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Published on Jan 28, 2012
Richard Dawkins once wrote: "Ramachandran is a latterday Marco Polo, journeying the Silk Road of science to strange and exotic Cathays of the mind." Such is his reputation for pushing back the boundaries of neuroscience that Newsweek magazine identified him among the "100 most prominent people to watch" in the 21st century.
The former Cambridge PhD student has also been feted in Britain, giving the Reith lectures in 2003, gaining fellowships of All Souls College and the Royal Institution, as well as a two-part Channel 4 series. Furthermore, his book Phantoms in the Brain was highly acclaimed. But for all that recognition, he's still not easily recognised. That may change with his latest book, The Tell-Tale Brain, which, according to the Financial Times, is an unimprovable "sweep of contemporary neuroscience".
And neuroscience is where the intellectual action is these days. In a recent edition of the New Yorker, the journalist David Brooks declared: "We are living in the middle of a revolution in consciousness... brain science helps fill the hole left by the atrophy of theology and philosophy."
If so, then no one has supplied more theories and findings to fill that hole than Ramachandran. The Cartesian division of mind and body long ago fell out of fashion in both philosophy and neuropsychology, but only recently have we begun to realise that not only is the brain part of the body but the body is also part of the brain. Ramachandran has been at the forefront of reimagining this interdependence with his ground-breaking work on phantom limbs. Neuroplasticity, as it's called, gives us a much more acute understanding of how the brain works, but it doesn't bring us a great deal closer to the ghost in the machine: consciousness. Many scientists believe the sensory map imprinted on the brain forms a rudimentary consciousness, and the next stage of development is "mirror neurons", which enable us to ape the actions of others.
These neurons were first discovered in monkeys in the 1990s and last year they were formally identified in humans. Ramachandran, the mirror therapist, was quick to reflect on their potential and he predicts that their discovery "will do for psychology what DNA did for biology".