular colours. This phenomenon is called synaesthesia and has been much studied recently since it involves apparently surprising interactions between very different sensory signals and modalities.
Professor Ramachandran argues that this oddity is a result of more prevalent processes of a kind that exist in early life, and that may lie at the centre of the way in which the brain develops complex representations which depend on associations that may not correspond to normal reality.
An example is metaphors - they are indicative of a way of thinking which is richer than a simple set of rules about how objects look and interact. Another example is the richness of expressive art, in which the artist injects the kind of complexity that is predicated by synaesthetic processes. Thus, the richness of our thinking may be a result of the way in which perceptual signals are handled by our brains during development.
This ability for cross-modal abstraction may have propelled the emergence of culture (through imitation) and civilization.
Professor Ramachandran is an exceptionally distinguished neurologist. He is also a renowned lecturer and delivered the BBC Reith Lectures in 2003. He is Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition and Professor with the Psychology Department and Neurosciences Program at the University of California, San Diego, and Adjunct Professor of Biology at the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences. Ramachandran initially trained as a doctor and subsequently obtained a Ph.D. from Trinity College at the University of Cambridge. Ramachandran’s early work was on visual perception but he is best known for his experiments in behavioural neurology which, despite their apparent simplicity, have had a profound impact on the way we think about the brain. He has been called “The Marco Polo of neuroscience” by Richard Dawkins and “The modern Paul Broca” by Eric Kandel.