Mysteries of the brain

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

PENETRATING STUDIES CARRIED out so far suggest conclusively that the human brain is the most unexplored and mystifying territory which would baffle scientists for quite a long time yet. Dr. V. S. Ramachandran, Professor and Director of the Centre for Brain and Cognition at the University of California, Santiago, in his recent presentation of the subject at the Apollo Hospitals gave some tantalising glimpses of the ways in which the brain behaves and responds for dictating behaviour and which he has dealt with in absorbing detail in his Phantoms in the Brainwith his co- author, Sandra Blakeslee. The picture which emerges is of a mocking, teasing presence inside the human head submitting itself to the exacting demands of Einsteins on the one hand and remaining hopelessly beyond the reach of morons on the other. If, as Dr. Ramachandran has pointed out, India's achievements have ranged from the realistic to the abstract, it is an indication of the powers locked up in the brain which could throw up glittering images of the cosmic dance of Shiva brought to life in sculptures.
The diverse creativity of the human brain has enriched the world with discoveries spread from that of the Copernican theory which replaced Earth and the planets by Sun as the centre of the universe much to the indignation of the Roman Catholic Church to the Theory of Relativity. It had led to the flight of imagination in the plays of Shakespeare to the writings of Boris Pasternak who had kept alive the longing for freedom in the Soviet Union even while remaining silent for nearly twenty years. However, it could go haywire and throw up hallucinations which are ``more real than reality''. A great deal which yet remains to be known about the brain is about its right and left ``hemispheres'' with the former having a much broader ``searchlight'' than the latter. While the left hemisphere is concerned with speech, language and semantics, the right is projected by Dr.Ramachandran as the ``intellectual'' half for taking care of the ``more subtle aspects of language, such as nuances of metaphor, allegory and ambiguity''. Any damage to either of the hemispheres could affect proper brain coordination which would look strange and despairing to a normal person. Among the lessons which are taught in elementary physics is that the image in a mirror is ``as far away from the mirror as the object is in front of it''. Dr. Ramachandran mentions the case of mentally ill patients who take this description literally and try to reach the image on the other side of the mirror as the result of the inability to distinguish the real object from its image. It is an instance of a brain suffering from a disturbance to its intricately placed perceptions.
Among the oft-mentioned instances of the strange manifestations of the brain is the still very little understood mathematical genius of Srinivasa Ramanujan. The world would never have known him but for the equations mailed to the Cambridge mathematician G.H. Hardy who was initially inclined to dismiss them as the scribblings of a ``crackpot''. It was perhaps another case of the brain taking over at the right time when Hardy thought again of the equations and saw that no one else except Ramanujan had the imagination so far to think about them. The equations which could well have remained as just the jottings on a piece of paper as they might have to most were coming alive to Hardy to put him on a trail blazed by Ramanujan. If the brain is a teaser, it could be because it is very demanding on the geniuses who have blazed and would continue to blaze new trails in their chosen disciplines. The brain which intrigued the caveman with images on the wall thrown up by the sunlight continues to tease today's cosmonauts with the beckoning, expanding space. The real wonder here, however, is the brain which comprehends it all.


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